Crime and law

We must not give in to the rape panic

The public must challenge the idea that rape is everywhere.

Last week, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service published their review, led by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, into the investigation and prosecution of rapes in London. The review was described by the Met as a ‘victim-centred review of current protocols and procedures’. The report claimed that the volume of rape allegations, having ‘soared’ by 68 per cent between 2005-6 and 2013-14, has left the Met struggling to cope. However, during this time, the percentage of allegations resulting in a prosecution rose by only 17 per cent. The report warned that, if current trends continued, the number of unpunished rapes would continue to rise. The report went on to recommend that the law enshrine a statutory definition of when someone is too drunk to consent. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, suggested that rape investigations should be assigned the same level of police resources as investigations into domestic terrorism.

The panicked rhetoric of the report and the response to its findings are striking. The report appears to suggest that the authorities are completely failing to deal with an epidemic of rape and sexual violence. The reaction of Hogan-Howe suggests that our intimate relationships present the same level of danger as hidden terrorist networks, and that the authorities should be just as concerned about what goes on in Londoners’ bedrooms as they are about the activities of homegrown terrorist groups.

But even a cursory look at these figures indicates that they say nothing at all about the reality of rape. The report does not, as some newspapers reported, claim that the number of rapes has increased, merely that the number of allegations has increased. This could mean that more and more people are being raped, or it could mean that more and more people are mistakenly thinking they have been raped. The number of allegations tells us nothing at all about the number of rapes that have actually been committed. It says nothing at all about reality.

Nor is it unusual for there to be a significant difference between the number of allegations and the number of cases resulting in a prosecution. In fact, for most criminal offences, the percentage of prosecutions that arise from allegations is far lower than it is for rape. All sorts of issues can prevent an allegation from progressing to a prosecution. In fact, the idea that this figure is too low and should be ‘driven up’ suggests that more people should be prosecuted – that is, arrested, possibly locked up and put before a court – purely to make the numbers look better. In other words, this report takes numbers and percentages, which mean absolutely nothing in and of themselves, and turns them into a picture of a failing justice system. 

The report is a significant example of a worrying trend. In today’s discussion around rape, information is routinely presented misleadingly and then used as a means of justifying a further tightening up of the law. The idea that ‘too few’ people are prosecuted comes to be seen as a problem that needs to be fixed by more aggressive prosecuting. As a result, more and more people are encouraged to see rape everywhere, in every corner of their intimate lives. 

This makes it hardly surprising that each individual police officer is now dealing with an average of 15 rape allegations at any one time. Rather than the low rate of prosecutions, it is this figure that should give us pause for thought. Perhaps this report does not merely demonstrate that the police are failing – we hardly need another report to tell us that the police routinely screw up rape investigations – but that we are failing, too. Perhaps the unrelenting increase in the number of allegations of rape shows that we are succumbing to the hysterical official panic around rape. Perhaps we are starting to believe officialdom’s claim that rape is everywhere. Perhaps the truly frightening aspect of this report is not that too few allegations are being prosecuted, but that so many allegations are being made in the first place. If we truly want to ensure that rape is investigated and prosecuted properly, perhaps we should stop seeing rape in those difficult and ambiguous experiences which are part and parcel of a normal, functioning intimate life. It’s time we drove officialdom out of our private lives.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon. His first book, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans, will be published later this year.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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