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Home > Culture and Society

Rape: Here Come the Weirdoes

5 August 2005

Strange things happen on the Internet. One of the strangest we've encountered of late is this mini-paean to the journalist and frequent Guardian/Observer contributor Miranda Sawyer, made by one of the racist nutters who populate the Combat 18 guestbook:

'The disgusting failure of the police to catch rapists is yet one more example of how useless they are... I agree with the Miranda Sawyer article you reproduced from "Glamour Magazine", even though she told me to fuck off 20 years ago when we were both 6th formers in Wilmslow and I dared to ask her out :)'

What? Combat 18 types praising Observer journalists... oh hang on...

'Most rapists - like most muggers - are BLACK. Monkey see, monkey want, monkey take!'

Oh fuck off, you racist *weirdoes*. Unfortunately, this odd combination of virulent race hatred and wistful teenage reminiscence is by no means the only weird contribution to any discussion of rape.

The point made by Sawyer's article is that there is a massive disparity between the number of rape allegations made and actual convictions. It's estimated that in 2003 50,000 women were raped. In the same year, 11,867 rapes were reported to the police. Only 1,649 went to trial and of those, only 629 resulted in convictions.

Unless tens of thousands of false rape allegations are being made, there's something very wrong here. But as soon as you point this out, bloke-in-the-pub types start saying 'Yes, but we can't just tip the balance in favour of women, because then anyone with a grudge will be able to ruin someone's life with a rape accusation.' True: you can't allow people to be convicted solely on what another person says. But it's not what is being called for.

Sawyer's article highlights the institutional bias in the criminal justice system. Even now, most police forces don't have a specialist rape service. Women are still frequently subjected to emotional ordeals in court, and the Crown Prosecution Service is reluctant to go ahead with any case (rape or otherwise) with less than a 51 per cent chance of success (although how they calculate this is unclear).

Nor would anyone argue for rape convictions to be based on some sort of quota system. It's nonsensical and it wouldn't be justice in any recognisable form (the last serious exponents of justice-by-quota were the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, and they weren't exactly noted for their fair-minded approach to innocence and guilt). The point is that there are many factors that quite clearly are preventing rape victims getting justice. If only five per cent of murders reported to the police resulted in a conviction there'd be uproar.

Odd reactions to any discussion of rape don't end with idiots in pubs. Occasionally, a rape charge is thrown out of court when it's beyond doubt that the accusation is false. Almost without fail the press (in particular the Daily Mail and Express) go mad about it - often running the story on the front page. They
particularly like it if the man involved is somehow eligible, in a mildly aspirational, Daily Mail kind of way: perhaps a student at St Andrews University, or a trainee lawyer.

Granted, being falsely accused of rape is a horrific thing to happen to you. And there are unquestionably some strange people out there, with all sorts of weird, vindictive or incomprehensible motives for falsely accusing someone of rape.
But why the excessive press coverage given to these rare occurrences?

Obviously there's a 'your worst nightmare' human interest angle. But the prominence given to false rape allegations also suggests a certain misogynist paranoia on the part of the press. These women, they'll have sex with you, feel guilty and run to the police. It's what they do.

This is similar to the equally erroneous (and widely held) idea that men are being charged with rape because issues of consent are so blurred: specifically, that if you go home with someone and you're both extremely drunk, then a man will have sex with a woman believing it to be consensual when the woman thinks otherwise.

Given any real thought, this situation is nonsensical. Many of us have been in, shall we say, confused situations because of alcohol, ranging from inconclusive snogs to sleeping with someone you shouldn't have. Good reasons for not sleeping with someone while drunk are surprisingly numerous: you or they are seeing someone else; not creating an unbearably tense situation by sleeping with a workmate; not messing someone around if the next day one party thinks it's the start of a serious relationship and the other would rather forget the whole thing.

Thankfully, none of these situations has anything to do with rape, which is forcing someone to have sex, or, with regard to massive alcohol consumption, having sex with them while they're so drunk they're practically or actually unconscious. It's as different as waking up in bed with a splitting hangover and
remembering being a bit of an arse last night, and waking up to find yourself in police cells being charged with GBH.

But perhaps the most disturbing point made by Sawyer's article is that a woman's case is weakened by all sorts of factors that have no bearing on whether they've been raped: being drunk; whether the rapist is a 'real' rapist, i.e. a masked stranger rather than an acquaintance; their sexual history (in particular anything that can be construed as promiscuity) and even whether they've had an abortion in the past (this is something that defence lawyers will sometimes try to drop into the proceedings, despite its total irrelevance).

It's not surprising that people have preconceptions and prejudices, whether about sexual morality or trustworthiness or anything else. What is surprising is that these commonly held prejudices about women who have been raped were being publicly criticised in the 1980s, and now, over twenty years on, it seems
that very little has actually changed.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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