On rape, stereotypes and victim-blaming

Trigger warning: rape, sexual violence, mention of suicide

In the age of #MeToo, awareness on sexual offences and consent is increasing, yet it is still fairly easy to get away with rape and sexual assault – the crime with the least report and conviction rates. From victim blaming based on stereotypes connected to rape, over police officers not believing rape survivors, to humiliating and misguided inquiries into the complainant’s private life or even charges of false allegations, the abuse of these women continues even after the act of rape itself.

What is rape?

While the term sexual violence refers to all and any kinds of unwanted sexual activity, rape – at least according to English law – is defined as “penetration with a penis of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person without their consent”. Non-consentual sex without penetration carries the same sentence as rape but is called sexual assault. In 2018, Sweden changed its law so that sex without explicit consent (freely agreeing by choice when one is capable to do so, that is not when asleep, under the influence of drugs or a lot of alcohol, when being threatened, bullied or scared) can be considered rape. Thus, while previously decisive factors for rape convictions were the use of force, threats or taking advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, rape is legally considered as such also without the survivor having explicitly said “No!”. 

While not all rape survivors are women, and not all rapists are men, statistics show a noticeable difference in this regard. In England and Wales 20 percent of women over 16 years are estimated to have been exposed to sexual assault, yet only 4 percent of men. In Sweden, 35.8 percent of women compared to 4.7% of men aged 20 to 24 have experience sexual violence, and on an EU level nine out of ten rapes and eight out of ten sexual assaults are committed against women whereas the persons convicted of these crimes are men. What is furthermore noticeable are the report and conviction rates for sexual violence which are far lower than for any other crime. Only about 15 percent of sexual violence cases are reported to the police and of these cases only about six percent in England and Wales and 17 percent in Sweden end with a conviction.

Women are not “asking for it”

The #MeToo movement has undoubtedly raised awareness on sexual violence and rape culture, yet we are still far from a social atmosphere and a justice system that is not based on stereotypes around rape and humiliating legal procedures for rape survivors. A major obstacle to the conviction of rapists, apart from the issue of presenting concrete evidence, is that those who make rape complaints are often not believed. Of the few reported cases of rape almost a third is considered as no crime by the police, and only those cases investigated that are likely to be won go to court.

The main issue in this regard are the stereotypes connected to rape; from the image of rape as a stranger dragging a woman into the bushes and taking advantage of her to considering it women’s responsibility to stay safe rather then men’s to not rape and consequently blaming the victim, especially when she was drunk, had condoms with her, or was wearing the “wrong” clothes. Alcohol consumption is considered as “asking for it”, clothes and make up are seen as “implying consent”, and at times the woman’s sex life is taken apart in court. When, in 2006, a teenager called the police because she had been gang raped in a park in London with the rapists filming her abuse, she was accused by the officers of being “mentally unsound” after stating that she had been raped previously. They did not even bother arresting the rapists and considered the video as evidence of the girl’s “consent”.

 

In dubio pro reo

Rape is not only the most under-reported crime, and the crime with the lowest conviction rate, but women are also often accused of making false allegations. And while there is widespread reporting on such false allegations, there are indeed not more false rape claims than there are false allegations for any other crime.

A month after the teenage girl’s rape, it was her, not the men who had raped her, who was arrested. She was accused of perverting the course of justice by lying about her rape. Fortunately for her the charges were dropped, yet, her rapists were never convicted. Other women had similar experiences. One of them is Lucy Green who was sued for slander. “All of a sudden I was in court as a defendant, not a victim of rape”, she said. “If he had won I would have been forced to make a public apology and pay him money for raping me.” Similarly, 23-year-old Eleanor de Freitas was sued for perverting the course of justice after reporting a case of sexual assault. Shortly before her trial she killed herself.

In dubio pro reo (“when in doubt, for the accused”) is a good and useful principle. But in the case of rape and sexual assault it all too often appears to be turned into “if possible, for the perpetrator”. Women are held responsible for the crime committed against them, especially when they have previously filed rape charges leading to women who are raped or assaulted more than once and report the crime being even less likely to get justice. 

A society that blames women for being raped due to how they dress, how much they drink, who they sleep with and how often, police officers that are unable or unwilling to properly investigate potential cases of sexual violence and courts that are influenced by the same biases and stereotypes as police and society are preventing too large a number of rape survivors from obtaining justice, or even worse paint them as perpetrators of a crime themselves. In dubio pro reo can only be an effective principle to apply to charges of sexual violence when the complainants are taken seriously, and when the responsibility of women to “not get raped” is transformed into the responsibility of men to not rape.

by Merle Emrich

Photo Credits

Barbie violence, Isabella Quintana, pixabay [no attribution required]

#womensmarch2018 Philly Philadelphia #MeToo, Rob Kall, CC BY 2.0

“Teach men not to rape”: International Women’s Day Edinburgh (2017), Merle Emrich, All Rights Reserved