The way you dress, the way you walk

According to Jill Saward, the Ealing vicarage rape victim, women who dress provocatively ought not to be surprised if they end up being coerced into sexual intercourse. Could she be right?
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"Consider this scenario: a young woman dressed in a tiny and provocatively transparent dress, which would in a more restrained age have been worn as a slip, goes out to a nightclub. There she allows a young man whom she has never met before to kiss and caress her.

"Would it be extraordinary if the man then made the perfectly logical conclusion that the woman in question wanted to have sex with him? I think not.

"If the man then coerced the girl into having intercourse and was later accused of rape, would it be reasonable that he should be charged with exactly the same offence as a brutal sex offender? Again I think not."

The words above are not from a crusty old judge laden with misogynist prejudice, or a guilty man trying to explain his behaviour. They are the words of the Ealing vicarage rape victim, Jill Saward.

Ms Saward, subjected to a savage attack in 1986, when she was a 21-year- old virgin, has widely been held up as a heroine after her brave decision to waive her anonymity and her continuing campaign to help other victims of sexual attack.

But in an interview with Channel 5 earlier this week and in the above article, published in the Daily Mail, she appeared to be supporting the view that some rapes are less traumatic than others, and that so-called "date rapists" should be charged with a lesser offence. "I do [not] suggest the hypothetical victim is culpable," she adds. "Only that she did nothing to help herself."

Her words have raised ire amongst feminists and those working with victims of rape who fear that her statements will set back the debate about rape by 20 years, putting the blame for sexual attack once more squarely on women's shoulders.

Jill Saward has stressed that she is not saying that dressing provocatively is an invitation to rape. But her husband, Gavin Drake, yesterday summed up her views on women this way: "It's like Kate Adie or Martin Bell going to cover a war. They're putting themselves in a dangerous situation and they have to take precautions."

"I thought we'd won this particular battle," says Helen Peggs of Victim Support wearily. "We know that what rape is about is far more to do with violence against women than sexual provocation. I thought people knew this now."

And Julie Bindel, assistant director for the Research Centre into Violence and Abuse, calls Ms Saward's comments "bloody awful". "The way we dress puts squarely back on women's shoulders the responsibility for how men behave, that men have these uncontrollable urges and we are meant to keep them in check."

However, she realises the attraction of such an idea: "People are very comforted by Jill's words ... It's comforting to men because it lets them off the hook and it's comforting to women because it says we can control rape by the way we act and dress. We won't be raped if we don't go round in micro-skirts snogging men.

"The most terrifying time in consciousness-raising is becoming aware that sexual violence is not your fault. You are looking at danger however you dress, wherever you go, whether you're married or not, whether you're a lesbian, whether you're black or white."

But all admit that there is a problem in securing convictions for rape at the moment. In the 1980s, one in three cases resulted in a conviction; now it is one in 10. And with only an estimated 10 per cent of rapes ever reported, there are thousands of women who never see justice done.

The problem has not been helped by a number of high-profile date rape cases in which the jury decided that the allegations were false. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, says that he agrees with Jill Saward that the laws on rape have to be rethought: "What happens is that some men talk their way into going back to the woman's apartment or their flat. What they do there - the sexual attack - they know will not be reported as rape because the woman has allowed herself to be talked into going to someone else's flat or letting someone into her house. She may feel very embarrassed. You can appreciate that if she went to a police station and told an officer about this the officer would think `bloody hell, this isn't very straightforward'."

The problem is, he feels, that some of these men exploit this situation, secure in the knowledge that the woman is unlikely to report him. And even if the crime is reported the chance of conviction is low, particularly if all there is is his word against hers. That is why a lesser offence could result in more guilty men being convicted: "In criminal law you have to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, but under common law it is beyond probable doubt, so it is easier to secure a conviction."

Helen Peggs feels, however, that a lesser offence is not an easy answer to getting more convictions. "At the moment there's a kind of plea-bargaining where the perpetrator is willing to plead guilty to sexual assault, but sometimes the victims prefer to go for the full charge because they want it to be acknowledged that they were raped. There are very clearly problems in the way rape cases are processed by the criminal justice system. But there is no easy answer. We don't feel that one piece of legislation would make things all right."

Julie Bindel agrees: "What we have already is a two-tier system - it's called men not getting convicted. Formalising it is no better ... If you are raped by a stranger, you have to live with the rape. If you're raped by a partner or husband, you have to live with the rapist. For some women, the betrayal of trust is the most painful thing about the rape."

"Although the police are now wonderfully better in their treatment of rape victims, protection of women is not always offered," says Helen Peggs. "In some areas, women are still expected to to attend ID parades and stand in the same room as their attacker. Sometimes they can't give evidence behind a screen in court. It is very difficult for women to go through this process."

There are signs that a change is on the way. More than 100 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for sweeping changes to court procedures, and the Home Office is presently tracking 500 cases through the system in the hopes of getting a better idea of what happens to rape victims in the legal system. But, says Helen Peggs, we must realise that public perception, including what women think, also has a long way to go - something that Jemima Harrison, herself the victim of a rape committed by a man she had met briefly in a pub, warned Jill Saward about yesterday.

"Jill has divorced herself from the vast majority of rape victims; has barricaded herself into a nice cosy place where she has the moral upper ground because the attack she endured was so violent, so unprovoked," she wrote. "But the truth is that most victims know their attackers and the majority of these attackers could quite reasonably pass as OK guys in other respects"

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