London -- Wednesday October 25 2006
If I were raped today, I would not report it
Julie Bindel on why she has lost faith in the system
When I was 18 I worked in a pub, and, one evening, the landlord and his son tried to rape me. Somehow I managed to get away. I didn't report the incident to the police because, back in 1980, it was widely recognised that women who reported a sexual assault were usually seen as liars. I imagined that the police would have grilled me on why I was upstairs with two men (I was taking a sneaky break and sharing a cigarette with the son), and why I had been drinking (I had had half a pint of lager). For years afterwards, while campaigning against rape and other crimes as a founder of the group Justice for Women, I bitterly regretted not reporting my attackers. My overwhelming feeling was guilt. What if they succeeded next time?
Now that guilt has been replaced by anger. While in the 1980s and 1990s police and public attitudes towards rape victims seemed to be improving, they more recently appear to be ricocheting backwards. So much so, that a couple of years ago I made a pact with myself, which I vowed never to reveal publicly. At this juncture I feel I must, though: if I was raped now, I do not think I would report it to the police.
Those who report their attackers and see their cases either discontinued or the defendant acquitted - as happens with almost 95% of reported rapes - are now faced with the risk of being identified, vilified and even criminalised. Anonymity was granted for rape victims in the 1970s, but last week for the first time a woman was publicly "named and shamed" after reporting a sexual assault. Lord Campbell-Savours, the Labour peer, used parliamentary privilege to identify the woman during a debate on rape legislation in the House of Lords, describing her as "a serial and repeated liar" after a man initially found guilty of a sex attack on her had his conviction overturned. Her identity was then published in the Daily Mail. The woman denies lying, and says the only other allegations she has made are of sexual abuse by her father (who is now dead) and an assault by a boyfriend she had as a teenager.
Then there was the 18-year-old "lap dancer" recently jailed for six months for perverting the course of justice. Various footballers accused of "roasting" women have been exonerated, while the women who accused them of rape are vilified as "prostitutes" and "gold-diggers". In the past seven years, women have also been sued for defamation by men accused of raping them after their cases were discontinued by the police.
And, given the current media fixation on women bringing "false allegations", it would be easy to assume our prisons were full of innocent men. In fact, the conviction rate for rape is at an all-time low. In 1985, 1,800 complaints of rape were made and one in four men convicted. In 2003, 13,000 complaints were made but only one in 20 was convicted.
A story I heard recently only confirmed for me that if the situation does not drastically improve, not only are conviction rates going to fall further, but reports to police will too.
Shabnam, an 18-year-old Asian woman, had been drinking in a pub with her friend Simon, before walking to a local park where she agreed to have sex with him. Afterwards, Simon rang a friend, who arrived a short while later with another man in tow. All three raped Shabnam, during which one of the men filmed some of the activity on his mobile phone. When the men left, Shabnam called 999 and reported that she had been raped.
When the police arrived at the park, "The first thing the officer said was, "Ugh! She stinks of alcohol", says Shabnam. "Once I told them I had been raped before [aged 12], their attitude changed, as if I was a loose woman."
Shabnam decided to withdraw her allegation and said she had not been raped. "The reason I said that was because of their attitude towards me. They were so unsympathetic, I could not face pursuing it."
The police escorted her home, where her mother was waiting. "They said me and mum were speaking to each other in our 'native language'," says Shabnam, "which we never do. It was as if they were accusing us of trying to concoct a story."
The officer then asked Shabnam's mother if her daughter was "mentally unsound".
The next day, covered in bruises from the attacks, Shabnam went to the accident and emergency department of her local hospital. There she was advised to attend a sexual assault centre, where staff encouraged her to return to the police and make a statement. Police noted that she was under the care of the adolescent mental health services and, after consulting her counsellor, recorded her statement by video, a process reserved for children and vulnerable witnesses. Two of the men were arrested some days later (the police didn't even bother pursuing the third man). One produced footage on his mobile phone of Shabnam masturbating and giving oral sex to one of the men. Not surprisingly, the men's accounts differed significantly from hers.
Four weeks after the rapes, Shabnam was contacted by a police officer from the much lauded Sapphire team - set up to provide a specialist service to victims of sexual assault - who asked her to come to the station as there had been "developments". When Shabnam arrived she was arrested for perverting the course of justice. "I screamed so loudly," says Shabnam, "that my mother could hear me in the station waiting area."
Police had decided Shabnam was lying on the strength of the "evidence" captured on the mobile phone, the fact that Shabnam gave inconsistent accounts and because she had laughed intermittently throughout the process. In March, the government proposed that juries should be able to hear expert evidence on the way people behave after a serious sexual assault - for example, it is not uncommon for rape complainants to giggle in the witness box due to nerves and trauma.
"I am convinced that I was treated so appallingly [by the police]," says Shabnam, "because I complained about the way [they had] treated me on the night of the rape."
Frightened and confused, Shabnam accepted a caution from police, terrified that she would end up in court, with no anonymity to protect her. A few weeks later, she tried to kill herself. "I now want to challenge the caution because I feel I was bullied into it," she says.
In 1982, a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Police: A Complaint of Rape, showed a rape complainant being interviewed by Thames Valley police. The police officers were shown bullying a woman into discontinuing her complaint against three men, with one saying to her: "This is the biggest load of bollocks I've ever heard." It provoked anger at the system and swiftly led to a change in police procedures. The documentary showed that police were trained to test such claims rigorously at the initial reporting stage in a way that left the complainant feeling humiliated, frightened and intimidated. As a result, police were retrained to handle complainants with respect and with the presumption of belief.
Despite improvements, there remains a culture within the police that assumes that women who report rape are lying. One study found that a third of police assumed that at least a quarter of all reports were false. Research actually suggests, though, that numbers of false allegations of rape are no higher than for any other crime. Assumptions of false allegations are plainly dangerous. One case discontinued by police as a "false allegation" involved a man who turned out to be a serial sex attacker. Eight years later he was convicted of 24 rapes.
A police officer I spoke to, who asked not to be named, said that officers dealing with rape have recently been told to be "rigorous" in their pursuit of false allegations, "and root them out early on".
Dave Gee, vice chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) working group on rape denies that police have been given such a directive and believes that false allegations of rape are rare. "There is no research whatsoever which suggests it's endemic," he says. "Either way, there should be no pre-judging of victims. A report of rape should be treated as rape."
If more cases such as Shabnam's occur, we may as well forget about the criminal justice system and train groups of vigilantes to exact revenge and, hopefully, deter attacks. Because if I were raped, I would rather take my chances as a defendant in court, than as a complainant in a system that seems bent on proving that rape is a figment of malicious women's imagination.
· Some names have been changed.