Britain: Rape widespread, under-reported, & under-punished Print E-mail
 London -- Monday June 12, 2006

Too many have for too long been getting away with rape

Only 5.6% of reported cases end in conviction. It is time we faced up to this shameful record on sexual violence


By Joanna Bourke, author of An Intimate History of Killing in which she suggests, using letters, diaries, memoirs and testimony from soldiers in the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam, that the structure of war encourages pleasure in killing, and that ordinary human beings can become enthusiastic killers without becoming 'brutalized'

We are never told her name. None of the soldiers would have been interested in such niceties. The only considerations were that she was Vietnamese and a virgin. "It was like an animal pack," one of the participants recalled. "We just stood in line and we screwed her." Suddenly, unexpectedly, the unnamed woman turned towards him: "Why are you doing this to me?" she said in English. "Why?"

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Cornwall, rape destroys the victim's trust in the world. The realisation that other individuals are impervious to one's suffering never wanes.

Yet violent sexuality is alarmingly common. Last year, over 13,000 women in Britain reported being raped. This statistic ignores the fact that most rapes are never spoken about. According to the British Crime Survey, only one in six rapes is reported to the police.

Why is rape so common? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the fusion of aggression and sexuality appeals to some men. It is striking how frequently rapists situate their abuses in a framework associated with dating culture, bizarrely employing the language of romance in the midst of the assault. When confronted with evidence of pain, they either eroticise it or demand a simulation of gratification from their victims. Even more disturbingly, rapists frequently insist that they (not their victims) are traumatised by the assault. During the Vietnam war, for instance, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was given to servicemen who had suffered the "trauma" of raping other individuals. Today, the psychological stress of military service is being used to justify the sexual torture that took place in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

Sympathy for the abuser is not restricted to war zones. In Britain today there is considerable scepticism expressed towards women who accuse men of rape. In fact, false accusations are less common in rape than in other criminal cases. But any woman with a slightly adventurous history, or hailing from a powerless group, is normally right to think that making a complaint is not worthwhile.

In the 70s, around one third of reported rape cases ended in convictions. This dropped to around one quarter by the 80s. Today, only 5.6% of rapes reported to the police end up with a conviction - and in Gloucestershire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire only two men are convicted for every 100 women who report being raped. Are we to believe that women in these counties are particularly prone to lying about rape?

Of course, no one is denying that the justice system has improved. The times when judges could joke about the colour of a victim's knickers are over. However, the gap between law in books and law in practice is still wide. Informal norms of case processing, judgment and sentencing have remained substantially unchanged. Legal decisions continue to be profoundly affected by assumptions about what constitutes "real rape". It is encouraging, therefore, to hear the Sentencing Guidelines Council insisting last week that date rape, and rape within marriage, should be treated as severely as rape by a stranger. The council is calling for judges to impose tougher prison sentences.

Yet rape myths are still pervasive - in particular, the belief that victims somehow "brought it on themselves". An ICM poll last year found that one in three people believed that women who acted flirtatiously were partially or totally responsible if they ended up being raped, and one in four believed the same for women who wore sexy clothes. Both men and women proved willing to blame the victim.

In other areas, debate about rape is silenced. Some forms of sexual abuse remain so taboo that victims have great difficulty reporting them. Forced sex within marriage is hardly unusual, for instance. The rape of men has also remained out of bounds in the rape debates. The gay community is reluctant to discuss the extent of the problem - perhaps legitimately, fearing its link to a homophobic agenda. The abuse of men by women is another deadly secret. The tired mantra of the 70s, according to which all men are rapists, rape fantasists or beneficiaries of a rape culture, has become mere wishful thinking in the face of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Not confronting these myths is bad for all of us. The politics of sexual pleasure has been displaced into the politics of sexual fear. Such negative politics leaves no room for anything save the paradox of telling women and other potential victims that they need to purchase freedom by investing in deadbolt locks. As we reduce tolerance for displays of macho sexual aggression in daily life, we need to educate men into positive male erotics.

Finally, victims of abuse too often feel that they are to blame for their victimisation. If we are to imagine a world without the spectre of sexual violence hanging over us, perpetrators have to be held fully accountable for their deeds. Too many have been getting away with rape: we cannot tolerate it any longer.

· Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College; her book on rapists is published next year