Abolishing the term ‘rape’ might improve conviction rates

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



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.

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