Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

The Unspeakable Crime: Rape

BBC1 aired this last night, after following the staff and some service users for a year, at St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Manchester.  This post is a review of this programme.

St Mary’s SARC offers full support for victims of rape and sexual assault – it is wholly staffed by women, and supports victims from collection of forensic evidence right through to appearing in court (should the case proceed that far). In the UK, a rape happens every 6 minutes and there are 46 SARC’s across the country.

Many of the staff talked about the stigma attached to rape victims – more so than for other victims of crime.  It is recommended that rape is spoken about more openly, but the stigma prevents this, and it takes a courageous victim (such as Juliet, one of the case studies in this programme) to be able to share their story.

The narrator talked about St Mary’s and the service users as people ‘who say they have been raped’.  This may be considered ‘nit picking’, but language matters.  The focus on the programme was about removing stigma – the BBC could have helped by changing this statement to ‘people who have been raped’.  After all, we know only 3% of rape allegations are considered ‘maliciously false’, as the programme provided this statistic (numbers, as well as a percentage, would have been more useful here).  This figure is comparable for other crimes, and it was helpful that one of the police officers from the Greater Manchester Police specialist sexual crimes unit specifically commented that ‘people do make false allegations of rape, as they do for many other crimes’.

One of the aims of the SARC is to collect good quality evidence in order to support a (possible) prosecution.  In rape and sexual assault, the victim is evidence and the police will ‘record her version of events’ at a police station.  Again, language matters.  ‘The experience of the victim’, ‘record the details of the allegation’ – both of these, although not perfect, replace the word ‘version’, which, in itself, suggests that there may be another, more ‘correct’ version.

A comment made by staff at the SARC regarding ‘stranger danger’ for children was particularly helpful.  She commented that ‘stranger danger for children, is misguided’.  Almost all sexual assaults in children are perpetrated by people they know, and this likelihood increases in younger children.  The focus for children should be on being safe – listening to them, teaching them to recognise when they are not safe and giving them strategies to help them to be safe.  The perception for adults is that stranger rape is most common, and it was helpful for the programme to provide statistics to refute this myth. It is estimated that 90% of victims know their attacker.  In over half of all rapes, the rapist is the partner or ex partner, of the victim.

In 2012, Greater Manchester Police set up a serious sexual assault policing team, and one of their officers, DS Martin Ashurst, recognised the issue with reporting rape and sexual assault.  His comment ‘(there have been) many cases where officers have been very quick to disbelieve a victim. We will believe all who come forward to make a report [to us]’.  This is helpful, but needs to be mirrored across the whole of the UK.  We need victims to be believed – the process of reporting, evidence gathering and proceeding to court is clearly traumatic.  We know this from Juliet’s experience, but also from other women who tell us this.

The Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVA’s) support survivors through the whole process.  This is a new role, set up in response to the number of survivors who withdrew from the prosecution process.  The ISVA discussed the difficulty of the prosecution process – as did the police.  The evidence, if present, decides if a charge proceeds or not. 7000 rape cases were reviewed by the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) – less than half went to trial.

Lots of the staff involved in the process acknowledged the difficulty of gathering evidence when the assault has happened in a home, with only 2 people present.  The staff are clearly used to discussing this issue – as all of us who discuss rape, are.  Discussions of false allegations are a distraction to the number of rapes that we know take place, and where the perpetrator, for many different reasons, is not punished.  It is disingenuous (at best) to focus on false allegations when we know that less than half of all rape reports go to trial.

Catherine White, clinical director of St Mary’s stated clearly her stance on victim blaming.  She commented that Juliet ‘shouldn’t blame herself for being out on New Years Eve; the alcohol is not the rapist, the rapist is the rapist – and being aware that alcohol makes you vulnerable to a lot of things, it does not mean the victim should blame themselves’.  It is wonderful to see such a clear stance – and the acknowledgement that although victims should not blame themselves, ‘people will, that’s the problem – it should be the other way around’.

