How the media, the courts and the police allow rapists to get away with it

Trigger warning

We Mixed Our Drinks blogged yesterday on the tabloids’ fondness for reporting ‘cry rape’ stories, and observed:

“when the media continues to publicise such cases yet ignore the majority of shocking and disgusting attacks against women…we end up with the situation we have at present, where a woman who has been raped is automatically assumed by many to be a liar simply out to ruin an innocent man’s life.”

I wonder to what extent this media bias affected, for instance, the respondents to Amnesty’s 2005 survey on attitudes towards rape. The headline finding was that a third of people believed women are partly responsible for rape if they flirt; but it also revealed depressing levels of ignorance about rape statistics. Only 4% of respondents thought the annual incidence of rape was over 10000 – Amnesty quoted the British Crime Survey to put the correct figure at more like 80000. 11% thought it was under 1000 cases a year. When asked about the conviction rate, the average estimate was 26%, whereas the true figure tends to hover around the 6% mark.

Why – as we should never stop asking – is that real figure so low? Could it be related to the fact that a tenth of British people think less than a thousand rapes occur each year? Does the ‘flirts are asking for it’ mentality find its way into the courtroom?

We know it does. And we got a timely reminder last week, when – as Holly Combe reported here – a rape trial collapsed after it emerged that the complainant had discussed group sex with strangers on MSN. As Peter Tatchell points out,

‘The judge and prosecutor appear to have come close to suggesting that the alleged victim had, by sharing her group sex fantasies, invited the rape; that given her racy sexual mores she had only herself to blame.’

Our justice system assumes women who report rape are lying if they have – or have discussed having – an adventurous sex life. The media assumes women who report rape are lying unless – as Hannah at We Mixed Our Drinks puts it – ‘the rape victim happens to be beautiful, white, virginal and wealthy’. But surely those charged with protecting us and pursuing the guilty must take each reported rape seriously, and do their best to collect relevant evidence…?

…We should be so lucky. The Guardian reported today on the IPCC’s findings in the case of John Worboys, a cab driver whom the police first questioned about sexual assault in 2003, then allowed to rape at least 85 more women over five years.

One of the women, ‘Anna’, describes how she was treated – by Worboys and by the police (again, severe trigger warning) – on this video.

‘Anna’ did everything you’re supposed to do. She got a licensed black cab home (because as everyone knows, thanks to Transport For London’s victim-blaming campaign of recent months, getting an unbooked minicab is asking to be raped too). She reported her assault. She did everything she could to try to bring her attacker to justice.

And what did the police do? Read the IPCC findings. They laughed. They assumed from the start that she was lying. They failed to collect evidence; they failed to search Worboys’ home; they failed to question him properly; they failed to give Anna any accurate information about the case. It’s damning.

Then read what the IPCC recommend. Making information available for victims online; regular case updates with victims, sharing of information and intelligence with local agencies where there is a risk to the community; formalising structures to encourage women to report to third parties. Regarding the complaints against individual Met officers, the commission upheld complaints against five out of eight, recommending two should be given written warnings and three should receive words of advice. That’s it.

These recommendations bring the responsibilities right back to the victim. Never mind that Anna, and many other women, did report being raped, and were met with nothing but humiliation. Never mind that more than 80 women went through an ordeal that would not have happened if the police had done their jobs. Forget the idea that they should lose their jobs. Nope – it’s all about encouraging women to report, in the face of a system that could not be more discouraging.

Meanwhile, the media gets away with making rape invisible; the courts get away with deciding which women have the right to complain when they are raped; the police get away with mocking rape victims; and rapists get away with rape. The justice system is rotten with misogyny from beginning to end.


2 thoughts on “How the media, the courts and the police allow rapists to get away with it

  1. I feel the need to reply to this because it’s touching a raw nerve with me. To me these are real live issues I face day in day out and they can and do tear me up.

    I’ve been a lifetime feminist and champion of women’s rights –I have in fact worked closely with Grace in the past. I am now, amongst other things, a police officer.

    When I joined the service I was gloriously naive. I went hammer and tongs for any officer who dared to suggest in my presence that a woman might be making up a claim of rape. It is hard for me to admit that time and time again I have been proved to be a fool for doing so.

    It is painful and counter-intuitive to be saying this, but many women can and do make false reports of rape. They do it for various reasons and motivations, which I don’t intend to discuss here, but they do and the women’s movement has been guilty of trying to airbrush this out of the picture when blaming the police, justice system and men in general for the failings in the system when it comes to sex crimes.

    Caveats out in the open, the following should always be true. If a women tells any police officer she has been sexually assaulted or raped this has happened, it is a critical incident and must be treated as such. Unless, as an impartial investigator, I find solid evidence to the contrary.

    Procedure is not perfect, far from it, and we must keep striving to improve, but it is getting better. The fact that there are people like me – specialist first responders – is a step in the right direction and would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. The provision of SARCs, combining medical treatment, forensic recovery and counselling for victims around the country is much improved from a few years ago. Also, following on from Operation Sapphire the specialist rape investigation team launched by The Met a few years ago, almost every force in the country now has a similar rape investigation unit to handle cases from start to finish.

    The Sexual Offences Bill has improved statutory basis for prosecutions in the courts and the new special measures that can be put in place to protect victims when giving evidence and lifetime anonymity for the victims of sexual offences are all positive measures. Let’s not forget though, that what I ask women to do when giving evidence in court against their attackers is to have the courage to speak out in the hearing (though no longer presence) of a person who has violated their bodies and their lives in the most violent and personal of manners. Small wonder then that many feel unable to do so despite any support that can be offered.

    It is also unsurprising that so many women don’t report a crime for several hours, maybe even days. They are processing a hugely traumatic, psychological and physical injury. Women also often report these crimes only after taking the instinctive actions of changing their clothes or bathing following an attack. These actions, whilst totally understandable, make sex crimes difficult to investigate and even harder to prove to the criminal standard of, “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Forensics are often lost, victims unwilling to testify, delayed reporting makes CCTV and witness accounts more difficult to obtain. That being said every report must be investigated to the highest standard, where these crimes happen every decent officer wants to see the perpetrator get what’s coming to them.

    High profile cases of police misconduct make this process more difficult for all involved. Where misconduct or genuine mistakes have occurred this should rightly be highlighted so lessons are learned and repetition avoided. I think though the women’s movement has been guilty of an unhealthy obsession with cases where things have gone wrong and this is counterproductive to the aims of those of us desperately striving to conduct solid investigations and championing good practice. Even the best investigations fail where women don’t report sexual offences through unfounded fear of poor police practice.

    Sadly, even where the best investigative practice is followed, conviction may still be impossible. The situation in regard to sexual offences will not be good enough until we uniformly have the highest standards of care and investigation for our victims and prevention means that there are fewer victims of sex crimes. Even when we do reach this point though (and I do think it’s when, not if) I am not sure there will be a steep climbing conviction rate for rape. In the way of many crimes, sexual offences are often crimes where only two people know what truly happened and if their accounts differ other sources of evidence are largely circumstantial. Remember that all the defence have to prove is a defensive case on the balance of probabilities, a mere doubt is all it takes.

    The last thing for me to say is that this comment is entirely my own opinion based on my observations and experience and personal professional ethics. These are not the views of my own or any police force, although clearly I do echo publicly available policy in some points.

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