Deborah Orr: When it comes to unwanted pregnancies</p><p>and rape, is it time to admit limited defeat ?

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The Independent Online

No doubt David Cameron will be on tenterhooks as he awaits the results of his inquiry into Britain's parlous conviction rate for rape.

Happily, I can tell him just what he will find, because if he'd been paying attention, he'd know that there have been plenty of other such inquiries in recent years. He'll find that our adversarial judicial system just isn't built to deal with one-man's-word-against-one-woman's-beyond-reasonable-doubt, and he'll find also that the only way to deal with this unfitness-for-purpose is to insert rape specialists into every stage of proceedings. He'll find too that this is much more easily said than done, because such change is often resisted every step of the way.

It helps when officers trained to deal with victims reporting rape are assigned to cases from the start. It helps when the Crown Prosecution Service employs rape specialists to assess whether there is enough evidence for a case to come to trial.

It helps when an expert witness is allowed to give evidence in court, explaining how, psychologically, women respond to rape (although the judiciary seems particularly upset by the latter).

It is known that expert attention helps because the low conviction rate in Britain is not quite as uniform as it was presented earlier this week.

There are big discrepancies in rape conviction rates between different local authorities. Those who get more convictions are always those who treat rape as an exceptional crime, and who pay more than just lip service to the idea that rape needs to be handled as much as possible by trained professionals.

It is not in question that rape really is an exceptional crime. There are already a number of judicial exceptions that are made for it. Victim anonymity, for example, is a formal acknowledgement that one of the psychological effects of sexual violation is shame, even though this ought not to be a logical response to a violent attack.

Yet without experts to explain this to the court, a victim's shame becomes evidence not of rape, but of guilt. A victim's failure to hot-foot it right over to the police station, demanding that scratches be photographed and semen be swabbed, is also presented, quite often, as the behaviour of a calculating person, perhaps worried that her boyfriend may discover her infidelity, rather than the absolutely typical behaviour of someone who has been raped. Without an expert witness in court, this fallacy goes unchallenged.

Pattern-of-evidence witnesses are sometimes called in rape cases too, so that it can be shown that rapists have particular techniques for inveigling women into the situations they want them in. Misogynistic crimes tend to be repeated, which is why it is important that all those accused of sexual crimes should be arrested, and their DNA retained, so that even if there is not enough evidence for a conviction on one particular occasion, a future accusation may trigger pattern-of-evidence investigations.

Cameron will learn, though, that sensible as all this seems, none of it is uncontroversial. Astonishing numbers of people appear to feel that the threat of false accusation of rape is a far more awful danger than rape itself. I've even had correspondents writing to me and explaining that covens of women would orchestrate DNA evidence just to see an innocent man sent down.

The Daily Mail treats false accusation as an ever-present danger, and concerns itself little with the evidence that we are in the middle of a quite different epidemic. It is not surprising in this climate that so many young men need "education", as so many believe that if a woman "leads them on", then they are justified in forcing her to have sex, and that this is not rape.

It is a mistake though to presume attitudes to rape follow a gender divide. It is not necessarily true, for example, to say that men in a jury are less sympathetic to rape victims. One lawyer with much experience of rape cases says that her great frustration is that older women seem the least sympathetic to young women who have got themselves into perilous situations.

Their militantly conservative interpretation of what Polly Toynbee recently described as "a woman's supreme right over her body and destiny" is that women ought to take a lot more care over the situations they are putting their bodies into, if they want their destiny to be rewarding. Toynbee was talking about abortion, not rape, and warning us that we must resist the zealotry of pro-lifers as they cunningly work on eroding the time limit for legal abortion.

She poured scorn on Rowan Williams's suggestion that 193,700 abortions in 2006 was "too many" as if no number could be "too many", as if legal abortion for women was not just a right but a joy, an experience that no woman should deny herself as many times as she wanted.

Actually, though, you can consider 193,700 abortions to be "too many". And why? Simply because you understand that abortion is a miserable experience for a high proportion of that number, and one that can be avoided in this day and age by any woman who exercises her "supreme rights" with supreme responsibility. (And there is an added bonus there: if women started showing anything like the enthusiasm for the female condom as men do for the male condom, the absolutely frightening spread of STDs, including infertility-creating chlamydia, might be slowed a little too.)

Likewise, in our years of sitting back and despairing as rape rises and rape conviction falls, I do dimly see that what some of the women on those juries may be angry about is what they perceive as the recklessness of women in the face of what they ought to know about men. I want conviction rates for rape to be higher, much higher. But I also want the numbers of women experiencing rape to be fewer.

More convictions will help, a bit, eventually, if we ever get there. But I'm beginning to feel that if women can't be educated in quite the way that scrupulous ideology wants them to be – "No Always Means No", "Rape Is Rape Is Rape" etc – then there's even less chance for men.

Campaigners often rail against the courts and the general public for being stuck on the idea of a rapist as a stranger with a knife jumping out from the bushes. They say that this distorts debate because most rapists are known to their victims.

Yet while we are happy to tell our fellow women not to walk across the wasteland in the dark, and not to get in a minicab alone, somehow it is seen as an infringement of their freedoms to tell them not to let the attractive guy in the bar buy them drinks, and then go back to his place.

Maybe it is time to admit limited defeat, and to start looking at ways of persuading women and girls that rape, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases that can render them infertile, really are worth avoiding, for personal reasons, if not political ones.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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