I was horrified, but not surprised, to hear this morning’s news that the number of rape cases referred for prosecution in the UK has fallen by a third since 2011 – despite an increase in the number of rapes being reported to the police. The conviction rate for rape remains very low – 6%.

Leaving aside the debate about variations in the way that different police forces handle reports of rape and sexual assault, and how much discretion there should or should not be about what triggers referral to the Crown Prosecution Service, it strikes me yet again that this whole issue remains fundamentally about power, although rarely physical power.

Obviously men are usually physically stronger than women, and so able to overpower them. However this is far too simplistic, and I think it feeds into the ‘what counts as rape?’ debate. This debate occurs mostly between men – I think that most women are entirely clear about what counts as rape. Unwanted penetrative sexual activity, whether physically forced or emotionally coerced is rape. ‘No means no’ is a good start to teach children in school (starting in primary school please) but it is more complex than that. Many women may agree to sexual activities because they feel emotionally forced to do so. The classic examples of this are the university student who feels vulnerable to emotional pressure from a lecturer or professor or the junior member of a company who feels pressurised by a man senior to her. These situations may begin with the woman feeling flattered by the apparently genuine attention from the man, and end up with her feeling unable to say no to sex. Although people may feel that this no longer goes on in 2014, I have little doubt that it does. It was certainly commonplace a couple of decades ago. Then it was viewed as an inevitable price to pay for progressing one’s degree course or career; now I suspect that it has been trivialised to the extent that I might be derided for suggesting that this sort of casual sex could be considered rape.

Chatting to the men of different generations that I know, it appears that the majority agree that ‘real rape’ involves exertion of physical power. Moreover they make a distinction between rape by a stranger and rape by someone known to the woman. The latter is clearly seen as less important and somehow less ‘real’ than the former. I think that nearly all men believe that the only sort of rape that can occur within marriage or a long term relationship is violent rape. Statistics show that 1 in 5 women in England and Wales has been the victim of sexual assault. Only a minority of these has been physically attacked by a stranger, but all have been traumatised by an abuse of power.

Men get very excited about the possibility of false accusations of rape, but these are very rare. I am interested in the way that false accusations of rape are always described as ‘devastating, ruinous, career ending’ for the men concerned. Of course they can be – I am not disputing that for a moment, and I don’t even want to think about what it would mean if such an accusation was brought against someone that I love. However, as we’ve noted, these cases are thankfully very uncommon. What is very common is for a victim of rape to decide not to even report her rape to the police. If she does decide to do so, it is still unlikely that her case will be referred for prosecution. And if it is, there is a 94% chance that her rapist will be found not guilty. This is an awful lot of women whose lives have been ‘devastated, ruined’, whose careers may or may not end, whose mental health may break down.

Women who already have a diagnosed mental health problem are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to rape. They are 40% less likely to have reported cases of rape referred to the CPS. How can these statistics be published unchallenged and not result in an investigation under the DDA? I in 4 of the population is quoted as having a mental health problem, so this discriminatory action is affecting a lot of women.

The treatment of women who have reported rape, particularly the journey through the criminal justice system, has been well reported by Sara Payne, the National Victim’s Champion. What is notable is the inconsistency of treatment across the country, and across different groups of women reporting rape. I believe that a lot of this is due to the sheer inability of men to understand what it is like to be vulnerable and disempowered. Of course some police officers and barristers take a delight in exercising power over others (I think that middle ranking police are probably much worse than barristers and senior police officers in this) but some are just plain thoughtless. One of the incidents that Sara Payne reports is a good illustration – the humiliation that a victim felt when her underwear was returned to her by a male police officer, who held up items of clothing and ticked them off on his list.

How is this going to change? I wish I knew. I would not advise a daughter of mine to report a rape to the police, and I certainly would not do so myself – unless it was a clearly violent rape by a stranger. Why? Because this is the only incidence of rape that I believe has a good chance of being treated seriously and reasonably sympathetically, especially when the victim is a well-educated middle class woman. Even then I might hesitate to report it if I had been raped as I have bipolar disorder.

Herein lies a lot of the problem. If I am suggesting that I would only report violent stranger rape, then I am feeding into the myth that this is the only ‘real’ rape, that therefore rape is not a common crime but an uncommon one, that the conviction rate of ‘real’ rapists could be better but isn’t too bad….. and so on.

Sadly, rape remains, as it has done for centuries, the ultimate means by which men can exert power and control over women.

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