Men rape because they can

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The Independent Online

It is a spine-chilling statistic: there was a group sex attack in London for every day of the last year, according to Scotland Yard. Most of the women were attacked outdoors, late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and were young - under 21 in half the reported cases. More than half the assaults involved three or more attackers, creating a terrifying picture of groups of young men roaming the city's streets in search of victims. Nor is the phenomenon confined to London; there is evidence that group rape - detectives think the term gang rape is misleading, implying that the perpetrators belong to organised gangs - is rising in other inner-city areas.

I am not surprised. For the best part of four years, I have been drawing attention to the seemingly inexorable drop in the conviction rate for rape cases to a record low of under 6 per cent. (And that's only the ones reported to the police.) You can do the maths yourself: unless thousands of women are making up stories, a possibility the police themselves discount, fewer than one in 16 rapists is ever convicted in a court of law. Young men like the ones involved in group rapes (mostly aged between 15 and 21) are likely to be aware of this chilling implication that there is effectively no longer any penalty for rape in this country.

Let's be clear about this, because it is time women realised the awful truth about sexual violence: there is no deterrent, no protection and virtually no redress. There is a massive failure of the criminal justice system, and everyone involved in it - MPs who pass laws that protect rapists, the Crown Prosecution Service which is unwilling to take "difficult" cases to court, detectives, judges, juries and barristers - should be losing sleep over it. At least detectives are finally coming round to the feminist view that rape is not about sex but power, attributing the rise in group rapes to "disrespect" for women, even if they don't cite evidence from rap and other forms of popular music whose lyrics - think of "Slap My Bitch Up" - are notoriously misogynist.

I am not suggesting simple cause-and-effect, but the popularity of Eminem, whose lyrics boast about killing his wife and disposing of her body, is an illustration of a desensitised youth culture in which casual expressions of violent impulses towards women no longer have the power to shock. The fact that Eminem is white, even if he emulates black artists, is a reminder that contempt for women is not exclusive to any ethnic group, even though police say that a disproportionately high number of men of African/Caribbean appearance, or Indian/Pakistani appearance, are involved in group rapes. (Forty-nine per cent and 13 per cent respectively, according to one Scotland Yard study, while 59 per cent of the victims were of white or European appearance, and 28 per cent black.)

This is nosurprise, given that many of the rapes have occurred in areas with large ethnic minority populations. Detectives say the attacks reflect the street population and the lawless activities of a minority of youths, many of whom have been excluded from school and come from dislocated families; two-thirds of the suspects had convictions for theft and robbery, and half had been involved in street crime in the previous 12 months. The key here is the well-known fact - well-known to feminists, at any rate - that victims can also be abusers; rape is a political act, asserting the dominance of one gender over the other, and group rape is more likely to happen where men feel powerless. "Corporate executive dining-rooms and climbs up Mount Everest are not usually accessible to those who form the subculture of violence", Susan Brownmiller observed in her classic study of rape, Against Our Will, almost 30 years ago. "Access to a female body - through force - is within their ken."

Bring together young men with a fragile sense of identity and a society that has not really come to terms with the independence - especially the sexual autonomy - of women, and you have an explosive mixture. Add repetitive cultural messages that women are whores and bitches, and what do you get? The current situation where women must look out for themselves and the vast majority of rapists get away with it.