There was much discussion in the programme about the comparison between acquisitive crime (burglary, in this case) and rape.  It is disappointing that again, we are reduced to comparing a vagina to an unlocked front door.  Women are not possessions, they are not items to be stolen, and these comparisons are not helpful, in our view.  It would be more helpful if the CPS talked about women being considered property, or considered under the ownership of a perpetrator, rather than comparing a vagina to an unlocked front door.

From discussions with the CPS in the programme, it is clear that victim blaming is a major issue.  The prosecutor discussed having to get the idea of who is to blame over to a jury ’12 people, with their own myths and stereotypes about any sort of crime – it is not an easy process’.  Again, comments such as ‘walking home late at night, in the dark, wearing a short skirt does not entitle anyone to assume you are consenting’ made clear that the fault for rape and sexual assault lies with the perpetrator.

We appreciated the discussion around consent – the law is clear.  Sex without consent is rape, and you cannot consent if you are drunk.  In Juliet’s case, she was clearly intoxicated and it seemed to us that one of the reasons that the case was able to proceed to court was because Juliet could not have consented in law.  In Manchester, there are rape specialist lawyers for the CPS, but again, discussion around ‘evidence’ was key.  A woman discussing her experience is not necessarily evidence in itself – if forensic or other evidence isn’t present, the case is unlikely to reach court.  One of the important comments from the CPS was that assumptions about how victims behave should not be made.  This feeds into the need for a ‘credible’ or ‘reliable’ victim, in order for rape cases to proceed to court.

One of the key issues around consent during the CPS discussions was that of ‘previously given’ consent – Kellie shared her story about being raped when she was working ‘as a prostitute’ – sex workers, substance misuses and others are supported by St Mary’s but the issue of witness credibility remains.  Kellie stated herself that she didn’t think she’d be taken seriously, and ‘it felt good to be believed’.  She talked about her experience of rape as one which made her feel ‘worthless’ and that he made her feel like she was ‘nothing’.  Victim blaming of ourselves is significant – it contributes to stigma and in Kellie’s case, made her blame herself for the lifestyle she led at the time.  It wasn’t Kellie’s ‘lifestyle’ that raped her.  It was a rapist.

St Mary’s SARC is open to those who don’t wish to report their rape to the police, and the service remains fully accessible for these victims.  Timely forensic evidence is collected and stored and the option remains open for the victim to make a formal complaint to the police at a later date.

Catherine White was clear about how important this service was – helpfully, she noted that ‘we all think we know what we would do, but life is rarely that simple’.  It is crucial that we remove the thoughts of the ‘right’ sort of rape victim and how they behave.  The focus should be on the rapist, not on someone who has been raped.

The disappointment we have with the programme came following discussions with a police officer when talking about male victims of rape.  13% of recorded rape victims are male.  DS Ashurst stated: ‘For males, a rape is considered the ultimate violation’.  We assume that the reason for the officer making this statement was because questions of sexuality arise when discussing the rape of men, by other men.  This is misleading.  Rape is not a ‘sex crime’.  It is a crime of power, and control – penetration digitally or by a penis in cases of rape is not about sexual arousal, it is about gaining, and maintaining, control over the victim.  The programme could have made this clear.  Comments that men are affected by ‘bravado and embarrassment’ in relation to rape are unhelpful.  Women are affected by these too, and it makes an assumption that rape for women is more ‘manageable’ compared to men because our vagina’s are expected to be penetrated by a penis.

Juliet courageously shared her whole experience with the programme, including the court process.  She was clearly worried that a ‘not guilty’ verdict might suggest that the rape didn’t happen.  The CPS was clear – a not guilty verdict does not mean the rape didn’t happen.  It means that the jury could not get to a state of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ in relation to the case.  38% of trials end with a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

Overall, we are thankful that St Mary’s took part in this programme, thankful to Kellie and Juliet for sharing their experiences and hope that the programme went some way to combating the stigma around rape and sexual assault.  We will leave you with Juliet’s words.

‘A rape survivor becomes extraordinary, because you survived it.’

(All statistics in this piece were obtained via the programme)

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