Are nine out of ten women liars?

We fail to believe rape victims because we have a false image of the crime, says Elizabeth Heathcote Elizabeth Heathcote on the alarming figures behind one of the hardest crimes to prosecute
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The Independent Online
LAST week, Linda Griffiths, a 32-year-old divorcee, won £50,000 in damages through the civil courts after being raped by her former employer. She had brought the case herself - against Arthur Williams, a Cornwall hotelier, for whom she worked as a dish-washer - because the Crown Prosecution Service refused to do so. The CPS believed that in a criminal court, where standards of evidence are more rigorous, the jury would not be convinced. It may well have been right.

But why? The answer, in part at least, is related to our distorted view of the crime. Most recent publicity about rape has been concerned with two aspects: the demand for anonymity for men accused of the crime, and "date rape", where the man is well known to the woman, where he may have been relatively intimate with her, but where he is none the less accused of having penetrative sex without consent. You might think that the central issue in rape cases lies in protecting men against women who lie, change their minds after the event or fail to make themselves clear before it.

But the reality is different. In terms of scale if nothing else, the handful of date rape cases are a small issue. The big issue is that the vast majority of rapists get away with their crime.

It is impossible to know how many rapes go unreported but we do know that the majority of victims never tell the police. Of those cases that are reported, only one in ten results in a conviction. In 1993, for example, there were more than 4,000 reported rapes. Just over 1,700 cases were brought to court and 464 rapists were found guilty. Women lie, of course they do, but it simply strains credulity that three out of four women prepared to go through the trauma of a rape trial are lying. Nor does it seem likely that nine out of ten women who report the crime have some grudge against a man or other ulterior motive.

Rape is a difficult crime to prosecute. The conviction rate in rape trials in 1993 was 27 per cent. Compare this with the conviction rate for assault occasioning actual bodily harm (51 per cent) or for robbery (56 per cent). Bad legal practice contributes to this poor record. Theoretically, for example, the law prohibits the defence from routinely dragging out a woman's sexual history in an attempt to undermine her character. Yet the defence did exactly that in 70 per cent of the Old Bailey cases monitored by last year's award-winning Channel 4 documentary "Getting Away with Rape". It is still true that, very often, the victim's character is put on trial.

There is another, more fundamental problem peculiar to rape cases, especially where the attacker is known to the complainant and the issue is one of consent rather than identification. This is that the trial is based on one person's word against another's. There are rarely witnesses to a rape. The verdict ultimately comes down to whether or not the woman is believed.

This could depend on her age, appearance, and even whether or not she is married. Talking on the Dispatches documentary, Anne Davies of the Metropolitan Police listed the characteristics of a case that will help to convince a jury. The victim should be respectable and sexually inexperienced. She should have been raped by a stranger, she should have fought back and been hurt, then she should have reported the rape promptly. This is what we require of rape victims if we are to believe them. Unfortunately for the majority of victims, they rarely live up to our expectations. Most are lucky if they meet two of these criteria, according to Ms Davies.

Yet every single one is irrelevant. A prostitute can be brutally raped just as a middle-class mother can; a sexually experienced woman can be as brutally assaulted as a virgin; a woman so traumatised she does not report the rape for a week suffers no less than one who goes straight to the police station; a woman too fearful to fight back was raped just as surely as one who did; and it doesn't matter if the rapist was a stranger or an acquaintance - if the woman was raped she was raped.

And this is where we come to the nub of the problem about date rape and anonymity. As well as perpetuating the idea that women are habitual liars, the reporting of rape cases has created the notion that there is a fundamental difference between date rape and "real" rape. "Real" rape becomes defined, exclusively for many people, as our darkest vision of the crime - that night-time attack in an alley at knife point by a stranger.

But the majority of rapes lie in between, in some little-acknowledged and misunderstood hinterland. Linda Griffiths's case fell into exactly this category - an employer and landlord (she was living in a rented bedsit in the hotel's staff quarters) who attacked her after she had told him about a faulty lock. Most rapists are known to their victims, as Mr Williams was known to Mrs Griffiths, and although that invokes consent as the central issue in court, it does not mean that it was the central issue of the crime in the way that it is in a "date" rape case. In fact many acquaintance rapes, probably the majority, are just as brutal as stranger rapes. They are not about a woman in a clinch with a man who gets carried away or misreads the signals, they are about a woman in a room or a car with a male acquaintance who becomes violent, probably following a sudden mood change. If there is typical rape, it is this.

A North London University survey underlines the point. Of 100 rape victims, it found that 75 knew their attacker. The majority of these rapes included violence or threats of violence and in 59 of the cases, the violence followed a sudden swing in mood. Almost without exception, the women believed their lives were in danger. Fifty-seven women were so frightened that they offered no resistance. Twenty-four of the rapes included buggery.

If this more accurate profile of the rapist was widely understood, the conviction rate would increase. For example, as the survey suggests, violent mood swings are typical of acquaintance rapists. This has featured so little in the public debate that few people understand it. It can be the stumbling block for a jury, to whom the story of a sweet man turning nasty doesn't seem credible. Similarly, it is typical for the victim to freeze and offer little resistance, but we are not told this, so we demand bruises as evidence of energetic self-defence.

Instead of these aspects, our attention is drawn again and again to the plight of men acquitted of rape and the issue of anonymity. Of course it is a terrible thing for an innocent man to be accused publicly of rape. It is equally terrible for a woman to be raped and then fail to achieve justice. When we measure the frequency of the latter against the rare but celebrated examples of the former, we can only conclude that our priorities are seriously askew. Perhaps the prospect of having his name splashed across a newspaper may be the one factor that prevents a would- be rapist, who knows the odds are so strongly in favour of him getting away with it, from actually committing the crime.

The anonymity lobby argues that legal concessions to women have weighted the scales too heavily in favour of the defendant and against the accused. This is demonstrably untrue. Not only is the conviction rate for rape low, it is falling. The number of convictions declined each year between 1989 and 1993. As a proportion of reported rapes, convictions have been falling for even longer: reported rapes nearly tripled between 1985 and 1993, yet the number of convictions is almost identical for the two years.

In fact, the conviction rate for rape is now so low that to be acquitted is no longer, in women's eyes at least, any guarantee of innocence; that is an issue for men to be concerned about. But it will remain a much bigger issue for the majority of rape victims who, unlike Linda Griffiths, never see justice done.