What I will be telling my daughter about rape

Too many women have told me their boss took 'no' to be a particularly exciting form of 'yes'

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Here's a common sight on our streets, if we did but know it: a lot of raped women walking around without hope of justice, and a lot of rapists also strolling about, having got away with it.

Here's a common sight on our streets, if we did but know it: a lot of raped women walking around without hope of justice, and a lot of rapists also strolling about, having got away with it.

It was bad enough before. In 1977 only one in three cases of rape that were reported to the police resulted in a conviction. By 1999 – according to a report prepared for the Inspectorates for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Constabulary – the figure was one in 13.

This is despite a quarter of a century of change designed to alleviate the suffering caused to a rape victim in making her complaint and then appearing in court. Though new measures come into effect in July to protect complainants, you have to wonder whether they will substantially affect the figures. Something else is going on here.

The number of reported cases has risen enormously. This is despite evidence that one quarter of the victims of sexual assault still do not go to the police. Of those who do, four fifths do not get to trial. The allegations are sometimes withdrawn, the complainant chooses not to proceed, or the prosecution service decides that there is insufficient chance of a successful outcome.

Some have interpreted these figures as meaning that there has been a huge increase in malicious allegations on the part of unscrupulous or promiscuous young women. Cases like that last year of Ashley Pittman – who was acquitted after a delayed accusation against him was proved to be false – seem to justify the lurking suspicion that many people entertain that the world is full of nasty little gals who cry "Rape!" when they didn't ought to. As our old moral majoritarian friend Melanie Phillips put it last year, "being jumped on in a dark alley is a completely different matter from having second thoughts, sometimes in retrospect, about a bloke with whom you've gone home after a party or with whom you've already been sleeping."

Is that what is going on? Are thousands of young women now hopping into bed with young men, regretting it and then trying to ruin these innocent young fellows in court? I simply don't believe it. If many more women are coming forward to report rape at the hands of men they know – husbands, ex-husbands, lovers, friends and other acquaintances (and they are) – then this reflects a greater understanding that non-consensual sex is not somehow an inevitable part of growing up. I know too many women who have told me – after we have become friends – that their boss, or their brother's best mate, or an arrogant first date, took "No" to be a particularly exciting form of "Yes". Their younger sisters, instead of staying schtumm, are trying to get to court.

No, the problem appears to be that an allegation of rape by an acquaintance, in circumstances where there were no witnesses, is spectacularly hard to prosecute. Unless there is evidence of violence the mere presence of semen only proves that there was sexual contact, not its context. Last year one retired female barrister told the BBC how she'd stopped defending alleged rapists because it was just too easy to get them off. She preferred a challenge, she said.

Juries are part of the problem. Those that I have been on have interpreted "beyond reasonable doubt" as meaning "beyond conceivable doubt". The adversarial court system – in which a prosecutor and defence lawyer behave like student debaters, concerned only with the outcome but not with the essential truth – makes this interpretation more likely. In a matter as serious as rape it may seem preferable to err on the side of acquittal.

We could chuck out the adversarial system altogether, I suppose. Or take yet more measures designed further to disadvantage the defendant – increasing by the way the likelihood of miscarriages of justice. Some believe that many more rapists would be found guilty if a second-degree rape offence was introduced for cases where there was no violence. The message might just go out to would-be rapists that there was some chance of their being banged up.

Short of revolutionising our justice system, I just don't think that all this will work. In circumstances where it is her word against his, and where proof is required, the chances are that convictions will be always difficult to secure and rapes will go unpunished. And, because of the way that social mores have changed, there simply seem to be many more of those situations. Young women may be more liberated than once they were, but they may also be more careless.

Young men, though, appear to be every bit as boorish. My generation of adolescents lived in almost comic hope of sex with women, this generation often seems to regard it as an entitlement. These changes in sexual etiquette among the young in this country – unaccompanied by a culture of open discussion – bring with them, not only the enhanced risk of contracting STDs, but also of being raped.

We have to talk about prevention, too. If your car radio keeps getting stolen you eventually buy one that thieves cannot use. Soon the mobile phone companies will add technology that makes 'jacking a phone a completely pointless exercise. But what do you do about rape and sexual assault? My oldest daughter will be 12 this year. Soon, too soon, she will be beyond my protection. I will fight the usual battles about late nights and stay-outs and – eventually – I will lose. She'll be out in a confusing and confused sexual world.

The Sunday People returned this week (Queen Mum stuff notwithstanding) to its story about the unfaithful footballer. You know, the one who got the injunction. There was a new woman making accusations, a student. Her tale was that she had gone for drinks with a friend, that each of them had consumed a bottle of wine, and that – whilst tipsy – she had been approached by Roy of the Rovers, invited into a back room, "plied with drink", had left with Roy and a team-mate for more drinks in a hotel bedroom, and had woken up next morning having obviously had sex, but not remembering any of it. She felt that Roy was a beast in human form. I felt a sense of despair.

This is the kind of behaviour that attracts millions of viewers to programmes such as ITV's Club Reps and Sky's Ibiza Uncovered. There you see drunken and promiscuous behaviour which is consequence free. The instances of rape reported by some of the eponymous reps never made it to air.

I don't want to go back to the Fifties. And even if I did, it won't happen. I don't want to stop kids from loving each other, even if it is demonstrably better to wait a bit. But here's the advice I will be giving my first-born. Don't get drunk. Don't go alone with boys who you have doubts about. Take precautions. Be aware of the signals you are sending out. Above all, take responsibility. None of this makes a victim less a victim, or a rapist less a rapist, but it is the real world. And the worst may still happen.

If that advice is good enough for my kids, it's good enough for everyone else's too. It's the message that should inform television executives when thinking about commissioning new voyeuristic atrocities, or that could form part of new public information and sexual health campaigns.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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