Argus title : Why must our sick rape laws be skewed against innocent victims?

Some years ago I attended Brighton Crown Court with a young victim of serious sexual assault. She had been sadistically abused since childhood by an adult family member. In the process, her education, her health and her self confidence had been damaged almost beyond repair. What she retained was extraordinary courage and, despite her age, great dignity and composure.

As I stood speaking briefly to the detective who had led the investigation of the case, we were joined by another senior officer. He looked across the court foyer at the young girl who had suffered so much, and then laughed “well there are always 2 sides to a story aren’t there?” Stunned, I asked him what he meant and he replied: “Well you can tell just looking at her…she’s not exactly innocent is she?”

She was 18 years old. She had been tortured and sexual abused. Her childhood had been stripped from her. But she was still “not exactly innocent”.

Her case was unusual because her abuser was found guilty and imprisoned (most are not). Though he was never charged for the most serious offences against her, the details laid before the jury were sufficiently appalling to make even the judge look sick. The abuser had kept a rudimentary diary which supported her account of events.

Had there been no corroborative evidence, the case would have rested upon her word. The jury probably wouldn’t have believed her. It only takes one or two jurors to believe that the victim is “not exactly innocent” for juries to be persuaded there is ‘reasonable doubt’ and acquit.

Such attitudes are all too common. This week – as part of the international week against violence against women – Amnesty International UK published the results of a survey it had commissioned into attitudes to rape.

It found that of the 1,000 people who took part, 34% believe a woman is wholly or partially responsible for rape if she’s flirtatious; 30% hold her similarly responsible if she’s drunk; 26% cent consider she’s completely or partially responsible if she wears ‘sexy’ clothing; and 24% believe she has some responsibility if known to have had many sexual partners. Thirty percent even blame rape victims who walk alone in deserted areas.

The survey found that respondents had little idea of the prevalence of rape. The number of recorded rapes in 2004/05 was 12,867 (up 4% from 12345 in 2003/4). However, the British Crime Survey (BCS 2001) indicates that only 15% of rapes are reported to the police. This suggests that the true incidence of rape is closer to 80,000 per year – and gives the lie to the absurd but often repeated myth that rape is “an easy allegation to make”.

The survey reveals depressing evidence that old attitudes to rape and sexual assault are remarkably persistent. Put bluntly, women are deemed to be “asking for it” if they drink, dress provocatively or act flirtatiously. There is an unspoken assumption that the men who attack them are unable to help themselves.

The situation is not helped by the media’s tendency to give disproportionate attention to the small number of ‘stranger rapes’ while tending to ignore or discredit allegations about rape by known assailants.

In fact 80% of rapes are committed by people known to the victim – many of whom are careful to ensure that their offending takes place in circumstances in which it will be difficult to secure conviction. Such perpetrators rely on women’s humiliation and shame and fear of the court system to keep them silent.

The current situation is a terrifying one. Sex education in schools provides little or no advice to girls about avoiding sexual assault, nor any preventative work with young people to challenge the sexist attitudes to women which give rise to rape.

The media provides little accurate information, appearing obsessed with publicising the grievances of men who claim to have been falsely accused by women or children. Dramatic plotlines in popular television programmes (likely to provide most jurors with their ‘information’ about criminal justice matters) routinely portray female characters who appear to be victims as ‘really’ violent aggressors or duplicitous liars.

According to media mythology, heterosexual rape rarely happens and when it does is evidence of the private pathology of individual males – rather than a widespread social phenomenon rooted in gender inequality and abuse of power.

When I met with Supt Russell Whitfield and Sgt Phillip Wright of Sussex, they spoke with passion about improvements the police have made in responding to rape. However, they express deep frustration at the fact that only 5.3% of rapes result in a conviction. They also indicate serious concern that the drink-fuelled club culture of Brighton & Hove is putting young women at particular risk.

Of the 464 reported rapes in Sussex last year, 111 were in Brighton & Hove (2 a week). If the BCS figures on non-reported rape are to be believed the true figure will be closer to 740 (2 a day). Up until the end of August this year, a further 104 rapes had been reported in the city. By far the majority of victims were female and a disproportionate number (around 70%) were aged between the ages of 16 and 25. Most of these young women reported rapes – usually by acquaintances – late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Alcohol was a factor in many of them.

Inebriated, disinhibited young people are at risk of accidental and non-accidental injury and liable to contract sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV). However, young women in particular are prime targets for sexual predators, who may encourage them to drink to excess and to flirt in full view of witnesses and CCTV cameras – thereby establishing evidence of ‘consent’ to any brutal assault which may follow.

Such a victim would be unlikely to receive justice through the courts. Even if she sustained injuries, the defence would claim that she fell or consented to “rough sex”.

And as the Amnesty report shows, a drunken scantily clad victim evokes little sympathy in jurors. The fact that clubs make their money by peddling alcohol, that government appears hell bent on making it easier to drink to excess and that the fashion industry encourages young girls to dress provocatively, will not help them. The day has not yet come in which judges will warn juries to avoid prejudice against women.

Just this week, ironically on the very day that Amnesty and women’s organisations launched their End Violence Against Women Coalition, Judge Roderick Evans ordered a jury at Swansea Crown Court to bring in a finding of not guilty when it emerged that an alleged rape victim was in a drunken stupor and therefore could not remember whether or not she had consented.

Since 2003 the law has specifically stated that anyone who is asleep or unconscious cannot give consent and therefore the onus is upon the accused to give evidence of it. In this case there was no such evidence and others had witnessed her extremely inebriated state. Despite this, the judge ruled that “drunken consent is still consent”.

Vera Baird QC, Labour M.P. for Redcar called the decision “outrageous” and has asked the Lord Chancellor to look into the case. However, until any ruling to the contrary the message is clear. Any man who rapes a comatose woman has only to claim that she roused herself from unconsciousness long enough to mutter “yes” and he has a defence.

Rape is always the responsibility of the rapist, never of the victim, whether she is drunk, flirtatious, provocative or walks on her own down a dark alley. Such behaviour may be irritating, embarrassing or foolhardy, but it does not make her responsible for crime any more than leaving a window open in hot weather makes a house-owner responsible for burglary.

However, in present circumstances young women would be well advised to protect themselves and each other by:
• Dramatically reducing their alcohol intake,
• watching to ensure drinks aren’t ‘spiked’,
• avoiding being alone with or being ‘walked home by’ men they have recently met
• using taxis rather than accepting lifts
• not relying upon friends whose judgement may become impaired by drink or drugs
• avoiding clothes and shoes which hinder escape

These are short term measures to consider as we enter the ‘party season’. We’ll return to wider issues next week..

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