Monday, March 28, 2011

When rape becomes a habit

So another serial rapist - who attacked elderly people essentially unchallenged for 17 years - is finally caught and sent to prison in the UK. Delroy Grant may have assaulted more than five hundred victims in their own homes, many of them ill with diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, before his appalling activities were brought to an end.

Perhaps I could mention how little news coverage the individual attacks merited while Grant was still at large. Or I could shake my head in disgust at another messed up investigation of a sex attacker by the Metropolitan Police. Or I could seethe at one psychologist describing Grant's actions as "stealing sex", as if theft could be in any way analogous with the despicable nature of his violent crimes.

OK, so I did mention those factors. But I don't want to focus on them. I want to mention again that the nature of Grant's rapes - against people unknown to him - are extremely rare. But there are two aspects of Grant's behaviour that are not so unusual.

One is that Grant's violence was not confined to the victims of his sex crimes. This charming man was also responsible for perpetrating domestic violence against at least one of his former partners - his ex-wife, Janet Watson. She testified against him in court.

The other is Grant's repeat rapes - he did it over and over again. As a rapist of strangers, Grant is a relatively rare creature. But as a serial rapist, he is not.

Two studies are quoted in this blog post by Yes Means Yes. One was a sample of almost two thousand male US college students, the other a survey of more than eleven hundred newly enlisted men in the US Navy.

In each case, the men were essentially asked if they had ever forced another person into having some form of sexual intercourse with them. The word "rape" was not used in either questionnaire.

In the sample of college students, 120 admitted they had raped or attempted to rape someone. The blog analysed the figures thus:
Of the 120 rapists in the sample, 44 reported only one assault. The remaining 76 were repeat offenders. These 76 men, 63% of the rapists, committed 439 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 5.8 each (median of 3, so there were some super-repeat offenders in this group). Just 4% of the men surveyed committed over 400 attempted or completed rapes.

The students were also asked about violent acts they committed. Once again, the rapists, especially the repeat rapists stood out:
These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence. The whole sample of almost 1900 men reported just under 4000 violent acts, but this 4% of recidivist rapists results in over 1000 of those violent acts.

The study of new naval recruits asked similar questions about forced sexual activity and the results were very similar. A large proportion of the rapists were recidivists and between them they had carried out the majority of the sexual assaults mentioned in the survey.

In the vast majority of cases in both samples, the rapist already knew their victim. It was also clear that as well as the violence reported, by far the favourite modus operandi of the rapists was to ply their victim with alcohol.

Rapists, these studies would suggest, often get a taste for rape. Violence is frequently a part of their personality. And in general, they prefer to target someone by befriending them first - and by offering them a drink.

So why are so many of these rapists' victims made to feel they somehow brought the attack on themselves? These men know exactly what they're doing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Dark Alley Rapist and media hype

What scenario do most people imagine if the word "rape" is mentioned? A woman walking alone at night in a quiet street, who is then grabbed and threatened by an unknown man who drags her to a nearby spot and rapes her. It's the "classic" stranger rape incident and it's the type of case that gets the media most excited.

Take the recent case of a woman attacked in an alley in Manchester, as reported in this instance by the BBC and also featured on the Crimewatch television programme. Or a case in Edinburgh last summer where a woman was attacked at night when she popped out to a local shop. Or a woman raped in Glasgow in the early hours last August after being dropped off by a taxi.

Not surprisingly, all these cases were featured in the news media. Journalists love a crime that is suitably dramatic and what they regard as "news" are cases that are unusual. Rape by a stranger in a public area is unusual, so naturally, journalists pick up on it. The police are usually more than happy to collude because they often want witnesses for their investigations. (To be fair to The Edinburgh Evening News and STV, low down in their reports of the above cases, they also quoted a police spokesperson saying this type of incident is unusual.)

The far more common type of rape is one where the victim already knows her attacker - or at the very least, is acquainted with him. More than 80% of all rapes are thought to be in this category. And only around 15% of attacks take place in public spaces. But these cases are usually only reported if a celebrity is being accused of carrying out the rape.

