Thomas Sutcliffe: Why do we want more rape convictions?

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The Independent Online

I don't always find the Today programme a reliable source of news. This isn't because of any editorial deficiencies on its part, just that I hear quite a lot of it when in an amphibious state between sleep and waking, which tends to impair the reception of fine detail. Waking up yesterday, for example, I found myself listening to a report on David Cameron's speech on rape and becoming confused by his call for conviction rates to rise – as if rape convictions were a kind of industrial product, desirable in themselves, and we were lagging behind our European competitors in manufacturing rates.

In fact it turned out that that was pretty much what Mr Cameron was saying: rates of conviction in Europe exceed ours by a considerable amount and it was taken as read that this reflected a problem with our justice system, not theirs. It wasn't clear whether Mr Cameron had a target in mind to correct this discrepancy or how such a target could be prevented from injecting its own distortions into the system – as targets for conviction and clear-up have done with other crimes in the past.

That something odd and troubling has happened to conviction rates is surely unquestionable. According to figures released by the Fawcett Society the conviction rate in 1977 was 33.3 per cent, a figure that has now slumped to just 5.3 per cent. Assuming that there hasn't been an inexplicable surge in false accusations (very rare anyway) it seems inescapable that either a lot of innocent men were being sent to prison then or a lot of guilty ones are getting away with it now. And this fact would seem to go against the grain of social change. The mid-Seventies weren't exactly famous for their enlightened attitude to rape victims – with women often facing abrasively sceptical questioning when making complaints to the police. So how can it be that prosecutions for rape were more successful then than now?

It isn't inconceivable that more enlightened attitudes have had an unintended consequence here. After all, a society in which jury members tend to think that women's sexuality is essentially passive (defined by giving permission or denying it) or that women generally endure sex rather than enjoy it, might be more open to the notion that sex has been imposed on them. Conversely the appalling recent finding that 34 per cent of people in the UK believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner (Amnesty, 2007) contains a perverse thread of egalitarianism inside its wrongheadedness – an assumption that women are equal participants in the mating game. If that is an accurate reflection of the attitudes of juries, it is hardly surprising that conviction rates have fallen so low. A verdict of rape, which will often rest on nothing more than the competing credibility of plaintiff or defendant, is hard enough to secure at the best of times.

The only real solution to this is education – a process which operates simultaneously on potential rapists and the jury members who may ultimately come to judge them. To be fair to him Mr Cameron made better sex education part of his proposals – but his reference to conviction rates was an unhelpful distraction. It's a simplistic way of thinking about the problem and one which isn't without a danger of increasing injustice rather than decreasing it. The ambition shouldn't be to get conviction rates up ... it should be to reduce them to as close to zero as is humanly possible, because the crime wasn't committed in the first place.

Mailer's unfinished business

My reaction to the death of Norman Mailer was entirely selfish. "Oh no," I thought, "now he'll never write the sequel to Harlot's Ghost." Viewed philosophically, this shouldn't matter. Harlot's Ghost is a great American novel – the War and Peace of the Cold War. But the fact that its last words were "To be continued" and that Mailer never got round to fulfilling that promise means it is difficult not to think of it as disappointingly incomplete rather than satisfactorily finished – and even harder not to resent Mailer's last novel, The Castle in The Forest, for swallowing up energies that should have been devoted to a better end. And if he'd only left those three words out I wouldn't be thinking any of this.

* I think the Royal College of Art has missed a trick by not rebranding its annual RCA Secret show as I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. That's the big draw, after all – that the punters who bid for anonymous artworks will be able to hit on the big names written on the back of the postcards and carry a Hirst or a Hockney away for a fraction of the price they would normally command. And though none of those taking part will be forced to eat worms, the RCA show does carry a seductive threat of public humiliation – that some Brit-Art star will linger unsold while student amateurs are wildly oversubscribed.

Simultaneously, ITV's jungle ordeal, just returned for its seventh series, could learn a trick from the RCA. Wouldn't it be far more interesting if nobody actually told us who the contestants were and we had to work it out for ourselves over the coming weeks? They could even run a phone-in competition, and raise a bit of extra cash.