Leading article: Politics, prejudice and popular culture

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The Independent Online

David Cameron is right to draw attention to the issue of rape, as he did yesterday in a speech to the Conservative Women's Organisation conference. The conviction rates for the crime are truly dreadful. In 2005-06 there were 14,443 rapes reported to police in England and Wales, but just 796 convictions. This is one of the lowest "clear-up rates" in Europe.

By its nature, rape is a difficult crime to prosecute. There are rarely third-party witnesses and victims usually know their attacker. This means trials often come down to one person's word against another. But there can be no doubt that the criminal justice system ought to be performing substantially better in bringing perpetrators to justice.

The Conservative leader is also right to argue that our popular culture is not helping matters. It is now deemed socially acceptable to present women as sex objects in a way that would have caused outrage only a decade ago. The magazines, music and advertising industries are all guilty of this. The contempt heaped on women who drink by certain right-wing newspapers also helps twist perceptions. The attitude that certain women "bring it on themselves" is depressingly widespread.

Improved sex education for children, as advocated by Mr Cameron, is welcome. But the Conservative leader is wrong when he claims that "tougher sentences" are necessary. The problem with rape lies not with the deterrent, but the prosecution. The key is to get police forces to take accusations more seriously. Too many women are still not treated properly when they make a complaint at their police station. Forensic evidence is not gathered quickly enough. Sometimes complainants are even persuaded out of making an accusation.

Mr Cameron should demand better practice from the police. He should also commit his party to establishing more sexual assault referral centres, where forensic evidence can be gathered more effectively, rather than just better financial support for rape support charities.

Another major problem, which Mr Cameron failed to deal with yesterday, is juries. They are simply too inclined to acquit the accused. Jurors need better instruction from independent experts about the way rape victims are likely to behave. For instance, it can often take several days for a victim to find the courage to go to the police. That delay does not indicate a malicious accusation, as many juries erroneously conclude.

Prejudices surrounding rape should be torn down. We need a revolution in attitudes in the courtroom, the police station, and in wider society. That is the best hope we have for raising the pitiful conviction rate for this vile crime.