“Girls, are perfectly entitled to drink themselves into the ground but should be aware people who are potential defendants to rape gravitate towards girls who have been drinking. It shouldn’t be like that but it does happen and we see it time and time again. They do it because first a girl who is drunk is more likely to agree as they are more disinhibited, even if they don’t want to agree they are less likely to fight a man with evil intentions off. Even if they manage to have their way with a girl or woman without her consent the likelihood is she will be less likely to report it because she was drunk or cannot remember what happened, or feels ashamed to deal with it. Or, if push comes to shove, a girl who has been drunk is less likely to be believed than one who is sober at the time. I beg girls and women to have this in mind.”
These are the words spoken last week by senior Judge Lindsey Kushner QC as she sentenced a man to six years in prison for raping a woman who had been drinking before she was attacked. Listening to the judge’s calm and measured voice I got the feeling she had waited a long time to say what she had to say, probably because getting it wrong on such issues is inclined to be career limiting. Understandable then that she should choose her final trial before retirement to say it.
There are few things more likely to cause uproar than a judge expressing an opinion on the subject of rape, particularly when that judge is a woman. There is a party line and not sticking with it leaves you vulnerable to a firestorm of condemnation and vulnerability is what lies at the heart of what she said. Inevitably her words have been picked over minutely, perhaps also inevitably she now stands accused of victim blaming.
And there is no excuse for victim blaming. The only person responsible for rape is the rapist – with no exceptions. Yet what struck me from Kushner’s words, was not fault, but the issue of vulnerability. What she drew attention to by bringing up this subject is that, when it comes to rape and sexual assault, we are still not believed.
When I lived in London I lost count of the number of late night taxi rides home where the driver, making small talk, told me quite cheerfully that he would never pick up a woman who is drunk because of the possibility they might "cause trouble"
We are still not believed, she is saying, and vulnerability is indeed one of the key factors in the way an attacker will select his, or her, victim. It doesn’t matter what the cause of that vulnerability might be. A predatory male has a knack for spotting a flickering light in a woman the same way a pack of wolves will isolate weakened prey from the rest of the herd. That doesn’t ever make it the victim’s fault. But it is, unfortunately, the way life is. There is nothing wrong in pointing this out. It is only what any parent will do when our children make their first forays out into the wider world. We warn them of the dangers.
However, the suggestion that “a girl who has been drunk is less likely to be believed…” is extremely damaging. Dame Vera Baird, Northumbria police and crime commissioner, is absolutely right to condemn it. The sad fact is that, in the last ten years two men who were reported to the police in the early stages of their criminal careers went on to become serial rapists because those early victims were, devastatingly, not believed. In 2013 Jason Lawrance, the match.com rapist, was witnessed carrying out his attack by his victim’s son and reported to the police. He was arrested but released, unbelievably, on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”. I can’t imagine that the fact he was in his victim’s house following a date and with her permission, did not work in his favour. He went on to rape again, and again, and is currently serving a life sentence. John Worboys, the Black Cab Rapist, was first arrested in 2007 after being reported for sexual assault by his 19 year-old student passenger. He was released on bail after telling the police she had been drunk and kissed him, a fact apparently confirmed on CCTV. His word was taken over hers. Worboys was finally convicted in 2009 on one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 other charges.
When I lived in London I lost count of the number of late night taxi rides home where the driver, making small talk, told me quite cheerfully that he would never pick up a woman who is drunk because of the possibility they might "cause trouble". What that "trouble" might be remained unspecified but the implication was clear.
What Vera Baird and Lindsey Kushner have done is to draw attention to the unpalatable truth that women are still… still… not routinely believed by the authorities on at least one key issue – that of rape and sexual assault. What worries me and should worry us all is that the dregs of these antediluvian attitudes clearly persist and if we don’t call them out, don’t have the courage to leave ourselves open to the misinterpretation of well-intentioned words, we will never be free of them.
Speaking of which, today I read that a rape case had been thrown out because the victim had “handed him a condom”. The newspaper concerned did not speculate as to why she might have done that, that she might have been protecting herself, it was just taken at face value. Is the offer of a condom, how much you’ve had to drink, that you’re dressed “provocatively” or that you’ve invited him back for coffee the equivalent of consent? No. No it’s not. Not ever.