The problem is that the public forms a picture of the classic rape scenario from the media reporting of the rarer cases. So all too often, jurors who sit on trials of the more common type of rape (the attacker is known to the victim, the assault took place in a home, hotel room, club or car) find the case to be fundamentally at odds with their preconceived notions of what a rape actually is.

A report by The Lilith Project made the point that this misconception of what a "normal" rape is can heavily influence the decision a jury makes with regard to the guilt or innocence of the smart-suited "ordinary" man in the dock before them. He's just a regular guy, right? Not the media-created monstrous deviant out stalking dark alleys for "innocent" random victims to rape, oh no.

So what DOES a rapist look like?

In the majority of cases, I would suggest, he does indeed look like an ordinary man.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oops, I accidentally raped her....the problem of intent vs consent

If a woman is sexually assaulted by a man who claims he was sleepwalking at the time or was too intoxicated to realise she wasn't giving her consent to the act, there's a good chance he will be acquitted of raping her.

Take a recent case involving James Thomas, a 22 year-old from Middlefield in Edinburgh. He was cleared of raping a young woman (who was herself asleep at the time of the incident) because he said he was sleepwalking. Despite the fact that the woman was incapable of giving consent to the act, the jury decided the case against him wasn't proven.

The 2003 Sexual Offences Act says:
(1)A person (A) commits an offence if —
(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b)B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c)A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
(2)Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

It seems sleepwalking is therefore deemed to be a valid excuse as the man can claim he didn't intend the penetration etc. and he was in no position to "not reasonably believe that B consents". The same goes for being too drunk, as another recent case highlighted in this blog illustrates. Haydor Kahn was acquitted of rape after having sex with a woman (also asleep at the time the incident began) because he was too drunk to realise it wasn't his girlfriend.

So it seems where there is a direct confrontation between a man's inability to intentionally rape a woman and her inability to give consent, the man's assertion that he "didn't mean to" wins out.

Well, that's comforting for women to know, is it not?

Friday, March 18, 2011

The innocence of victims

Some rape victims, it would seem, are more innocent than others. The woman attacked while going for a morning jog, the young mother accosted while walking her baby in a pushchair, the elderly woman menaced in her own home. Should more sympathy be shown to those women than, say, the women attacked after drinking heavily; or eyeing up men in a bar; or after a shift in a striptease bar; or while working as a prostitute?

The answer is they all deserve our sympathy if someone has forced them into having sex. No matter what a woman does to earn her money or how she behaves to try and attract men, she does not deserve to be coerced into carnal activities. The nun and the prostitute have an equal right not to be subjected to sexual violence and an equal right to be treated with sympathy and understanding if they are.

But media reporting will still tend to stereotype victims as either innocent or not. Often a rape victim will simply be described as a "woman". But equally often, she will be defined in some way which invites the reinforcement of these stereotypes.

Take a rape case that came to court in the south of England earlier this year. Ivars Balodis from Northam was convicted of raping a woman in Southampton. The woman was working as a prostitute at the time, so the local newspaper opened its accounts with: "A man accused of raping a Southampton prostitute," and in its follow up: "A man has been warned he faces a lengthy jail sentence after being convicted of the multiple rape of a Southampton sex worker."

I would argue she was a woman first and foremost and what she did to earn money should have been mentioned a little later in the article. Her profession was relevant to this particular case, so I'm not suggested it wasn't mentioned at all, but a woman attacked is a woman attacked, no matter what she did to earn her living. I do, however, applaud the fact that Balodis was convicted of her rape.

By contrast, take the case of Gary Gunstone, recently convicted of raping a woman in Bideford. Numerous press reports, including a local newspaper there started its report along these lines: "A predatory sex attacker, who raped a 30 year old virgin on a town centre pavement as motorists drove past without stopping, has been locked up for the public's protection."

The woman's virginity at the time of the attack was entirely irrelevant, so why mention it so prominently? Undoubtedly, her virginity was also mentioned in court but again, why was that necessary? Even if the victim had slept with several men by the time she was subjected to this attack, would that make Gunstone any less culpable?

Then there was the woman who recently gave evidence in the trial of the so-called Night Stalker rapist, Delroy Grant. She was his oldest alleged victim and was variously described in one report as "proud and private" (quoting from the courtroom), "frail" and "traumatised". There is no mistaking the report's sympathy for her victim status.

A recent MSc dissertation by Michail Bobotis studied the portrayal of rape victims in the UK national press. The reports of two "quality" newspapers and two tabloids between 2005 and 2009 were analysed. Bobotis found that in almost a quarter of the reports (24.4%) the rape victim was portrayed as innocent, naive and undeserving and in just over a sixth of the reports (16%) the victim was portrayed as "provoking, culpable, deserving".

And so the stereotypes of deserving and undeserving rape victims are continually reinforced, thanks to media reporting. But let me say again: NO woman should ever be forced to have sex against her will. That is RAPE. Full stop.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Retractions and repercussions

An acquaintance recently told me that a policeman friend of hers believes the number of false rape allegations made in the UK is actually very high because he has seen so many rape claims withdrawn before they come to court. He said although the police party line is that very few of the allegations turn out to be false, privately many officers think differently.

The high retraction rate of rape claims is one of the reasons for the high attrition rate - the number of reported cases that never result in a conviction for the crime. Only around 6% of all rapes reported to the police actually result in a conviction for rape.

It is perhaps understandable some police officers have formed the opinion that many rape claims are false when they see woman after woman refusing to participate in their investigations. But in fact, it's far more likely that women are withdrawing their allegations out of fear - fear of retribution or fear of what they will face in the courtroom.

One especially shocking case
happened last year when a woman who had reported being raped by her abusive husband withdrew her allegation and was jailed for eight months for perverting the course of justice. Her sentence was later overturned at the Court of Appeal, where it was accepted that her allegations had been withdrawn under coercion from her husband.

The Criminal Prosecution Service was criticised for its decision to prosecute her at all and as a result, a consultation is now underway to offer new guidance which it's hoped, will prevent women, who have already been the victims of rape and coercion, from then becoming a victim of a misguided criminal justice system.

But what about vulnerable and traumatised women whose courage crumbles when they are hit by the full reality of what they will likely experience at the hands of court barristers?

As The Guardian's Legal Affairs Correspondent, Afua Hirsch put it in an article published last December:
"an adversarial court system does not encourage vulnerable or traumatised people to come forward. Far from the stereotypical view of slighted women quick to make false accusations, the prospect of being forensically examined by doctors, then cross-examined by barristers, is enough to deter many genuine rape victims from the prospect of justice altogether."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Seeking redress - Pursuing justice in the civil court

Those rape survivors who have watched their attacker secure an acquittal in court, or stood by feeling helpless when the Criminal Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with their case DO have another avenue. They can sue their attacker for damages. And they have a better chance of winning.

The reason is because the burden of proof is less in the civil court. In the criminal court, the defendant doesn't have to prove his innocence, the prosecution has to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that he is guilty. If any "reasonable doubt" exists, then a jury can and will acquit. In the civil court, the decision is made on "the balance of probabilities".

Recently, a woman won substantial damages against a man who had repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was 10 and 11 years-old. He had been found not guilty in the criminal court. A court case, according to a BBC report, where two of the woman's friends were forbidden to be witnesses, even though their testimonies could have been crucial to her case. Also, a previous conviction of sexual assault against a teenage girl was not mentioned in case it prejudiced the jury.

But taking the case to the civil court has its drawbacks. It may be expensive, although some lawyers may be willing to take it on under a "no win, no fee" agreement and Legal Aid is available.

The possibility of being cross-examined by one's attacker is a big off-putting factor, something which wouldn't be permitted in the criminal court.

But if the woman is brave enough to face that, she does as least have the opportunity of forcing her attacker to make some amends, if only in the form of financial compensation.

