2012: the year when it became okay to blame victims of sexual assault

The myth that women can be held responsible for men’s sex crimes has returned,  writes Laura Bates

At Caernarfon Crown Court earlier this month, a 49-year-old man was convicted of raping a teenage girl. Jailing the rapist, the judge told him: “She let herself down badly. She consumed far too much alcohol and took drugs, but she also had the misfortune of meeting you”.

It was the latest in a wave of examples of  victim-blaming, a phenomenon that Christina Diamandopoulos, of the Rape Crisis charity, describes as the “myth that women are responsible for men’s sexual behaviour. From this stems the idea that what a woman wears, says, where she goes, or what she does can make her responsible for the crime committed against her.” The problem is compounded by common misconceptions, such as the idea that all rapists are strangers, who attack in dark alleys at night. In fact, Ms Diamandopoulos says, “most rape is committed by partners, ex-partners and men who are known to the woman”.

In August, the MP George Galloway publicly dismissed allegations of rape and sexual assault against Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder, he said, was guilty simply of “bad sexual etiquette” when he began to have sex with a sleeping woman who had previously consented; his actions were “not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it”. The law clearly states otherwise.

After news emerged of the sexual abuse of young girls in Rochdale, one victim told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “Quite a few people rang social services: school, the police … even my own dad … basically they told my mum and dad that I was a prostitute and it was a lifestyle choice. And because I was only six months off turning 16, they wasn’t [sic] going to do anything.”

In April, after the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of raping a woman who was too drunk to consent, his victim faced an appalling backlash of online abuse. Twitter users called her a “money-grabbing slut” and circulated her name so widely that she was forced to change her identity.

In America, the Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin has claimed that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, saying that the female body has ways “to shut that thing down”. Considering this year’s rash of high-profile incidents, Ms Diamandopoulos says: “As we succeed in raising the issues of rape and abuse directed at women and girls, we are meeting a backlash of sexism.”

Holly Dustin, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, agrees: “While the law on rape and sexual consent is clear, some of our politicians and other leaders seem to have failed to notice the progress that’s been made.”

Meanwhile, this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival made headlines for featuring a high number of jokes about rape and domestic violence. Such “jokes” are also endemic online.“We must wake up to the way that social media enables and magnifies abuse and harassment of women,” Ms Dustin says. The popular social news website Reddit has entire categories dedicated to “raping women”, “hot rape stories”, and “choke a bitch”. And an article on the student website UniLad in January said: “Eighty-five per cent of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.”

Jacqui Hunt, of Equality Now, says: “We absorb messages from all around us every day, so what some might dismiss as harmless banter takes on a completely different quality when it forms part of a general culture of demeaning, pejorative and prejudicial reporting on women.”

In fact, these jokes and media slurs could even be having an impact on rape conviction rates. Alison Saunders, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, told The Guardian this year that widespread “myths and stereotypes” about rape victims may give jurors “preconceived ideas” that could affect their decisions in court. When victims were “demonised in the media”, she said, “you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear”.

Worrying evidence suggests that victim-blaming attitudes may also be infiltrating the very institutions victims rely on for support and justice. In October. Ryan Coleman-Farrow, a former Metropolitan Police detective constable, was jailed for 16 months for a string of failings relating to rape cases, including falsely claiming that a rape victim had dropped charges.

In a revealing interview with The Independent, Brian Paddick, a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Met, said of his time as a serving officer: “There was a pervading male-dominated macho culture which was generally unhealthy, particularly when it came to issues of violence against women. In my evidence to [the Leveson Inrquiry] I talked about a review of rape investigations I did … We found significant differences for outcomes in rape cases in different parts of London, but we weren’t allowed to say that in the final report… The results were watered down, and I honestly believe that victims of rape in London had a poorer service from the police in consequence.

“I felt the police were not taking rape investigations seriously enough … I remember when, as a serving police officer, a more senior officer asked me to accept an officer on transfer against whom an allegation of rape was made. ‘They met at a dance and went home together and were playing strip poker, so she was asking for it really,’ he said. In another case, a woman was followed from a party into the women’s toilets and, as the woman tried to push the door closed, the man forced his way in and raped her. One of the investigating officers suggested to me: ‘Sounds like she left the door open deliberately.’ ”

It will not be easy to tackle such deeply ingrained ideas. “We need nothing short of a revolution in our approach to sexual violence,” Ms Dustin says. But although the attitudes revealed have been worrying, the fact that such stories have been so prevalent in the media this year is a sign of progress, she believes. “The scale of revelations about abuse of women and girls in the Jimmy Savile case may have begun to turn the tide.”

As awareness grows, says Ms Diamandopoulos: “We have to get together as women … to grow the seeds of the fightback, which has already started, with organisations such as Rape Crisis, Object, Everyday Sexism, Mumsnet and others. Together, women have moved mountains before – we can do it again.”

Outspoken and outdated in their own words

"Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion... It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but  whatever else it is, it is not rape."

George Galloway, 58, the Respect MP for Bradford West, speaking in August about the case against the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. His comments led to the resignation of the Respect Party’s leader, Salma Yaqoob.

"If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

The Republican Congressman Todd Akin, clarifying his views on abortion in cases of pregnancy arising from rape. He subsequently lost the Missouri Senate seat in November’s US elections.

"I think that sometimes, you know, us guys who are a bit older, who are, shall we say, tactile - which is not a terrible thing to be. In the old days, you put your arm around somebody and gave them a little kiss or a cuddle."

DJ Dave Lee Travis, 67, defending himself against allegations of sexual offences after being released on bail in November by police involved in the Jimmy Savile investigation.

"Money-grabbing little tramp."

A tweet by the Sheffield United footballer Connor Brown, after his team-mate Ched Evans, 23, was jailed for five years in April for raping a 19-year-old woman. The woman was named more than 6,000 times on Twitter and Facebook  – in a clear breach of her guaranteed anonymity as a rape victim.

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