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    Women, Rape and the Blame Game
Deborah Orr, The Independent on Sunday, Independent.co.uk
07 June 2005
The police are dead right to be concerned about their failure to catch rapists
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that sexual violence against women in Britain is becoming more prevalent and more extreme. A couple of years ago, the police appealed for help in apprehending, not just the two men who had raped a girl in a pub lavatory in Brighton, but also the men who had watched - and the men who had filmed the crime on their video phones. The police confirm that rapists target drunk girls, because they know that they are unlikely to give convincing evidence, especially on the issue of consent.

Last year a case came to trial in which seven young men were charged in connection with the gang-rape of a 14-year-old girl. The seven, who were convicted - not of rape but of unlawful intercourse - featured in a film one of them had made of her ordeal. After the gang-rape, the girl said, she was assaulted and raped by many other young men on the Lethbridge estate in South London, where she was considered "fair game" because of the film, which was distributed locally. In all, it is estimated by the police, 27 people were involved in her sexual brutalisation. They say that such gang-rapes are a growing phenomenon.

Then there is the sex trafficking. Some women who have escaped from their captors testify to being brought to Britain and sold on to various men in a chain, their value declining as the assaults against them mount up.

One 15-year-old girl, who eventually got away from her traffickers in Sheffield, gave evidence that put three of them in jail in Britain, while two more await trial in her native Lithuania. She was raped by all of her "owners", and lost count of the number of men who paid to have sex with her during her time in England.

And, of course, there are the statistics. For many years the police have been recording a steady increase in the number of rapes reported, with the figure now running at nearly 12,000 a year. The increase is huge, and is testament not only to the growing incidence of this crime, but also to the progress that has been made in persuading women that their accusations of rape will be taken seriously by the police and by the courts.

Unfortunately though, as Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair highlighted at the weekend, the hopes of justice nurtured by victims of rape are rarely realised, with only one in 18 leading to a guilty verdict. It is a long-standing scandal, this discrepancy between allegation and conviction, and one that might suggest that there are manifold structural failures in the way that the criminal justice system copes with rape.

Julie Bindel, one of Britain's foremost campaigners for women's rights, has been watching such procedures for years. She welcomes the progress that has been made, but presents evidence that the police, the judiciary and the public - as jurors - are all still biased against women alleging rape.

Her prescription for change includes special training for prosecutors and judges - especially in techniques for establishing issues of consent, re-education of the public - who often still subscribe to the idea of women "asking for it", and the proper funding of rape crisis centres so that women are supported throughout the process.

Earlier this year, the Home Office -in its report on the same subject, A Gap or A Chasm? - came up with similar conclusions, highlighting not only the "postcode lottery", whereby facilities and expertise for dealing with rape victims vary massively across the country, but also a general "culture of scepticism" about female accusations of rape.

Likewise, The Fawcett Society, in a report on women and the criminal justice system, recommended that the Sexual Assault Referral Centres that have been held up as flagship operations by the police, should be set up in all parts of the country.

Presently, their provision is patchy, and some officers working for them have complained of massive understaffing and shocking underfunding. They also call for more specialist training in the police force and for trained prosecutors to be used in rape cases.

It's unlikely that the Metropolitan Police report, to be compiled in the next two months by Deputy Commissioner Brian Paddick, will come up with much to contradict this long-established wisdom.

In part, the inquiry has been inspired because of the vast discrepancy in rape statistics between London boroughs alone. Islington, for example, claims a clear-up rate (when the perpetrator is known to the police even if they can't convict him) of 90 per cent, while Barking says theirs is just 27 per cent. Whatever is found to be behind these huge differences, the report is likely to be persuasive.

Yet it won't persuade one person. Melanie Phillips, who writes for the Daily Mail, has already condemned the investigation. She says Ian Blair is guilty of topsy-turvy thinking that assumes a man to be "guilty until proven innocent" when he "is accused by a woman of rape". His confusion, says Phillips, is easily explained. "Far from the police failing to deal appropriately with an epidemic of rape, they are having to cope with an epidemic of spurious accusations".

She asserts that these are not always malicious, but because of drunk women not remembering whether they gave consent or not, women getting into situations they regret because of the "casualisation of sex" , and even women imagining they have been raped because "being forced to have sexual intercourse against your will" could be interpreted as having to put out when you're not "very keen on the idea".

Phillips says that the drive to increase rape convictions is born of political correctness, and the desire to make out that "men are intrinsically violent and predatory". But, on the contrary, it is Phillips who denigrates and belittles men, by suggesting that it is up to a woman to protect herself from the male desire to have sex with a near-comatose drunk, to keep out of situations in which a man might find himself overcome with unstoppable desire, or even be prepared to have sex we don't want just to keep a man happy.

Decent men don't want to be judged by those standards, because they have enough respect for themselves and others to conduct themselves in a civilised manner. The men Phillips is defending are opportunistic rapists, who often strike again and again.

The next time there's an outcry when an Ian Huntley is found to have had a string of rape accusations thrown out before he does something unspeakable, we should remember that it is not just the police, or the judiciary but also the "culture of scepticism" that keeps such men on the streets.

It is this culture that needs to be challenged. The police are dead right to be concerned about their failure to catch rapists. Those who continue to blame women for their behaviour are dead wrong.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

   
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