Sadly, the rapist would still escape a criminal conviction, but their victim would be able to feel that at least some semblance of justice had been done.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Too boozed up to say no...or yes.

A few years ago there was a minor panic in the UK over drink-spiking and its role in "date rape". Numerous reports recounted how rapists were slipping Rohypnol ("Roofies") or Gammahydroxybutyrate (GHB) into women's drinks then taking advantage of them when they became disorientated from the effects of the drugs.

Undoubtedly, this did and still does happen. But a study commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers reported in 2006 that only one in 12 of suspected "drug-assisted rapes" actually involved so-called "date rape drugs". In fact, the main culprit rendering women incapable and vulnerable to attack was alcohol.

Many press reports responded to this study by choosing the angle that date rapes were therefore mainly down to the victim's regrettable binge-drinking. Take this quote from The Daily Mail: "rather than furtively spiking drinks in bars, predatory sex attackers often committed 'opportunistic' assaults after victims had willingly drunk themselves into a state of helplessness" (my italics).

Are we seeing a pattern here? Once again, responsibility for the rape is shifted to the victim. And sadly, juries have often been shown to be unwilling to convict those accused of rape if the victim was drunk at the time of the attack.

And not just juries. Take the notorious 2005 court case of Ryairi Dougal, a security guard at Aberystwyth University who had sex with a student while she lay in a drunken stupor outside the door to her room. Judge Roderick Evans ruled the jury should acquit Dougal when, under cross examination, the student admitted she was too inebriated to recall whether she gave her consent to sex or not. "Drunken consent to sex is still consent," said Judge Evans.

Actually nowadays, it isn't. Under UK law, someone who is rendered helpless by alcohol or any other intoxicant is judged to be legally incapable of giving consent to sex. Unfortunately, the problem is measuring how drunk is too drunk to give consent and here is a classic loophole through which would-be rapists can secure an acquittal in court.

There are many decent men out there. And decent men will not deliberately ply a woman with drink to render her acquiescent so he can jump on her while she is in a state of severe drunkenness. Even if a woman has been flirting with him. A decent man, I believe, will STOP if it becomes clear the woman is too inebriated to be aware of what's going on.

And if you are a woman, beware the man who buys you a drink. Then another. And another. And another...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pressuring the press to think about the victim

Two days ago I recounted the case of an 11 year-old girl in Texas who was allegedly gang raped by up to 20 men and boys. In particular, I decried the reporting of the case, which focused on a large number of people in the girl's local community blaming her for the attack, the report even implying they had some justification in doing so, while failing to include any hint of concern for the victim herself.

At the bottom of the blog, a link was included to sign a petition protesting to the New York Times about its victim-blaming angle on the case.

As a result of this and other outraged emails, the Public Editor of the NYT, Arthur Brisbane published a piece in the online section of the newspaper acknowledging serious faults with the reporting of the case.

Crying wolf...false rape claims and misconceptions

It is impossible to assess the number of false rape claims made in the UK and Baroness Stern has requested in her review that further research be done to try and establish how prevalent they are.

But she also says "the research that is available on false allegations gives a wide range of figures for how many there are, although those we spoke to in the system felt that there were very few" (my italics).

But false rape claims attract a disproportionate amount of press coverage - we can speculate about the reasons for that - resulting in a widely held view that such allegations are relatively common. When a woman (usually a woman) is convicted of making such a claim, a custodial sentence is commonly handed down.

The 2005 report by Kelly, Lovett, and Regan, A Gap Or A Chasm, suggested that the proportion of all rape allegations made that are subsequently found to be false is around 3%. Three in every hundred.

Undoubtedly, being the victim of a false allegation of rape is a horrible experience and can impact on the person for many years, as the allegation will be on their record and show up in Criminal Records Bureau checks.

But that does not mean the victims of sex crimes should be automatically doubted when they tell their story. Because it's far more likely they are telling the truth.

And too many rapists are escaping justice because they are often the ones being given the benefit of the doubt rather than their victims.

