The Socialist 19 July 2002 |
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Rape: "No" Really Does Mean No
THE TRIAL of top snooker player Quinten Hann for rape, highlighted all the prejudices, backward attitudes and myths which still surround this issue.
Hann was eventually acquitted. During the trial two women came forward to say that they had also been attacked by him but their claims were not put before the court. Whatever the truth surrounding this particular case, the publicity it engendered has reinforced the mistaken but commonly held view that large numbers of women are falsely crying rape.
In the Hann case the defence QC, former Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, labelled the accuser a "spiteful, lying young lady". The Daily Mirror declared that Hann was the real "victim" and repeated the call, which often follows such high-profile cases, for the accused to have anonymity as well as the accuser.
One in four women will be raped or suffer an attempted rape at some time in their lives. Despite scientific advances such as improved DNA testing the number of reported rape cases resulting in conviction by the courts has drastically fallen over the last two decades from 33% in 1977 to just 7.35% today.
There are two conclusions that could be drawn from these figures. The first is that nearly 93% of women who report a rape are "spiteful and lying"; the second that the criminal justice system is badly failing.
The first conclusion is clearly ridiculous and yet the media peddles the myth that if the accuser is acquitted then he must be innocent and the woman lying. In fact a study by the New York sex crimes analysis unit found that just 2% of reported rapes are false allegations, the same percentage as for any other criminal offence.
The idea that women would lie about rape is rooted in backward stereotypical ideas about women and their 'natures'; that they feel guilty or ashamed about having sex for example or are out to get 'revenge' on the man, for whatever reason. Judge Michael Hyam when summing up the trial of a student accused of rape in 1993 said: "experience has shown that complainants make up such allegations for various reasons and sometimes for no reason at all".
That this idea still holds sway prevents women from receiving justice in the courts and can deter women from pursuing cases or reporting them in the first place. One US study carried out in 1992 found that only 16% of rapes were actually reported.
In fact prejudices and myths about women, which are often reinforced by the media, heavily influence rape trials and go some way to explaining why so few cases actually result in a prosecution.
"Sometimes, in the heat of passion when the woman says no she doesn't necessarily mean no" declared Sir Ivan Lawrence during the Hann trial. "Sometimes a woman says no to make it more exciting to the man" he told the judge.
Incredibly this backward myth that no really means yes is still raring its ugly head in rape trials even in the 21st century.
Another misconception is that rape results from irresistible male sexual urges rather than it being at root an action of sexual power and control. In a previous high-profile rape case, DJ Richard Baker admitted: "I'd seek lone females and terrorise these poor girls... I put so much fear into them they wouldn't resist me. I wanted to be in complete control".
The idea that men should have control over women, in particular over their sexuality, has its roots in the development of private property, the division of society into classes and the rise of the family as an institution for maintaining and perpetuating both these things.
Of course, society is not the same as it was in Roman times for example, when men's control of women sexuality was deeply entrenched. Attitudes have changed as society itself has changed. But ideas can become quite deeply embedded within society and continue to have an effect even after the material basis for them has disappeared.
So until just ten years ago, for example, it was legal for a man to rape his wife because once married, she was considered his property and therefore he had the right to force himself on her sexually.
Even though the law has now been changed, courts are still reluctant to find men guilty when they are in an intimate relationship with the victim. This can have serious implications since most rapists are known to their victims.
The very term 'date rape', which is used by the media to describe rape where the people concerned know each other (although often it might be for only a few hours), trivialises acquaintance rape.
The Sentence Advisory Panel has proposed that sentences for acquaintance rape should be more lenient than those for 'stranger' rapes. Yet many women have explained that being raped by someone who was known and trusted can be just as dramatic as rape by a stranger.
The whole court process can be an extremely intimidating and humiliating experience for women. Some have described the cross-examination they have to endure as like being raped for a second time. In 1999 the law was changed to make it more difficult for a woman's previous sexual history to be raised in court but this has been undermined by its subsequent judgment.
It's considered acceptable for a woman's sexual past and general lifestyle to be dragged through the courts even though they have no bearing on the case concerned. Defence lawyers hope, of course, that if they can persuade the jury that the woman is 'sexually promiscuous' then they will believe that she must have consented this time.
Yet it is extremely unlikely that the alleged perpetrator will be cross-examined about his previous sexual experiences or attitudes towards women, even though these could be very relevant in a rape case.
Often prosecutors do not even speak to the complainants until just hours before the trial because they are supposed to represent the state and remain impartial. According to Sue Lees, a university professor who has written a book on rape, prosecutors rarely ask the right questions when cross-examining defendants.
A study carried out in ten police forces in April 2000 recommended more sensitive treatment of rape complainants. It proposed better training for police, forensic and medical examiners, prosecutors etc as well as recommending specialist teams of prosecutors. When these were introduced in Queens, New York conviction rates increased to 85%.
These recommendations should be implemented and expert witnesses should also be called on in rape trials to dispel many of the myths related to this issue. Changes in the whole criminal justice system, from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service to the courts are necessary if rape victims are to get a fair deal.
But ultimately this economic and social system, which is based on inequalities of power wealth and reinforces backward attitudes towards women, needs to be changed.