Abolishing the term ‘rape’ might improve conviction rates

Perhaps the time has come for policymakers to take a much more radical and controversial approach

 

Share

There are very few more unpleasant crimes than that of rape.

But, as The Independent has highlighted over the past few days, it is a crime that we are  having real difficulty in successfully prosecuting.

Over the past two years, the number of rape cases referred by the police for charging has fallen by a third – despite a 3 per cent rise in recorded offences over this period. Last year, there were 129 fewer rape suspects convicted of any offence than in the year before – around a 5 per cent drop.

Something is clearly going very wrong.

So far, the focus of the debate has been on procedural changes in  the way police and prosecutors work to improve conviction rates.

But perhaps the time has come for policymakers to take a much more radical and controversial approach: abolish the terminology of “rape” in the criminal-justice system altogether.

Now before you stop reading in disgust, hear  me out.

As I said at the beginning, there are very few more unpleasant crimes than rape. But, as a society, our singular objective should be to increase the woefully low conviction rates.

And there is a possibility that the words “rape” and “rapist” alone could be contributing to our failure to succeed in this.

As the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said in yesterday’s Independent, the myths and the stereotypes around rape extend not just to the public but also to police and prosecutors.

She suggests better training for staff dealing with cases and myth-busting for juries.

But a simpler and arguably more effective approach might be to replace the term “rape” with the term “non-consensual sex” across the board.

You would not change any of the sentencing guidelines or the penalties – the charge would apply across the board in exactly the same way rape does.

It would apply to cases  of a man jumping out of a bush with a knife just as it would to so-called “date-rape” cases.

And it is not the same as accepting, as Ken Clarke was accused of, that some rapes are more serious  than others.

But it would be a much less emotive criminal charge – and one that could have a significant impact in improving conviction rates.

As the work of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team has repeatedly shown, words can have a powerful effect on human reactions.

Ask yourself what image first comes into your mind when you think of a rapist. Is it the man in the bushes with the knife? Or the man who forces himself on a woman he knows when they are both drunk?

Is it possible that a rape jury, having to assess a case where the defendant is known to his victim and may have had consensual sex with them in the past, gives him the benefit of the doubt because he does not fit their image of what a rapist should look like?

If so, would they feel more comfortable convicting him of the less emotive charge of “non-consensual” sex?

Furthermore, research from the US has shown that many women who have been subject to what is legally classified as “rape” do not see themselves as “rape victims”, with all the connotations of that phrase. Might such women be more comfortable in reporting the crime and seeing it through to court if it had a different name?

The attrition rate for rape cases at early stages in the criminal-justice process shows that too many are getting filtered out early – mainly because police and prosecutors don’t think that there is any chance of getting a conviction. But with a less emotive charge, that could change.

Because the truth is this: it is not the term rape that is important, it is getting justice for the victims of the crime – whatever it is called.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn