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.

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