Yvonne Roberts: A new myth: women play dirty on rape

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The Independent Online

Women today drink more, wear less, talk dirty and act mean - especially when it comes to false allegations of rape. Or so it seems. Last week, it took a jury three minutes to acquit Tim Simenon, a record producer, of the rape and sexual assault of a trainee teacher. "During the past year ... it has been hell," he said after his acquittal. "... when I heard the not-guilty verdicts I collapsed in tears of relief."

Simenon's case came only days after Merete Underwood was sentenced to 12 months for falsely claiming that she had been kidnapped and raped. The man she had accused has also been left traumatised. Five years ago, Lynn Walker claimed that she had been raped by Martin Garfoot. He sued for libel and a jury awarded him £400,000 in damages. Garfoot's QC, Edward Garnier, said: "This man has spent the last few years wearing a cloak of shame."

An accusation of rape, even when it is proven false, may irreparably damage a man's reputation. Acquittal doesn't remove the stain. It would be easy to establish a new contemporary myth that women are using allegations of sexual misconduct to teach the boys a lesson, a myth which becomes all the more attractive because it distracts from a deeply unsettling truth.

In these thrill-seeking times, if a man chooses to commit a rape, he can do so in the near certainty that he will be neither investigated nor convicted. Even if the police do come knocking on his door, he will probably be protected by a deep-rooted prejudice that says women ask for what they get by somehow signalling that they are free meat.

Rape is the only crime that involves the issue of consent as a common defence. That is tricky but what hinders justice is the toxic ambivalence towards particular male behaviour (on the part of some women too) that, for instance, shows little surprise when a man rapes his girlfriend because she's decided she wants to end the relationship. Or that allows men to initiate a relationship and within the first 24 hours rape the recipient of their "affection". In the 1990s, acquaintance rape trials were monitored for three months. One defendant had been tried and acquitted of rape seven times; another five.

According to the most recent British Crime Survey, there were 190,000 serious sexual assaults and 47,000 rapes or attempted rapes last year. Only one in seven accusations of rape is reported to the police. Less than 3 per cent prove to be malicious. In 1985, the conviction rate was 24 per cent. In 2002, that had dropped to a shameful 5.6 per cent. Or to put it even more starkly, in that year, there were 11,766 allegations of rape and only 258 men found guilty.

More than 20 years ago, a young police officer, Ian Blair, wrote a ground-breaking book on rape. Now, Sir Ian Blair is Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He has just ordered an investigation of why conviction rates vary so much in the London boroughs. Some of the answers and solutions are already available in a report commissioned by the Home Office, A Gap or Chasm. They include expanding the understanding of rape, tackling scepticism in the judicial system and developing strategies to target predatory men. In the past couple of years, under the guidance of Harriet Harman, a number of changes have been introduced which may yet produce a positive result.

A defendant in a rape case now has to prove it was reasonable to believe sex was consensual; sexual assault referral centres have been opened (but not enough); specialist rape prosecutors are being trained and London now has 32 Sapphire units dedicated to investigating rape - though desperately under-resourced.

While Martin Garfoot received £400,000 for being falsely accused of rape, a woman who had taken a civil action against her husband, accusing him of rape within marriage, was awarded only £14,000 in damages. Rape is about power and cowardice; domination and humiliation and a profound disrespect for humanity. It is not proof of masculinity. A fresh consensus needs to be forged. One that establishes that no matter what the circumstances, a man is responsible for his actions. It's that simple.

Yvonne Roberts' novel 'Shake!' is published by Headline