I believe the first response to someone's account of a distressing sexual assault is to say WE BELIEVE YOU.

If hard evidence later comes to light that the allegation was false, then action should be taken accordingly.

(Although I would question whether retribution in the form of a prison sentence is the most effective form of punishment here. Perhaps the person concerned should make amends, rather than be incarcerated at a high cost to tax-payers?)

Friday, March 11, 2011

When rapists are allowed to strike again...and again...

Two cases are prominently mentioned by Baroness Stern in her review into the handling of rape cases. Those of John Worboys and Kirk Reid.

An Independent Police Complaints Commission report in 2010 found that systematic failures by the Metropolitan Police, especially their willingness to believe the suspects' stories rather than those of their victims, left both men free for several years to continue preying on women until they were finally caught.

In the case of John Worboys, the so-called "Black Cab Rapist", the first reports about his attacks were made in 2002, but the police didn't bring him to justice until 2008. Part of the reason for that was a belief that a driver of a black cab couldn't possibly be guilty of raping women. Worboys was given the benefit of the doubt and was able to make further attacks. It's widely believed more than a hundred women were raped or sexually assaulted by John Worboys before the police finally brought him in.

In the case of Kirk Reid, a South London chef, he was cleared of an indecent assault in 1995, then began attacking women in the Wandsworth area in 2001. Reid first crossed the police radar in 2002, became a rape suspect in 2004, but despite his name repeatedly coming up in the investigation, it wasn't until 2008 that the police charged him. Reid raped and sexually assaulted 71 women over a period of eight years. The IPCC ruled that the police failed to take seriously the complaints made against Reid by his victims.

The IPCC report into both cases made it clear the Metropolitan Police Service was severely at fault. But no police officer lost their job over what happened. Meanwhile, around 200 women are trying to rebuild their lives. At least their attackers are finally in prison. For the time being.

It's a simple enough conclusion to draw. If the police had taken the victims seriously from the beginning and treated their cases with the gravity they deserved, they could have saved multitudes of other women from the trauma of being raped.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

It was HER fault...blaming the victim

Is there any situation where a rape victim is not held in some way responsible for being attacked? If she was behaving flirtatiously, wearing revealing clothes or had some previous sexual experience, then the assumption is made over and over again that she was somehow "asking for it". If she was walking at night in a secluded spot, she was being irresponsible about her personal safety. If her rapist was her husband or boyfriend, the fact that she had had sexual relations with them in the past is taken as a blanket consent for sex in the future.

All this type of thinking does is neatly shift responsibility for the crime from the perpetrator to the victim. And this attitude seems to pervade even in situations where the victim is still a very young girl.

A particularly shocking example of this mindset is outlined by the website The F Word. The case is that of an 11 year-old girl who was allegedly raped by up to 20 young men and boys and a video of the attack then passed around the local school.

If that wasn't upsetting enough, the F Word describes how numerous press reports of the case focus on people from the girl's local community lining up to blame her (and indeed, her mother) for the attack and exonerate the men accused of carrying it out. Many of those quoted are women.

Not one of the reports, including one by that august publication, The New York Times, chose to examine how the victim might be feeling. I hope to goodness she is getting the support she will surely need to try and recover from her ordeal, although these reports cause me to seriously doubt she is.

The case, which has yet to go to trial, took place in the United States. But similar cases have happened in the UK and once again, women are just as likely as men to point the finger at the victim. In fact, according to a recent BBC report, women are, unhappily, even more likely to blame the victim than men are.

Imagine another scenario: your daughter/sister/niece is the 11 year-old girl allegedly raped by up to 20 men and boys.

Do you still believe it was somehow her fault?

A Post Script:

If you wish to sign a petition protesting about the New York Times' reporting of this case, please click here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Too drunk to spot the difference - a valid defence?

On the 26th of February, The Daily Mail reported the case of Haydor Khan, a 22 year-old waiter who was charged with rape after going into a sleeping woman's room at a small hotel in Surrey and having sex with her.

