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When it comes to rape why is justice so hard for women to find?

TW: mentions of rape and sexual assault

Earlier this year, former Manchester United player Mason Greenwood had charges of attempted rape, assault and coercive control dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service, who cited an “(un)realistic prospect of conviction”. This may have come as a surprise to some who remembered the infamous audio recording released by Harriet Robson over a year ago, in which the footballer is heard demanding his then girlfriend “put [her] legs up”, telling her he “[doesn’t] give a fuck” about her objections. However, time and time again it has become clear that strong evidence is not enough to ensure a perpetrator of rape is put to justice; in the twelve months from March 2021 to March 2022, 70,330 reports of rape were recorded by UK police – resulting in just 2,223 charges. When you keep in mind that fewer than one in ten sexual offences are reported, 42% of victims withdraw charges, and that a charge doesn’t entail a conviction, you would be correct for thinking that something must be warped about the criminal justice system’s, and wider society’s, attitudes towards the dignity of women – over 90% of rape victims.

In January, Ellie Wilson told the BBC how despite audio and written confessions from her rapist being presented during his trial, the guilty verdict was not unanimous. While those without sufficient evidence – which is difficult to obtain in such situations – have very little chance of seeing their abuser convicted, in a Catch-22-style twist, women who do manage to obtain evidence continue to face an inordinate amount of suspicion, with such evidence itself having been pointed to in past high-profile cases as proof of extensive, malicious plots to frame innocent men. But it is not simply members of the jury and the public who are swayed by such lines of argument; even those who should be women’s first port of call after a rape tend to be biased against them.

Fear of being retraumatised and ridiculed by members of a force who, beyond not believing women, may simply not view rape as an offence worth punishing

Indeed, it has been a victim-blaming attitude in the police’s approach to sexual assault cases which makes prosecuting rape more difficult. A study funded by the Home Office found that almost all officers surveyed demonstrated belief in various myths surrounding rape. Among the victims often deemed as not credible were “those who made repeat/multiple allegations, sex workers, those with mental health or substance abuse issues, intoxicated victims, victims who give ‘inconsistent’ or ‘incomplete’ accounts, and victims who may have lied in the past (in almost any area of their life)”. Such attitudes have led to a neglect in pursuing repeat suspects, and a reduced willingness to charge potential perpetrators. In an environment in which 80% of officers convicted of domestic abuse kept their jobs, women are deterred from reporting their rapists out of fear of being retraumatised and ridiculed by members of a force who, beyond not believing women, may simply not view rape as an offence worth punishing.

Beyond the institutional factors for which so few perpetrators of rape receive any form of official punishment, there is also the fact that a large proportion of women simply don’t know when they’ve been raped, or when they do, they don’t view it as unacceptable. A 2016 study found that 60% percent of women who had experienced encounters that matched the definition of rape did not label these encounters as such, more often using terms such as ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘grey area’, with another (American) inquiry finding that a full 60% of female university students had suffered this ‘unacknowledged rape’. This can be partially explained by the prevalence of certain tropes associated with rape, which, when deviated from, cause a person to cast doubt on the gravity of their own experiences. This is especially true if the victim had been drinking (in which case they may blame themselves for their assault), if the rapist was not physically violent, or if they had an emotional attachment to the rapist. Even in cases where one is aware their experience technically falls under the category of rape, one may minimise its seriousness as a coping method, particularly if in a relationship with their abuser, or if in doubt over the likelihood of receiving sympathy.

When doubt is cast onto a woman’s testimony, what is truly being questioned is the seriousness of rape as a crime in itself

As men are the perpetrators in over 99% of rape cases, and women the victims in over 90%, rape as a phenomenon and the way in which we handle it is clearly intrinsically linked to how women are viewed in society. Many have pointed to the recent revival of the ancient trope of the vengeful, vindictive woman (which never truly went out of fashion) linking to the upsurge in misogynistic ‘manosphere’ activists as a way to explain the incredulity surrounding women’s testimony. However, oftentimes when doubt is cast onto a woman’s testimony, what is truly being questioned is the seriousness of rape as a crime in itself.

The objectification and degradation of women is ingrained in our society, overtly visible in advertising which shows women semi-naked next to fully clothed men; porn in which 88% of videos involved acts of physical aggression towards women; and every other form of media that serves as othering women and positing men as the default. And so it is natural that some find rape an easy crime to forgive; Ronaldo, Trump, Mike Tyson, and Marlon Brando are among the countless men who have been either convicted or credibly accused of rape while in the public eye and yet who continue to enjoy worldwide admiration. One survey indicated that a third of male university students would commit acts corresponding to rape if “nobody would ever know”; in others, between 4% and 16% admitted to carrying out such acts. Rape is not uncommon, and rapists aren’t shadowy men in trench coats – they’re your friends, your family members, your classmates. In a society in which the sexual violation of women is normalised, one doesn’t have to be abnormal to sexually violate women.


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