Braving the chill of a crisp September day, thousands of women stripped down to their bras in central London. Their skin was covered in slogans. “If only police were as supportive as my bra,” said one. “I didn’t report it, he was my boyfriend,” was scrawled across another woman’s chest.
Some had horrific stories to tell. One mother spoke emotionally of how her daughter had been raped at the age of 16, but her attacker had got away with it. Another told how, because it was her boyfriend who had attacked her, she wasn’t sure if she had a right to report it. Others were just there to support the cause. “I want to be able to walk home at night without being afraid of rape,” explained one 20-something protestor.
The message was clear: no woman deserves to be raped. The march was organised by protest group Slutwalk to draw attention to the prejudices still surrounding rape. “It shouldn’t matter whether you’re wearing a miniskirt or a hijab, drunk or sober, we believe that rape is never the victim’s fault,” says organiser Anastasia Richardson. “Until that attitude is held across the UK, we will continue to speak up.”
Rape has dominated headlines over the past two years. In May 2011, the then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke sparked controversy when he declared some rapes more serious than others, distinguishing between “serious,” “forcible” and “date” rape.
Then earlier this year, MP George Galloway waded into the debate, angering many women, by describing having sex with a sleeping female if you’re already “in the sex game” as “bad sexual etiquette” rather than rape.
But are these merely misguided personal opinions – or dangerous stereotypes? Yvonne Traynor, a trustee of charity Rape Crisis, believes they hinder conviction rates. “As long as society deems some rape more worthy than others, we will continue to deny justice to victims,” she says.
According to the Office of National Statistics, 14,767 rapes were reported last year in the UK – but the actual number of incidents is much higher. An independent survey by Mumsnet of 1,600 women revealed one in 10 say they have been raped, and a third claim they have been sexually assaulted.
The survey concluded that four in five victims don’t report being attacked to the police because of the shame they feel and because they believe conviction rates are so low it’s unlikely justice will be served.
More than half also feel that the legal system and society are unsympathetic to women who have been raped. Women feel that neither the police nor society take rape seriously – so what’s the point?
Fear of shame
Twenty-two-year-old rape survivor Nicole Campbell knows how difficult the process of reporting rape can be. The law student from East Kilbride was 14 when she was raped by her friend Antony’s father, William Potter, then 46, while staying overnight at their house after an evening ice skating.
“I never imagined for one moment that Antony’s dad would abuse my trust,” she explains. “But I woke up in the middle of the night with William’s face in front of mine and experienced a searing pain I’d never felt before as he forced himself on me.
“I was distraught by the ordeal and scared my parents wouldn’t believe me,” she says. “It took me three weeks to build up the courage to tell them. They were devastated and called the police.
“I had to speak to the officers on an extremely personal level, then had an internal medical examination at hospital, which lasted five hours. It was so clinical and I had to relive every intimate detail.”
DNA and corroborative evidence after another victim came forward led to her attacker’s arrest in July 2004, but he was bailed and allowed to carry on working as a security officer in the town.
“I was too frightened to leave the house and didn’t feel safe going anywhere alone,” says Nicole. “I experienced night terrors reliving the attack and could barely eat. I felt abandoned by the police. It was as if I was just a piece of evidence that was poked and prodded and then put in a bag and forgotten about until the trial.”
In recent years, the government has recognised a need to improve services available to rape victims. In March 2011, they pledged to increase funding for rape charities and referral centres, train specialist police and launch media campaigns for rape prevention.
“Thankfully, rape is back on the government agenda,” says Yvonne. “Specialist support has been put in place, including funding for more Rape Crisis Centres, as well as Independent Sexual Violence Advisors who are assigned to rape victims to help guide them through the Criminal Justice System.”
Failure of justice
Many rape allegations fail to make it to trial, but of those that do, 58 per cent result in a conviction, compared to 57 per cent for most crimes. So why are women so scared to come forward? The answer, says Yvonne, lies in attitudes.
“We need to get away from the idea that rape is rough sex,” she says. “Rape is not about sex. Rapists want to control women and the way they feel is most effective is by raping them. Every part of our society is infected by prejudicial attitudes to rape. From Facebook pages that promote sexual violence, to the casual use of rape jokes by top comedians.”