Khan's defence was that he was too drunk to realise the woman wasn't his girlfriend.
Khan's girlfriend, according to the report, had already refused sex with him earlier in the evening because she was feeling ill.

For reasons best known to itself, the Daily Mail then tagged another report on the end of its account concerning a prosecution of a woman for making a false rape claim.
It should be stated here that rapes are depressingly common. False rape claims are rare, but they attract a disproportionate amount of press coverage.

A fortnight later, the newspaper followed up its report of Khan's acquittal with a piece from the point of view of the woman Khan had accosted. Joanne Freeman chose to waive her right to anonymity so the Daily Mail could report her anger and disbelief at the verdict.

She told the paper that "the verdict made her feel suicidal, adding: ‘It was excruciating telling a jury of strangers what happened. It has devastated the whole family. My father is heartbroken and my own daughter had to sit through the court case.’
"Her friend Karen Berry, 43, said Miss Freeman had ‘changed completely’, adding: ‘She is a shell of her former self. She tries to be strong but then you see she has a vacant look in her eyes or she breaks down.’"

So, from what we can gather from the two reports, a jury accepted that Khan's drunken belief he had the consent of the woman he "accidentally" had sex with, didn't constitute rape.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We Believe You

Let's start with a few stats:
In 2007/2008, 6.5% of recorded rapes in England and Wales led to a conviction (Crimestoppers).

The number of rapes of females recorded in England and Wales in 2007/2008 was 11,628. 1008 were recorded of males. (Home Office).
(In 2009/2010 that figure increased to 13,991 rapes of females and 1,174 rapes of males)

Shocking, isn't it?

But consider this:

Many reports of rape aren't actually recorded by UK police forces - up to 40% in some regions (BBC News).

And rape is believed to be the most under-reported crime of them all - it's thought 89% of all rapes are unreported (Stern Review).

There are thousands upon thousands of women raped in the UK every year and the overwhelming majority of their attackers continue to live their lives untouched by the law. It would, I fear, be too much to expect them to feel any kind of remorse for their actions.  Their victims, on the other hand, may well be struggling to rebuild their shattered self-esteem and self-confidence and their ability to ever trust another human being. And much more besides.

As a society, we should be deeply ashamed.  That so many rapists are allowed to operate freely and without penalties. That victims who dare to speak out are let down time and time again by the police, the legal profession and the general public. That women and girls are judged to have "consented" to their attacks by simply wearing make-up or provocative clothes, by walking in the wrong part of town or by drinking too much....

Today, the centenary of International Women's Day, the UK governing coalition published its action plan to tackle violence against women and girls, in part, a response to a review by Baroness Stern into the handling of rape complaints.

Theresa May MP, Minister for Women and Equalities summarised by saying this:

"Our comprehensive and detailed action plan sets out how we are going to tackle these crimes – supporting those at risk, helping victims and ensuring offenders are brought to justice.
"Most importantly we need to prevent these crimes occurring in the first place. That is why we are challenging, and where necessary working to change, attitudes and behaviours."

This should most certainly be applauded. The last change in the law to try and improve the rape conviction rate and stop victims being treated like criminals when their cases came to court (The Sexual Offences Act 2003) hasn't had any noticeable effect on conviction rates so far, suggesting that merely tightening the law further isn't enough on its own.

Deeply ingrained cultural attitudes towards sexuality, so-called "rape-myths" and a disturbing level of misogyny in our society need to be tackled root and branch.

But before we clap the government on the back with too much enthusiasm, it seems the very  same government is trying to "water down an international agreement to protect women against domestic and sexual violence."

According to the New Statesman, "Britain has intervened to object to the wording "violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights". Instead, it wants "violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women's enjoyment of human rights". It also wants to alter the document so that it applies only in peace time, and not during armed conflict -- a surprising request, given the widespread international use of rape as a weapon of war."

One step forward, one step back.
This blog aims to create a resource of cases, reports and surveys relating to the situation facing victims of rape in the UK today. 

It's time to set a new precedent.

And it's time to say to women who report their rape: