Sex crimes soar to record high but campaigners warn it is ‘tip of the iceberg’

New figures show police recorded 183,587 sexual offences from December 2020 to December 2021

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Thursday 28 April 2022 20:36 BST
Sex offences hit their highest level after a 22% surge
Sex offences hit their highest level after a 22% surge (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The record-high numbers of sex crimes recorded by police in England and Wales are likely the “tip of the iceberg”, campaigners have warned.

New figures show sexual offences hit their highest level from December 2020 to December 2021 – rising to 183,587 crimes. This is a 22 per cent surge from the year before and an increase of 13 per cent from 2019.

The fresh data, released by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday, revealed there was a significant rise in reports of sexual offences after the government loosened lockdown rules.

Some 67,125 rapes were reported from December 2020 to December 2021 – meaning rapes made up 37 per cent of the sexual offences recorded. This constitutes a 21 per cent rise from 55,592 reports of rape in the 12 months to December 2020.

However, convictions for rape remain at an all-time low, with the prosecution rate nosediving to only 1.3 per cent of recorded rapes in England and Wales earlier in the year.

Rebecca Hitchen, of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, told The Independent: “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen high profile cases of violence against women put sexual offences firmly on the public agenda.

“This data may therefore reflect greater awareness and inclination to report to the police. However, while around a third of reported rapes relate to domestic abuse it may also be true that the easing of lockdowns and return of socialising led to increased opportunity and impunity with which perpetrators might offend.

“What we know is that these figures remain the tip of the iceberg, as reporting does not feel like an option for many women, particularly those who face discrimination on the basis of their race, immigration status, disability, and other characteristics.”

Ms Hitchen warned those women coming forward to report rape and sexual assault are being treated like they are the ones who are under investigation instead of being given proper support.

She warned the current system “blames and harms them, inappropriately focuses on their ‘credibility’ and in the vast majority of cases, will not bring them justice”.

Ms Hitchen added: “This is a national scandal and despite commitments in the government’s Rape Review, nothing is really changing. This latest data from the Office for National Statistics must be a wake-up call to the government that our broken justice system needs a radical overhaul.”

Jayne Butler, chief executive of Rape Crisis England and Wales, said the “vast majority” of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police by victims so the rise in people coming forward is “encouraging”.

She added: “It is likely these figures reflect a gradual increase in survivors’ willingness to pursue criminal justice rather than an increase in the number of sexual offences being committed.

“The figures also reflect the growing number of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse who are now coming forward.”

Ms Butler noted this increase in people reporting sexual offences to the police has gone hand in hand with the “unprecedented levels of need and demand” for her organisation’s specialist Rape Crisis services in recent years.

There are currently 12,000 people on Rape Crisis waiting lists, Ms Butler added, as she argued “long-term, sustainable funding” for services which help victims of sexual offences is “more urgently needed than ever”.

Emily Hunt, who alleges she was raped in May 2015, told The Independent the rise in sexual offences reports is “fundamentally good news” as it shows people feel able to report to the police.

The 42-year-old, who is an independent adviser to the government on the Rape Review, added: “They are not just helping themselves pursue justice. They are helping to stop future rapes.

“They deserve our thanks. We know from academic research and from police forces that a lot of rapists are serial offenders. The majority of uncaught rapists go on to do it again. A US study found they rape on average at least 5.8 times in the course of their lives.”

Ms Hunt said the suspect-focused investigation model for rape gives her hope as she explained it is changing the way rape is investigated across England and Wales but is still in its “early phases”.

She claims she was treated badly by the police when she came forward to allege she had been raped.

“I absolutely lived through the victim blaming and shaming from the police,” she said. “The police investigated me and my credibility instead of my attacker.”

Ms Hunt claimed she woke up without any clothes in a hotel bed in London next to a man she says she had never seen before.

Ms Hunt claimed she was filmed naked without her consent – adding that the police only told her about the naked video of her just over a year after the alleged incident took place.

She said her last memory was of having lunch with a family member in a local restaurant five hours earlier, adding that she felt as if she had been drugged and also suspected she had been raped.

The man was arrested on suspicion of rape in 2015 but denied the allegations and was not charged because of a lack of evidence.

Commenting on the latest figures on sexual offences, Dame Vera Baird QC, victims’ commissioner for England, said: “We know that the majority of victims do not report, and thousands of rapes and sexual assaults take place each year without any sort of criminal justice outcome. Issues with the policing and prosecuting of rape are also well documented.

“So, it is somewhat positive to see that victims are not being put off reporting. My hope is that we do not betray these victims’ trust like we have failed so many victims in the past.”

Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, said the charity “constantly” sees investigations into sexual crimes “re-traumatising survivors”. This results in them either pulling out of cases or not reporting offences in the first place, she added.

“A ‘record high’ in sexual offences is a devastating phrase to read,” she added. “Serious action is needed to address not only the rise in offences but the woefully low rate of prosecutions that this and other recent data has shown.”

The fresh data released by the Office for National Statistics also revealed a rise in domestic abuse-related offences logged – with researchers discounting fraud crimes.

There were 895,782 offences recorded as domestic abuse-related in 2021, which is a 7 per cent rise from the year before.

Sarah Davidge, of Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent: “It is vital to acknowledge that many survivors do not report to the police, meaning this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scale of domestic abuse in this country.

“Less than a fifth of women report to the police so we know the true number of women experiencing abuse is much higher than police recorded data.”

Between two and three women are murdered each week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives.

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