Jimmy Carr recently provoked outrage by making jokes about rape, describing it as “surprise sex”.
Shockingly, a UK survey by Amnesty shows that 37 per cent of adults think a woman is responsible for being raped if she doesn’t say “no” clearly enough.
“We need to educate the public,” says Yvonne. “At Rape Crisis we work in schools educating students, in particular young men between the ages of 10 and 15 on what consent and rape are, as well as what a loving relationship really is, so it’s absolutely clear.”
As many of the women at the Slutwalk protest also show, when the attacker is a woman’s partner, there’s a feeling that the crime might not be taken seriously – an attitude that Yvonne says needs challenging.
“Rape is rape,” she says. “Only eight per cent of rapes are by total strangers. If a victim is raped by a partner, it’s an abuse of trust, if a victim is raped by a stranger she’s left in fear of her life.
“There’s also a misconception that women often cry rape. In fact, only five per cent of women lie about being raped [which is the same as in any other crime], and the chance of a case getting to trial if the woman was lying is extremely rare.”
Nicole believes it’s fear of being treated like a criminal that prevents women from coming forward. She had to wait 16 months for the case to reach trial at Glasgow High Court in November 2005. “By the trial, I’d gone from a size 10 and 8st to a skeletal 5½st and size 4,” she says.
“Reliving that night was so painful. I gave evidence from behind a screen so I couldn’t see my rapist, but the defence made me out to be a slut and a liar, even though I was a virgin before the attack and hadn’t consented to sex. It was like being raped all over again. I was determined to speak out and get justice. By the time the defence had finished with me, I started to blame myself.”
Psychologist Massimo Stocchi specialises in helping rape victims and says the court process can have an extreme negative psychological impact.
“In no other crime is the victim subject to such scrutiny,” he says. “Rape victims commonly experience ‘secondary victimisation’ – re-traumatisation through the response of the defence in court – which can lead to setbacks in recovery.”
Even for the victims who secure a conviction against their attacker, the nightmare isn’t over. William Potter was convicted of two counts of rape in December 2005 and jailed for nine years, but Nicole struggled to find closure.
“I count myself lucky I got justice,” she says. “I can never get my virginity back. I live with what happened in the most positive way I can, but it’s still a life sentence.
“After the trial I was determined to self-destruct. I dropped out of college, started drinking heavily to block out the flashbacks and turned to self-harming. It took three years of intensive counselling for me to get my life back on track. Had the case reached trial sooner, I’d have had a straighter road to recovery. With the support of my parents, I’d only stopped blaming myself before the defence tore me to pieces.”
In August 2009, Nicole and her mum, Ann-Marie, 44, a psychologist, set up the charity Sexual Assault Victims Initiatives (Savi). “With 20 volunteer staff, Savi provides one-to-one therapy and a 24/7 worldwide helpline. We support victims through court cases and until we are no longer needed,” she says. “We’ve helped over 1,000 victims get their lives back. Many are initially too scared to go to the police and need an impartial confidant. The prejudice never fails to shock me – particularly when friends advise them not to report the crime. There’s a long way to go before we change attitudes.”
But, no matter how daunting it is, Nicole says it’s important women report rape. “I waived my right to anonymity because I want other women to know you should never be scared to come forward.
“Even after everything I’ve been through, I don’t regret reporting it. So many rapists are left to walk the streets targeting more victims, but I know mine can’t. I don’t think I’d have finally found closure if justice hadn’t been served.”
- 1 in 12 people believe a woman is totally responsible for rape if she has had many sexual partners**
- 30% of people said a woman was partially or totally responsible for rape if she was drunk**
- 1 in 20 men said they would try to have sex with someone who was asleep*
What is the Government doing?
Some steps are being taken to help victims, but are they enough?
* £3million per year for the next three years has been allocated to rape support centres, plus funding for new ones.
* Schools are encouraged to teach sexual consent within the curriculum.
* More training and funds for Independent Sexual Violence Advisors.
* Every rape case to get a rape specialist prosecutor from the Crown Prosecution Service allocated to them.
- To sign the Slutwalk’s petition to Protect all Rape Survivors and Prosecute Rapists visit change.org/petitions/uk-home-office-protect-all-rape-survivors-prosecute-rapists
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