Rape surveys: a reality gap

What's behind the claim that 'A third of Britons blame flirty women for rape'?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘Rape victims “asking for it”’, headlined the Mirror on 21 November. ‘A third of Britons blame flirty women for rape’, reported Reuters. Amnesty International’s survey of Britons’ attitudes to rape sparked shock around the world. ‘Rape? In UK, they blame it on women’, reported the Times of India. ‘Women who flirt are blamed if raped!’, exclaimed, Italy.

Calls for action came thick and fast. Kate Allen, the head of Amnesty International UK, said that it is ‘shocking that so many people will lay the blame for being raped at the feet of women themselves’, and ‘the government must launch a new drive to counteract this sexist “blame culture”’ (1).

This story has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel: it gets everything upside down. Far from rape being hushed up, there is actually far too much awareness-raising about the subject – of which this survey is a prime example. Rape is a very serious crime, but today it is also becoming a moral crusade. All this is little help to women, men, or indeed rape victims themselves.

What were the results? The survey found that 34 per cent of people said that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner; 26 per cent apparently thought she was responsible if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing; and 22 per cent gave the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. In all cases, a far larger proportion plumped for ‘partially’ over ‘totally’ responsible – this broke down as 26 per cent and four per cent in the case of drunkenness; and 28 per cent and six per cent in the case of flirtatiousness. There was little difference between men and women’s answers to these questions.

As is always the case with these tick-box surveys, it’s difficult to work out what people’s responses actually meant. It may be that they meant that a woman getting drunk or flirting made rape more likely. It’s extremely unlikely, though, that they would have signed up to any of the headlines reporting their views. Thankfully, the days are long gone when a woman who went drinking in skimpy clothes was seen as ‘asking for it’. Just walk around any English town on a Saturday night: this is perfectly normal behaviour for today’s liberated young women. Nobody calls them prostitutes. Any judge who said ‘you were wearing a short skirt, what did you expect?’ would be hanged, drawn and quartered – and quite right too.

With the demise of old-style sexism, there has been a rise in new-style moralism, which has dangers of its own. We are constantly being battered with stories about the ‘hidden epidemic of rape’ – the Amnesty International press release opined that the ‘true extent’ of rape is likely to be ‘well in excess of 50,000’ a year, far higher than the numbers of reported rapes, at around 12,000. ‘One in four women has been raped’, official surveys claim, often apparently by partners or acquaintances on ‘date rapes’. The world of personal relations is represented as dark and dangerous: every woman is seen as a potential victim, every man a potential rapist. The old radical feminist adage that rape was just one end of the continuum of heterosex has made its way into Home Office documents.

One result of this has been the erosion of important legal safeguards. It’s a common view that courts are loaded against women – Ruth Hall, from Women Against Rape, was quoted as saying that the court system ‘[blames] the woman for what happened to her and [holds] her accountable’ (3). In fact, if anything the opposite is true. The Home Office is constantly lamenting the ‘justice gap’ between reports of rape and convictions – and as a spokesman said yesterday, it has made a number of changes ‘to put victims’ needs first and to make it easier for cases to get to trial and secure convictions’ (4).

These changes include reversing the burden of proof. Rather than the prosecutor having to prove that the woman did not consent, new laws mean that the defendant must prove that the woman did consent. The alleged rapist has to show that he had taken ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure that the woman had consented to sex. The very basis of a fair trial – the idea of innocence until proven guilty – is called into question. Indeed, the assumption of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ has become common in discussions about rape cases. Newspapers often talk about ‘the rape victim’, missing out the usual qualifying ‘alleged’ and presenting the guy as guilty as charged.

Rape is a very serious crime, and those found guilty will be put away for a long time. All the more reason, then, that courts are sure that they are convicting a guilty man.

Women are done no favours by these changes, either. They are being treated like feeble creatures, who have to be chaperoned and asked for their consent. What happened to the idea that women know their own minds, and can say ‘no’ if they don’t want it? Should we be given forms to sign, just to make sure that we’re okay with every stage of proceedings?

Perversely, this endorses exactly the kind of paternalism that was criticised by the recent reports. If women are seen as feeble creatures, this doesn’t marry well with them running around getting drunk and flirting with anything that moves. Do they know what they could be getting themselves into? When the new laws were drawn up it was suggested that a woman wouldn’t be able to consent if she was drunk (5) – and by implication, that a man should wait for her to sober up before taking her at her word. Who knows, it could well be these kinds of ideas that led people to tick the ‘partially responsible’ box in Amnesty International’s survey.

All this has a poisonous effect on personal relations. British sex life has a pretty dowdy reputation as it is, without a ban on sex while drunk. The distinction between bad sex and rape is being blurred – with sex that was reluctant or just regretted being increasingly defined as rape. This confuses the situation, and does nothing to help the plight of real rape victims.

The last thing we need is another government awareness programme about rape. Amnesty International professed to be horrified that survey respondents didn’t know the stats on the number of reported rapes each year, and still fewer were aware of its views on the ‘true extent’ of rape. But why would we know the stats on rape, any more than we would know the stats on armed robbery or murder? Behind this is the idea that rape is part of everyday experience, something we should all be thinking about – when most people quite rightly see it as shocking and rare.

Rape should be tried as a very serious violent crime – and organisations such as Amnesty International should keep their lectures to themselves.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Domestic violence

(1) See the Amnesty International press release

(2) Sexual Assault Research: Summary Report, 12 October 2005

(3) Fury at controversial views on rape, This is London, 21 November 2005

(4) Women ‘get blame for being raped’, 21 November 2005

(5) Rape law change to redefine consent, 28 October 2002

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Topics Politics


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