December 7, 2023 - 11:20am

There’s never been a better moment to be a rapist. Almost 200 women report a rape to the police every day in England and Wales, yet fewer than four will see their attackers punished. Rape denial is commonplace, not just in relation to what victims say but whether it happened in the first place. Endless excuses are made for defendants: the victim had been drinking, didn’t say “no” loudly enough, or didn’t have visible injuries.

Disbelief permeates the criminal justice system, reflecting strikingly lenient public attitudes towards men accused of sexual offences. None of this is unique to the UK, but I don’t think any of us ever expected to see rape denial on the scale that’s been exposed following the horrific events in Israel on 7 October.

The use of extreme sexual violence by Hamas became public within days of the attacks. I wrote about it soon afterwards, but much more detailed accounts have emerged this week. Some of the evidence comes from volunteers who collected women’s bodies, discovering injuries that are almost too sickening to report.

It’s been provided not just by the Israeli authorities but also independent organisations such as The Sunday Times and the BBC. Journalists have been shown harrowing video testimony by a woman who witnessed a gang rape at the Nova music festival. She saw the victim being mutilated, having one of her breasts cut off before she was shot in the head by the final assailant while he was raping her.

It’s not even as though the terrorists hid what they were doing. They filmed the slaughter of men, women and children, leaving a trail of bloodied female corpses stripped of their underwear. International organisations including the UN have rightly been shamed for their failure to condemn these atrocities. Soon after the Hamas attack, a video of a woman in bloodstained sweatpants being forced into a truck was shared around social media, pointing to the horrors yet to emerge.

But reactions to the mass rape of Israeli women are not just hypocritical and heartless. They demonstrate the astounding lengths people will go to when they don’t want to believe some of the most graphic evidence of rape most of us have ever been presented with. Where is the survivor testimony, they ask. Why haven’t we seen video footage of actual rapes as they happened? 

I shouldn’t have to point out that dead women can’t testify on their own behalf. Or that filmed evidence of women being raped may have been held back out of concern for the dignity of victims. Such demands for “proof” are sickening, but they also expose where the habit of rape denial ends up. The mass rapes in Israel are not a matter of “his word against hers”; there is abundant evidence in the form of women’s bodies, hideously abused by multiple attackers. 

There are a couple of harsh truths here. One is about the readiness of women’s organisations to look away when victims don’t fit their ideology. But the biggest is the fact that no amount of evidence will ever satisfy the impossible demands placed on victims of rape. 

Most sexual predators deny their crimes, but the Hamas terrorists recorded them so the world could see — and some people still don’t believe it. When rape denial extends even to perpetrators, how can women, anywhere in the world, get justice?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.