It sometimes feels as if rape has been decriminalised – and no, I’m not exaggerating

·4-min read
<p>‘The criminal justice system is repeatedly failing victims of sexual violence’</p> (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

‘The criminal justice system is repeatedly failing victims of sexual violence’

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Home Office figures show that fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in the suspect being charged. There were 52,210 rapes recorded in England and Wales in 2020, but only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons. This is a paltry rate of just 1.6 per cent.

The drop in prosecutions has also, predictably, led to a drop in convictions. In the year ending December 2020, there were 1,917 fewer rapists convicted compared to 2016-17 – a decline of 64 per cent.

This is disgraceful. The criminal justice system is repeatedly failing victims of sexual violence. Wide-ranging, radical changes must be made in order to reverse the trend of so few cases ending in justice for survivors.

Sexual violence is widespread in the UK. In England and Wales alone, 4.4 per cent of men and 22.9 per cent of women have experienced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. I include myself in this category. I’m one of 3.4 million female survivors in the UK.

As a society, the way we treat those who have survived rape is abhorrent, and these attitudes have a knock-on effect when it comes to prosecution and sentencing. Victim-blaming is rife, despite the efforts of campaigners and survivors. People who experience sexual assault are blamed for wearing “revealing” clothing, for being out late, for drinking and for not “keeping themselves safe”. An Amnesty International UK poll found that a third of people believe that women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped.

Rape is never, ever the victim’s fault. No matter what the circumstances, what someone was wearing or whether they knew the perpetrator and had previously engaged in sexual activity with them. Let’s say it again, louder for the people in the back.

We also regularly disbelieve people when they come forward about their experiences, asking why they didn’t speak out at the time – perhaps they were too traumatised or afraid – or why they didn’t contact the police, when only 15 per cent do, for varied and understandable reasons.

Rape is one of the most pernicious and truly destructive crimes. It can result in mental health problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), impair the victim’s ability to live a full life, and shatter their very sense of self.

When I was 16, I was raped by an older male. He was someone I knew. I was disbelieved by friends, and it never occurred to me to take what had happened to me to the police. I thought that rape only happened down dark alleyways and was perpetrated exclusively by violent strangers. This is not my only experience of sexual assault, and I battle daily with PTSD symptoms, including flashbacks and intrusive thoughts as a result of these crimes.

For years, I blamed myself, believing that if I’d only been smarter, been safer or been less of an “easy target”, I could’ve avoided the trauma of these events. There was no way that I could’ve gone through a court case, where I might be publicly shamed or victim-blamed to make a point for the defence, and so I stayed very quiet.

People who do choose to contact the police and report sexual violence are making a heroic step. But the process must be made easier for survivors, through measures like allowing victims to provide pre-recorded evidence before trial and barring the public from courtrooms more regularly. There also needs to be more training for police, prosecutors and judges on how to handle these cases sensitively. For those already bleating about the prevalence of false allegations, it’s worth mentioning that rape is no more falsely reported than any other crime.

If just 1.6 per cent of rapes reported in England and Wales result in a charge or a court summons, this essentially gives perpetrators the green light to offend. Survivors of rape are being let down on an absolutely massive scale and it’s time the government stepped up and did something about it with a thorough overhaul of the criminal justice system.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone free of charge over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK) or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch

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