Friday, February 02, 2007


Are rapists getting away with it?

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.

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.

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 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:

  1. She's asking for it; look at how she's dressed!
  2. She's asking for it; she got all drunk and flirty!
  3. 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.


Paul said...

Interesting. I was going to comment based solely on the excerpt you quoted here, and then decided to go read the article. I'm glad I did. I'm not sure your excerpt accurately reflects the rest of the article.

It appears that part of the problem has to do with the dramatic increase in the number and nature of the reports. Years ago, "date rapes" were rarely reported. Women reported the violent rapes perpetrated by unknown assailants, and so, while percentage of arrests per report may have been lower, percentage of convictions would have been dramatically higher.

Today, a huge number of reported rapes involve parties who know each other, and the description of "rape" may not be as clear cut in the mind of the victim. They are often ambivalent about the situation. Also, as drugs and alcohol are often involved in date rape situations, clear memory of the events may be lacking. I think these are the major factors leading to these numbers.

Barry Leiba said...

Paul, you're right that my excerpt (and, indeed, my commentary) didn't make that aspect as clear as it should have. Sorry. I didn't discuss the article itself more because the main point of my commentary was on the attitude of the BBC readers who commented on the article.

Barry Leiba said...

...and the further point that "date rape" is tolerated far more than it should be (which is not at all). It does entail grey areas, and I accept that. It's the nudges and knowing looks, and the tendency to look the other way that bothers me.

Maggie said...

I wonder what is going through the minds of men who say that a woman is "asking for [rape]" when she dresses provocatively. I think it is extremely important to understand those thought processes, because they are part of the culture that makes rape difficult to report and difficult to convict.

As much as we should all be treated equally and given equal rights, we are all different. There are huge differences between men and women -- we have two different roles in continuing the existence of our DNA. The behaviors that successfully keep the DNA in the gene pool for men and women are very different. Men have only to impregnate, and impregnate as many as possible, whereas women have a bit more of a commitment -- we have to carry the fetus for 9 months, feed it (historically, I'm speaking, pre-formula days) for (experts have estimated) 7 years, but bare minimum 6 months, and take care of it for a good 3-5 more years before it has a chance of becoming a DNA-propagator itself.

That callous description from the POV of the DNA, which is really the whole show.

So obviously successful DNA-propogating men are going to have a strong copulation urge. I don't think any of this reasoning is at all new, it's just background.

I'm wondering if the men who say a woman is asking for it are saying that by dressing provocatively, a woman is giving consent to intercourse.

From their point of view, it doesn't matter how the intercourse takes place. (?)

Consensual sex is not the same as rape! Rape is a violent crime. I'm assuming, but I don't know, that these guys don't realize that men who violently rape women want to hurt them. They're not attracted to them. Never mind that no woman is asking to be hurt in this way, and that giving consent to sex does not mean that she wants to be hurt, EVER. (Unless she's a masochist, but I'm talking about typical healthy women.)

So what are they thinking, these men who think women are asking for it? Are they thinking that when they (men) dress provocatively, they are asking for consensual sex? Or they wish it were that easy? Or are they thinking that they want to have sex with the woman, and are angry that they can't? Is it that simple?

Are these men wondering if they have raped a woman? Are they afraid that they could be accused, if we allow date rape convictions? I'm thinking they harbor a little guilt -- a little sex with a drunk girl, or just a little casual sex, or they believe that "no means yes," and have acted on it.

I have no answers to this, only questions. But I think it's important to understand, so the mindset can be changed.

I'd like to also add that I'm bothered that the same word is used for date rape and violent rape. I realize that there are additional charges that can be added with violent rape, and the fact that it disturbs me perhaps means that I think a woman can ask for it. Maybe I'm just as bad as the men who think a woman can ask for it. But date rape obviously is a huge gray area compared with a violent rape, because there was some consent to something somewhere along the line with date rape.

I think it bothers me because it seems that a woman who is date-raped must have more control over the situation than a woman who is raped violently. I'm sure that's not true in all situations, but I think it must be true in some.

Is a date rapist the same as a violent rapist, is he raping out of hatred?

I was once the victim of a misunderstanding which resulted only in an unwelcome touch, but I didn't speak with the good friend who did it for two years, because I just couldn't. I can only imagine how a woman feels who is recovering from a rape, and I'm not trying to marginalize her suffering. But is it possible that she should take some of the blame for a date rape, in certain circumstances?

Maggie said...

Sorry, I'm going to throw one more comment out there --

Men don't want the playing field leveled. If a woman is "asking for [rape]" by dressing provocatively, then men should be "asking for a rape conviction" by having sex with her. I'm thinking more that this is why men don't like date rape, because they are afraid that they'll have consensual sex, and the woman will change her mind later and call it rape. You can't do that with your live-in girlfriend of six months, nor not as easily.

If that were the truth, and men were likely to be convicted for casual sex, then I think there would be a lot less date rape and a lot less of a gray area. "Nice boys" and "nice girls" would have monogamous, loving relationships, and everyone else would be "asking for it."

At least then there would be a risk to both men and women in engaging in casual sex. (Besides the inherent risk of STDs that both face, still I think a little worse for women than men.)

Barry Leiba said...

Maggie, thanks for the extensive, thoughtful comment. I don't have answers to your questions, and I'm not going to try. I just want to say something about the "date rape" issue, as I see it.

I think there's a great variety of date-rape situations, and that's one of the things that make it difficult to deal with in the general case. I'll repeat that I think that whenever a woman says "no" or "stop" that must be respected.

Here are some different situations:

A man is on a first date with a woman, she gives no indication that she wants sex now, but he rapes her in the car. In this case, perhaps he intended to do that all along, and set up the date as a socially acceptable way to approach it. Or perhaps he hadn't planned it, but wound up there anyway.

A man is on a first date with a woman, they're really hitting it off, they're flirting, they're kissing and there's clear consent to that. But then he pushes it too far and won't stop when she says "no".

A man has been dating a woman regularly for two months, without sex. He decides it's time.

A man has been in a sexual relationship with a woman for some time. They're on the outs right now but still working on it, and she wants to keep it non-sexual at this point. He doesn't.

A man has been in a sexual relationship with a woman for some time, but she's broken it off. He gets one last one in, as a way to say, all too literally, "Eff you!"

The relationship has been over for quite some time, maybe a couple of years. He stops over "to talk", and she lets him in. "Talk" is not the kind of intercourse he had in mind.

I think these are all very different situations, and I think we tend to treat them differently. Clearly, the men's motivations and frames of mind are different. Some of them are acts of violence, some are not, or are less so. All are acts of control. All are wrong.

Do we want to put the man in prison in all of these cases? I don't know; I think that's to a great extent the woman's decision.

Is it possible that she should take the blame in certain circumstances? Hm. I wouldn't go that far. I'd accept that she might contribute to it in certain circumstances... say, as an extreme case, if she undressed with every intention of saying "no" when the time came to. That'd certainly be contributory. But even in that case, I say that the man must accept "no".

Maggie said...

What if she undressed with every intention of saying "yes," but changed her mind? What if she was a little buzzed? What if she was into him, but then when he turned out to be a clumsy lover, she was jarred into a different reality and decided she didn't want to keep going?

I'm not saying these are situations where rape is acceptable -- not at all.

I am in complete agreement with you when you say that "no" should be the stop of all physical contact.

I'm saying, doesn't she take more responsibility for what ultimately happened than a woman who is grabbed from behind or who submits under the muzzle of a gun?

Suppose it were a civil case of awarding money to the victim. Would you award the same damages to these victims?

Barry Leiba said...

«Suppose it were a civil case of awarding money to the victim. Would you award the same damages to these victims?»

No, I think I'd make a distinction. But the distinction's a complicated one. Whether there's a pattern of abusive behaviour (from either side) or not would factor into it, for example... because this would be abusive behaviour.

Geez, I keep coming back to, "But she said 'stop' and he didn't stop," and I have a hard time getting past that and feeling lenient toward him, no matter how many variations we throw in.

Dr. Momentum said...

I think the issue, for me, is that nobody owes anyone anything except respect. If someone is fighting you, then you're raping them. Sex doesn't require force, and consent can only be given when you're not drunk.

You hit the nail on the head, Maggie, when you put forward the idea that "he was asking for it" in the context of a conviction. It IS the responsibility of both partners to make sure they are not in a compromised situation. Is that a lot of responsibility? Yes. Is it hard? Too bad, maybe that's the price. If you're old enough to have sex you ought to be responsible enough to make certain your doing it in a situation that doesn't lend itself to misinterpretation.

This puts a lot more responsibility on the man than we're used to seeing. Too damn bad. "Being a man" isn't a matter of the force or control you can exert over others, it's a matter of the force or control you can exert over yourself.

It's time men with these Neanderthal opinions to be called out for what they are: children in adult bodies. And it would be refreshing if they would just grow up.

I'm less thoughtful about this than my wife, I think it's a lot simpler. Men should just grow the f**k up and stop treating sex like it's a game.

Maggie said...

I've been thinking about this in the wrong way. This part of the world is far more sexist than I realize, because I am lucky enough to have a husband and friends who respect other people in general. I wish every woman were as lucky as I am.

Emily DeVoto, Ph.D., said...

Barry, others, any comment on this post and comments re. a recent decision in Maryland?

Barry Leiba said...

Emily, I mostly agree with the comments on the entry you point us to, but I agree with Liz, there, that it's a tricky issue in the face of the law, which is what they have to work with. To clarify...

I think either party must be able to stop things at any point, even after penetration, even if the other party is "just about there", even if... whatever. And the other party must acquiesce. I've been in that situation, and saying "Please stop," in the midst of things is OK with me. If you care at all about the person you're having sex with, there should be no question here.

But there are two further points. One goes to the question of whether it should be called "rape" from a social point of view. I would hope that in many cases the couple would care enough about each other that they would consider each other's feelings in judging the severity of the situation. On the other hand, I've mentioned patterns of abusive behaviour before. The bottom line, though, is that if the injured party considers it to have been rape, then it's rape, from a social point of view.

I bet my view represents a small minority of males, though. Probably very small.

The second "further point" is the one at play in Maryland: Is it "rape" according to the law. Rape is usually not defined by completion, but by initiation. If the law says that "rape" is penetration without consent, then the situation in question is very clearly not legally rape — there was clearly consent to the initial penetration — even if you and I think it is... even if everyone in the community thinks it is.

The remedy for that sort of thing is to change the law.

Kaethe said...

Barry, I like your analysis, but everyone is missing something about the Maryland case: there was no couple. There was a young woman who had just been raped by a young man (convicted) when the other young man present says "I don't want to rape you". She not surprisingly views this as a threat of greater violence. It is horrifying that the jury bothered to ask any questions about consent, given the obvious coercion.

cuz said...

Well put.

Though it could really suck, (if
(you were one of the small percent
of man), in the case where the
woman lies.