Sunday, 17 February 2013
Anonymity for rape defendants - bad idea in 1975, 2010 and now
Anonymity for rape defendants is a bad idea that benefits one key group of people – rapists.
It was a bad idea in 1975, when it was how rape cases were conducted. In 1975, lest we forget, men still had the legal right to rape their wives (they had this right until 1990). It was a bad idea in 2010 when the new coalition government tried to bring it back into law. And it will be a bad idea now, as the Chair of the Bar Council in England argues for it again.
Anonymity for rape defendants, and only for rape defendants, is a policy that has its roots solely in misogyny. It is a policy based on the belief that women routinely and maliciously lie about rape in a way that no other crime gets lied about. But this belief is entirely false.
The idea is justified by its supporters because of the stigma of a rape accusation. But if that was really the case, then anonymity would apply to all violent crime. There is stigma attached to an accusation of murder. No crime carries more stigma than child abuse (I’ll argue later as to why all these crimes should carry a stigma). The only reason rape is singled out is because of this pernicious belief that women are just making it up in order to hurt men.
But we know this isn’t true. Earlier this year the latest stats on rape and sexual violence were released. They found that 500,000 people had experienced sexual violence, including 69,000 women raped. They also found that only 2910 incidents were reported and only 1070 led to conviction. We also know that false accusations of rape make up about 3% of reported rapes. This number is no more than false accusations of any other crime.
So the facts tell us that rape is a huge problem affecting tens of thousands of women every year, and that, whilst awful, false accusations are a small problem affecting a handful of men each year.
But our perception is very different. The perception – fuelled by media reporting and a terribly low conviction rate – is that women routinely lie about rape and therefore something must be done to punish women. When instead, I believe we need to be taking steps to encourage a higher reporting rate and a higher conviction rate.
The evidence is there to prove that naming rape defendants is a sensible policy that encourages reporting and that leads to convictions. We can see from the statistics that rape reporting is low. However, when a prolific rapist is named, like John Worboys, it helps women who have been attacked by him feel confident to come forward. Once his identity was known, around 70 women came forward reporting attacks – reports that helped convict him. These women might have come forward before and not been believed, or they might have not come forward for all the reasons why women don’t feel able to report rape. Many of us don’t always realise that rapists might rape more than once. Therefore victims might feel alone, isolated and, thanks to rape culture, start blaming themselves. Understanding that he was attacking other women, that he was a serial rapist helped women feel able to go to the police and report it. Naming Worboys meant that he was finally, after years of terrorising women, convicted.
If he hadn’t been named, he might still be attacking women today. The police might still be dismissing reports – which they did at the time.
Worboys is just one example – there are many, many more. But if anonymity for rape defendants had been in place in 2007 the simple truth is it would have benefited him and it would have harmed the tens of women he attacked.
The argument that we should have anonymity because there is a ‘stigma’ attached to an accusation of rape is quite frankly stupid. Of course there should be a stigma attached to an accusation of rape – just as there should be a stigma attached to all the crimes I’ve mentioned. Rape is a horrible, violent crime deliberately committed against another person. It is a crime that can lead to PTSD, serious mental and physical health problems and much more. It is a crime that can lead to suicide, as we have so tragically seen over the last few weeks.
One would hope that attaching a stigma to such a terrible crime would reduce offending rates. However as the rape stats show, we all too often let rapists attack women with impunity. We let rapists get away with it more than 90% of the time. How else was Unilad able to write that rape made ‘pretty good odds’ when the reporting rate was so low?
We need to make sure there is more of a stigma attached to rape, not less. Anonymity suggests that it’s more important to protect the reputation of rapists than it is to protect the lives of women. I know that it is “justified” in order to protect the falsely accused men but the fact is there are far, far more rapists and far, far more rape victims than there are men who are falsely accused.
If we were really concerned about the rights of the false accused (as of course we should be – that is why it is recognised as a serious crime), then we wouldn’t be singling out rape. The only reason rape is singled out is the simple, misogynistic belief that women lie. That women just make this stuff up. And we know that this is untrue.
The other argument is that because we allow anonymity for victims and survivors of rape, defendants should get the same. But this is simply ridiculous. A victim has not been accused of any crime. Naming her will not help convict her rapist. And if we think there’s a stigma attached to the accused, then god knows we’ve seen what the impact of naming a victim can have. When the woman who was raped by Ched Evans was named online she was eventually forced to flee from her home after being bombarded with death threats. She was twice victimised because quite frankly, in that case, there seemed to be no stigma at all attached to being a convicted rapist.
This is a proposal that panders to the tabloid press who gleefully report failed convictions as ‘false accusations’ (even when the women has not been charged or convicted with that crime – e.g. Diallo). It’s a proposal that upholds misogynistic beliefs that rape isn’t that common and that what is common is women lying about rape. All the evidence, all the statistics show this to be factually incorrect. So much of the evidence proves that naming rape defendants helps encourage reporting and leads to convictions.
We cannot propose or make laws based on women-hating myths. We’re in a real crisis of violence against women in this country. There are 500,000 sexual assaults every year including 69,000 women raped and yet there are only 1070 convictions. Only 2910 reported. This is not the time to be making laws that protect alleged rapists. This is the time to be doing everything we can possibly do to end violence against women and girls. This is the time to be doing everything we can to create an environment where women and girls feel confident reporting rape to the police – confident that they will be listened to, believed and that their rapist will go to jail.
In 2010 Parliament threw out the bill that proposed anonymity for rape defendants based on all the ideas I talk about here.
Let’s keep it that way.
Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999
National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247