The BBC had an article on Wednesday with a surprising statistic: only 5% of reported rapes result in convictions in the UK. I don't have the figures for the US, but I don't expect them to be much better.
Rapists are escaping justice, many people are convinced. The number of convictions has risen a little, to 728 in 2005, but this has not kept up with the soaring rate of reported rapes. A report published on Wednesday accuses police and prosecutors of failing to build strong cases, and the government is considering further reforms to make the justice system more sensitive to the needs of victims.Read the article... and also read the reader comments after it, because they're a fascinating — and frightening — study by themselves, and they are what I'm commenting on here.
In Gloucestershire the problem is most acute. In Home Office figures published by the Fawcett Society, the county was bottom in England with a rape conviction rate of 0.86% of reported allegations. This compared with nearly 14% in Northamptonshire.
In most of the comments you can determine the sex of the commenter, either by the commenter's name or by something said in the comment. And they're very consistent in how the sexes' opinions fall: the men think everything is fine and the women see a big problem here. I came by this the day after it was posted, and the comments were already closed. But if I could have weighed in, I'd have been on the side of the women on this one... and so I'll do my weighing in here instead of there.
There are three basic arguments that the men are making, none of which are at all new:
- She's asking for it; look at how she's dressed!
- She's asking for it; she got all drunk and flirty!
- She's lying; it wasn't rape. This one has a number of subtypes that all amount to the same thing: she consented and then changed her mind afterward, she got pregnant and had to cover it up, she's getting back at the guy because he hurt her....
1. Look at how she's dressed! Let's be clear here: guys are definitely interested by alluring attire. If a woman wears a skirt that gives unsubtle hints of what's under it, or a bra that puts her boobs out there unmistakably, she has no cause to complain when men notice. To be sure, no one dresses like that and hopes that they won't be noticed.
Comment to your pal.
Go over and talk to her, politely. Tell her, politely, that she looks nice, and see if she responds favourably.
And without further permission, that's all you get to do. She's asking to be noticed. She is not asking to be raped, not grabbed, not fondled, not verbally abused. You don't even get to call her names if she turns you down.
People may feel free to disagree in the comments, but it's only fair to warn you that I'm quite closed-minded about this one. I can't imagine anything that anyone could say that would convince me that a woman deserves to be raped because of how she's dressed. You may not rape a woman because you think she looks hot. She is not “asking for it”. Enough said about that.
2. She got all drunk and flirty! Flirting is a beautiful thing. Let's not discourage it by making anyone think it invites rape; it does not. I don't care how flirty she gets, you need her permission before you go beyond that. Flirt back. If you've gotten to the point where you think it's OK to try it on, you must take “no” for an answer.
And this applies triple if she's drunk. No, check that — if she's drunk, just skip it entirely. Take her home. Put her to bed. Alone. If she wants to have sex with you, give her an opportunity to do it when she's sober. When she can actually consent to it. And when she can enjoy it.
A variant excuse is “I was drunk.” I don't buy that one either. I've been pretty damned drunk, back when I was young and foolish (I'm no longer so young). And randy. With women around. I didn't rape any of them. It can be done. You wouldn't expect to be let off if you said, “I'm sorry I sliced her up with a kitchen knife, it's just that I was drunk.” Why should you expect to say, “I'm sorry I raped her, it's just that I was drunk,” and for us to say, “Oh, well, that's OK then.”? It's not OK. Whichever of you was drunk, it's no excuse and it's still rape.
3. She's lying. This is the only one of the three that's a valid defense, if it's true. The male commenters would have you believe that it's often true. Very, very often. It happens all the time, and it's a damned good thing that the courts aren't falsely convicting all the poor guys who're victims of these lies.
No, I can't accept that. Look at the numbers again: 95% of the reported rapes, nationwide, are not resulting in convictions. Ninety-five percent! That'd be a lot of lies. Now read what the women are saying. Read how hard it is on them, how hard it is to follow through with a rape accusation. I'm willing to accept that a few women are scared or angry enough to go through all that as a cover-up or for revenge. A few. We're not talking about a few cases here.
I simply do not believe that a significant percentage of the unconvicted cases involve false accusations.
Rather, it's clear to me that our male-dominated system downplays rape in sometimes subtle ways. As much as our rhetoric abhors it, there's a tacit acceptance. A bit of the assumption that the victim's at least partly responsible. A bit of “Ah, it's just his word against hers.” A bit of machismo. Add to that the fact that our justice system based on “reasonable doubt” makes it hard to prove, and the badgering and intimidation of the accuser makes it hard to follow the case through. DNA evidence has made it far easier to prove the act, so the defence now focuses on the consent issue much more, and that, sadly, makes the proceedings a lot uglier.
There's one more thing that comes up several times in the comments on the BBC article. The first comment, from Andrew from Bristol, puts it out there very clearly:
To say that the conviction rate needs to be raised is tantamount to pre-judging the verdict. British law has always been based on fair trials. Whatever happened to innocent until proved guilty?
They're missing a major point here: No one is saying that the conviction rate needs to be raised without regard for the truth. No one is suggesting that we convict people unfairly. It's simply a statistical thing: we know, through a great deal of experience, what a likely conviction rate is. The rate for rape is out of line with that. Way out of line. That's not likely to be right. We need to look at it closely and analyze why it's out of line. If, in that analysis, we find systemic problems, we need to fix them. We need to make sure that women know they'll be taken seriously and treated responsibly when they report a hideous crime of violence and control.
I know women who have been raped. As long as 30 years later, they are still disturbed by it. It will continue to disturb them for the rest of their lives, affecting, in sometimes subtle ways, how they approach relationships and intimacy. The women I know did not go to the police — they knew their rapists and chose note to report it, and I don't know whether or not they'd make the same choice now. No, that's not a reason to rush to convict a man for the crime, with little regard to the truth of his guilt. But it's a reason to think about the effect that this crime has on women, and how important it is that we wipe it out, that we make it entirely unacceptable, not just in rhetoric, but in fact.