Joan Smith: Stop treating men as moral imbeciles

The phrase 'asking for it' is rarely used these days, but the judgement is still being made
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The Independent Online

Even more respondents - one in three - will blame the woman if she has been flirtatious or drunk, according to a shocking new ICM poll commissioned by Amnesty International as part of its Stop Violence Against Women campaign. Shocking but not in the least surprising: it is so difficult to get a conviction for rape in this country that only about one in 20 of those reported to the police ends with the defendant being found guilty. These in turn are only a small proportion - just 15 per cent, according to the 2001 British Crime Survey - of the rapes actually committed, creating a bleak situation in which the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unpunished.

This situation has grave consequences. Sexual predators, like other criminals, thrive on success; in one of the most notorious cases in recent history, when Ian Huntley was convicted of the murders of two schoolgirls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, it emerged that a succession of women had gone to the police complaining that Huntley had raped them. None of the cases was ever tried in court; according to one of the few police officers who recognised the danger Huntley posed to women and girls, he deliberately selected victims who would make poor witnesses and fail to convince a jury.

This is not difficult; a worrying proportion of the general public is prejudiced against women who flirt, get drunk or do something as outrageous as walking down a deserted street at night. One in five respondents to the Amnesty poll thinks a woman is partly to blame for being raped if she has had a number of sexual partners; more than a quarter thinks the same if she wears sexy or revealing clothing. More women (5 per cent) than men (3 per cent) believe that a woman is "totally responsible" for being raped if she is intoxicated, confirming previous findings that women tend to judge other women more harshly than men. That's why defence barristers prefer to have women on rape trial juries.

So deep-seated are these prejudices that the discriminatory and irrational thinking behind them is rarely questioned. On the contrary, it is encouraged by defence counsel, who like nothing more than CCTV footage showing a woman dancing in a nightclub with the man who later raped her as he pretended to walk her home (as happened to one of Huntley's victims). In spite of years of campaigning, ignorance about rape is widespread, starting with the fact that a staggering 96 per cent of respondents in the Amnesty poll either had no idea of the true extent of rape or underestimated it.

Only 4 per cent put the total number of women raped each year above 10,000, when the number reported to the police in 2004-5 was more than 12,000, suggesting an overall figure of about 80,000. People also persist in thinking of rape as a crime committed by strangers, even though evidence shows that a substantial percentage of rapists and victims are known to each other. Logically, women could dress conservatively, avoid walking alone after dark, even stay in their houses, and still run the risk of a violent sexual assault.

What is clear is that rape as a crime is virtually unique in terms of the moral censure it attracts, with the general public alarmingly quick to conclude that it is partly or wholly the victim's fault. If a householder fails to close a window and is burgled, no one would seriously suggest that the criminal should be let off, yet the smallest deviation from "acceptable" female behaviour is enough to shift some or all the blame from a rapist. The phrase "asking for it" is rarely used these days, but the judgement is still being made, placing a magnifying glass over women's behaviour and displaying an astonishing leniency towards men.

A vivid example of this muddled thinking has been on display in the past few days, during the debate about the new licensing laws. Police and residents' groups have expressed concern that the relaxation will lead to more violent disorder in towns and cities, encouraging young men to go on drunken rampages. Yet the illustration selected by most newspapers to make this point has shown a young woman, collapsing after drinking too much on a night out.

Such women are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. If they are lucky, their friends will help them into a cab and they will wake up with nothing worse than a hangover. If they are not, they may be raped by men who share the attitude that an intoxicated woman is fair game - and know that they are very unlikely to be penalised for it. That is because the culture we live in effectively absolves men of responsibility for rape, while making extraordinary demands on victims. It is time to ditch this indefensible double standard and stop treating men as moral imbeciles.