Saturday, 25 August 2012

On rape....

If only attitudes to rape were as clear cut
as this public information campaign.
(Pic : West Mercia Police)

When men get involved in any debate on rape, they sometimes come across as patronising one-eyed dinosaurs. There've been many examples in the last week or so. I hope that won't be the case now, but it's time I kicked the hornet's nest.

There were 2,463 recorded sexual offences in Wales in 2009-10 (p178), and 38% of these were detected (solved/cleared up by police) compared to an EnglandandWales average of 30% (p189). Not all of these will have been rapes, though rape convictions in Wales had risen to just under 60% in 2009-10.

In something that should shock everyone in Wales, former Plaid Cymru AM Nerys Evans found that back in 2008,  three of our AMs have been victims of rape – and that's from just eight responses to her questionnaire. That's the equivalent of 33 MPs. Actually think about that for a second then extrapolate it into the general population.

Criminal justice isn't a devolved matter, obviously. If/when it does become one, the first criminal justice bill I'd like to see would be a Sexual Offences Bill - following on from Scotland's example set in 2009/2010. It clearly defines what rape and other sexual crimes are, as well as the penalties.

I think the definition of rape has become complicated by years of legislation (probably including my suggestion above) and changing social attitudes (marital rape was exempted in EnglandandWales until 1991-92).

My own definition would be, and it's not particularly nice to think about I admit, but : "Penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth, by a body part or object, for sexual gratification, whereby one of the participants did not/could not give informed consent."

It's gender neutral (male rapes make up around 8%-10% of recorded cases) and it covers all forms of "penetration" – I needn't go further there.

There are several problems with rape and attitudes towards it. Firstly, it's one of the ultimate cases of "one person's word against another" when there isn't enough evidence, or when the crime isn't investigated thoroughly. This leads to the unhelpful belief that there are "varying degrees of rape" - making a distinction between premeditation and "getting carried away", "victim impairment" or "bad sexual etiquette".

As far as I'm concerned, the stereotypical violent rapist dragging someone off into the bushes with a knife held to their throat, is committing the same crime as someone who has sex with someone while they are sleeping, passed out or drugged.

Next there's the culture of "victim blaming". All of us who have been victims of crime will no doubt go over all the things we should or shouldn't have done to avoid it – that's a natural reaction. However, you rarely hear robbery victims, or victims of serious assaults, being blamed or harassed as openly and publicly as many rape victims are.

It's common sense that people are aware of their surroundings and the company they keep. But there is absolutely nothing – whether it's wearing the "wrong" clothes, sending the "wrong" body language cues, being "too drunk" etc – that gives another person the right to force themselves on someone. It's also worth remembering that many rape victims know their attacker – as high as 75% according to some statistics – this could be a reason why many rapes go unreported.

One thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we have a concept of "self-ownership" in the first place. Denying someone control and ownership over their own body in such a personal way – controlling what goes in and out and on what terms - is a violation of everything that makes us civilised. It should be deplored resolutely, not brushed aside as if it's hijinks, or attached to unrelated conspiracy theories.
As far as I'm concerned, rape is up there with murder, child abuse and violent crimes against the person like armed robbery. Each takes away something that is incalculable : control over your own body, a life, a childhood/innocence and a sense of security. It should be a big deal.

Having said that, I do believe that victims and the accused deserve the right to anonymity until either a court appearance, or they go on the run/breach bail conditions. Sometimes that isn't possible or practical with the most serious crimes. I also firmly belief in "innocent until proven guilty", but the courts need the chance to do their job. Anything else looks like an admission of guilt.
I'm talking in general terms now, not specific cases. I don't really care if they're a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a world-famous artist, footballer or are working on a cure for cancer. They can hide abroad, they can go on the run from the police, they can hide behind religious symbols, various legal and diplomatic loop-holes or general bureaucracy.

The crime they are accused of is serious enough for them have to their day in court – whether it's to face the music, or have their name cleared.


  1. A horrendously difficult area.

    I know people who have worked in rape crisis centres who would like the term consent replaced by concurrence, as consent almost implies one person giving in to another, while concurrence suggests a jointly agreed decision. I know it sounds like splitting hairs but its about changing perceptions.

    Rape is mostly about power and the abuse of it, and not sex, again I have met people who have suggested that rape be abolished as a named crime and be regarded as assault causing actual bodily/mental harm with the sexual element treated as an aggravating factor. Their argument was that it is easier to get a conviction for assault than rape.

    We should never minimise the impact of rape on anyone, it can leave scars mental and on occasion physical that will be with people for life, something of them robbed for ever. I agree its up there with murder as a crime.

  2. As you say its a difficult area, but there are a few things i disagree with here. I don't see the need for a new sexual offences act. Rape is already illegal and very few people seriously suggest it shouldn't be. Introducing a new law sounds like politicians wanting to be seen to 'do something about it.'

    The issue is proof, how do you prove to a jury beyond all reasonable doubt that an alledged purpetrator believed, or had reason to believe that the person they penatrated did not consent to the penetration on that occasion.

    Proving a rape is a case of one person's word against the other, and the alledged victim has the burden of proof, they must prove that the alledged rapist did not believe that penetration was consensual, the defendant does not need to prove that they believed it was. As distressing as this is for the alledged victim this is quite right, the concept of 'innocent unless proves guilty' depends upon it.

    It is especially difficult given that in many cases the alledged victim is on intimate terms with the alledged purpetratior, and may have had a sexual history with them. This is not to say that having sex once means that they lose the right to say no to sex a second or even twentieth time, but it can quite reasonably be taken by a jury as casting a reasonable doubt that the alledged purpetrator may have believed that the penetration was consensual.

    As for anonymity, why do you believe that both parties should only by anonymous until the court case? I agree that both parties should be anonyour given the serious and distinctive nature of the crime, but surely they should be anonymous until a guilty verdict is passed.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Cibwr - I think everyone understands the concept of "consent" as opposed to "concurrence", but it's a good point to raise. I agree that rape is about power more than sex, even if it is ultimately a sexual act. I wouldn't agree with rape being reclassified as an assault, probably because it stands apart as a crime in itself, like we both agree on murder.

    Anon 12:34 - I did make the point that additional layers of legislation have complicated the debate about rape, and I included the Scottish example in that. It would be nice if we had a "once and for all" definition of rape and other/all sexual offenses in a single piece of legislation. Though we do have the Sexual Offenses Act 2003 in EnglandandWales, parts of it are a dogs dinner.

    You're spot on about burden of proof, and it's a big issue, as it's not a particularly nice thing to think about - a victim of one of the worst crimes possible having to "prove" in front of a jury that they are telling the truth - ditto victims knowing the alledged assailant. It's a horrible situation to be in, and what makes rape particularly vicious as a crime.

    On anonymity, I think once the legal process has reached a point whereby a party can be put in front of a court, names can be revealed. It means that if a not-guilty verdict is passed, the defendant will be publicly exonerated, which might go someway towards them returning to a "normal life". Crimes like rape and murder do have a permanent lifetime stigma attached to them, so your point about guilty verdicts is a good one.

  4. The reasoning behind the idea of changing the crime to one of assault occasioning actual bodily harm was that juries seemed more ready to convict than to convict someone of rape, so it was more a suggestion from people I knew who worked as counsellors in the field who wanted more convictions.