Prejudicial attitudes to rape infect our society. Opportunities for real change must not be squandered
It is just over two weeks since London's top prosecutor, Alison Saunders, gave a chilling warning that the 'almost demonisation' of women by the media was having a negative impact on the British justice system and leading to acquittals in rape cases. This echoed evidence given by End Violence Against Women to the Leveson inquiry that prejudicial and inaccurate media reporting of rape sends a strong and consistent message to the justice system ? and the public more broadly ? that women routinely "cry rape"; to rape survivors that they will not be believed; and to potential perpetrators that they will get away with it.
Two cases this week provide grim confirmation of these concerns. At a trial in Ireland a complainant who said she had been gang-raped and imprisoned by three men was forced to stand directly in front of them to identify them, by Mr Justice Paul Carney ? an ordeal that left her "visibily terrified", according to news reports. The next day when she failed to turn up at court after apparently attempting suicide, she was imprisoned. And in the court of appeal in London a woman is appealing against her conviction for perverting the course of justice. Her crime? Falsely retracting an allegation of repeated rape by her husband. To be clear; it was accepted that her initial allegations of systematic sexual violence were true and that her retraction was false. It's hard to believe these aren't cases in a history book about medieval justice, sitting alongside fables about the stocks and witch-ducking.
But maybe these cases are not so extraordinary. Every part of our society seems to be infected by prejudicial attitudes to rape; from the justice secretary's comments about rape last year, to Facebook pages that promote sexual violence, to the casual use of rape jokes by top comedians and the outpouring of misogyny on male university students' websites. Hardly surprising then that surveys consistently show that around a third of people in the UK believe that if a woman is raped then she should be held at least partially responsible if she did not behave like a "perfect" victim, either because of what she was wearing or if she had been drinking. And of course, perpetrators tend to target women who have been drinking, so society's attitudes conspire with and reinforce the perpetrator. Recent research by Middlesex University found that lads mags and convicted rapists use the same kind of language when talking about women.
Rape victims, of course, know this, which is why up to 90% of them do not report this most serious of crimes. Polling by End Violence Against Women has found that in UK schools, sexual harassment is routine and unchallenged and that almost a third of girls experience unwanted sexual contact. It seems girls and boys grow up in a culture of disrespect towards women and girls, where abuse is seen as acceptable.
So what's to be done? We must start the task of changing attitudes to rape and other violence against women. This means working with young people in schools so that they understand what consensual, healthy and respectful relationships are. It means ongoing training for professionals, including teachers, social workers and criminal justice workers. It means long-term public awareness campaigns at local and national levels such as the Home Office's recent teenage relationship abuse campaign or End Violence Against Women's WeAreMan video ? aimed at young men and shifting the focus away from women's behaviour.
We need to tackle the messages we receive through the media ? whether it is our daily newspapers inaccurately and over-reporting false allegations of rape, whether it is sexualised music videos and games where women are portrayed as sexual objects there purely for men's pleasure, or the threats of sexual violence that women writers and bloggers receive to shut down debate. We must grasp the fact that developing technologies ? the explosion of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones ? has massively increased the ways in which women and girls can be groomed, abused, harassed and exploited. And critically, women in every community need to be able to access the kind of specialist support that Rape Crisis centres offer, to help them deal with sexual violence. And it means our politicians showing leadership on all of this. In short, we need a revolution in the way we understand and deal with sexual violence.
There are opportunities to start making these changes: the government is currently revising the national curriculum, and the Home Office is refreshing its violence against women strategy. The No 10-backed work on tackling sexualisation is ongoing and must go further in tackling the production of sexualised and sexist images and material which provide a conducive context for violence against women to flourish. But if these opportunities are squandered because tinkering at the edges seems safer than radical reform, we will have failed every future rape victim.
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