There’s an intensifying misogyny inherent in young men’s attitudes to women, as highlighted by the recent case in which four young men were acquitted of rape in Belfast. Some call it ‘rape culture’. And whether the defendants are acquitted or convicted, it would appear that it’s the women, rather than the men, are on trial.
I have been writing about men getting away with rape, and women being blamed for sexual assault, for the past three decades. When I first started to campaign on this issue, in the early 1980s, I honestly didn’t imagine that, 2018, things would have, in many ways, got even worse.
What is it about the criminal justice system that means that so many of those men who actually havecommitted sexual offences are systematically let off the hook and the women are assumed to have lied? Why has nothing changed despite decades of feminist campaigning; survivors speaking out; and laws being changed?
According to the outgoing head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Alison Saunders, the system is undergoing a makeover, and better care is being taken over evidence that is being disclosed to the defendants. But the system is already weighted towards the rights of the defendants, rightly so of course, because of the prejudicial mythology surrounding the crime, i.e. that women are “making it up”. That distorting culture of disbelief is prevalent even though all of the research shows that false allegations are extremely rare.
We might as well decriminalise rape
When women do get convicted of making false allegations, punishment is extremely harsh. Jemma Beale was imprisoned for 10 years for perverting the course of justice, after the jury decided she had lied about being raped. She paid a serious price: her sentence was longer than that given to the vast majority of rapists. And the outrage at her crime was great, far exceeding any anger over the low conviction rate. Yet over the past few years, the attrition rate in England and Wales (the number of rapes reported that end in a conviction for rape) has remained at around 6%. Unless you think that 94% of women report rape are lying, we should be up in arms.
But that’s not the worst of it. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Home Office Inspectorates estimate that of the 50,000 rapes thought to occur each year, between 75% and 95% are never reported. And almost a third of reported cases recorded by police as “no crime” should have been properly investigated as rape. This means that there are more women in prison who have been raped than convicted rapists.
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If a man commits a rape, then he has, on average, a less than 1% chance of being convicted. Those most likely to result in a conviction are classic stranger rapes; in fact, the vast majority of rapes are committed by men known to the victim.
In the early 2000s, I sat through a number of rape trials as part of a research team examining whether or not recent changes in legislation – supposed to curtail the admission of so-called previous sexual history of the complainant – were being implemented. Every single trial, most of which ended in an acquittal, featured some type of slur against the complainant. If applications to admit previous sexual history evidence were made by the defence barrister, the judge inevitably allowed them.
The legislation was grossly ineffective, but even after our report was published, the Home Office did nothing to put it right. In fact, some years later, the footballer Ched Evans appealed against his rape conviction, and the young woman who had alleged rape was hauled through the most disgraceful ordeal, with her sex life described in lurid detail.
Even when men do get convicted of rape, often their sentences are often derisory. In 2010, Izzy Akinade was part of a group that gang raped and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old in woodlands in the Republic of Ireland. Akinade, 16-years old at the time, pleaded guilty of sexual assault. The judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence, saying that the conviction alone was punishment enough, and that it would make employment opportunities impossible for the young man.
The opposite happened. Immediately following his conviction, Akinade was recruited by Bohemians, and last year he was signed to Waterford Football Club. When he returned to the pitch, Akinade was given a standing ovation, and has since won a Man of the Match trophy. The fact that he is considered to be a role model and hero to young football fans tells us loud and clear that the stigma of rape remains firmly on the victims.
We women know how dangerous rapists are, but there are always those prepared to be taken in by their bullshit. Black cab rapist Worboys was considered safe for release by the Parole Board earlier this year, despite over 100 women coming forward to claim he had drugged and raped them. Two of his victims went through the ordeal of challenging the board’s decision and won. At least one dangerous man is locked up right now.
But how many aren’t? Isn’t it time we were honest about how many rapists get away with it and how many women are left to deal with it, and stop pretending we’re going to do anything about it. We might as well decriminalise it.