Photo: Getty Images 

OPINION

This survey shows what British people really think about rape. It’s horrifying

“One-third of men in the UK thought that if a woman had flirted on a date, it wouldn’t be considered rape,” the survey reports. It’s time for action, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

As a teenage girl, I remember watching a snapshot of consent from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In the episode, Buffy had somehow gained the power to hear people’s thoughts and, as she sat in school surrounded by her classmates’ busy inner monologues, she shuddered as she heard a silent boy think of the sexual acts he would “do” to her. The scene spoke to a fear that is just as relevant today as it was then: women and girls see misogynistic acts every day – we can’t avoid them – but what would it be like if we were privy to how some men secretly thought about us? The things they thought they should get away with?

As I read through the results of the newly released major research into the British public’s attitudes towards rape, I kept coming back to this sickening feeling over and over. Commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the survey is a thorough, anger-inducing exposé of male and female regressive attitudes to rape.

It found that a third of men in the UK thought that if a woman had flirted on a date, it wouldn’t be considered rape if she hadn’t explicitly consented to sex – as if laughing at a date’s shit joke means we are “asking for it”. Women have long known it is often safer to pander and please male egos (how many of us have laughed awkwardly to try and diffuse an uncomfortable meeting with a man?) and we now learn that, if we smile too much, we are apparently unable to say no to sex. Indeed, the survey also found a third of men believed that a woman couldn’t change her mind after sex had started. One in 10 people weren’t even sure or didn’t think it was rape to have sex with a woman who was “very drunk or asleep”.

I keep saying that over and over to myself: one in 10 people in the UK aren’t certain it’s rape if a man forces himself inside a woman when she’s unconscious.

These findings are horrifying in themselves, but they are even more worrying when you consider how public attitudes to rape affect the justice system. The very members of the public who rape victims must rely on for justice – jurors, police, judges – are statistically likely to hold completely warped views on consent. We know such attitudes are already affecting justice. Last month, there were protests in Ireland when a jury acquitted a man of the rape of a 17-year-old girl after his defence lawyer said they must “look at the way she was dressed” in “a thong with a lace front".

Women can now hear the thoughts of swathes of men excusing rape. The sound is deafening

This week’s survey gives us, in black and white, how widespread such attitudes are. For example, it found a third of people in the UK think it isn’t usually rape if a woman is pressured into having sex but there is no physical violence, while almost a quarter believed sex without consent in long-term relationships was usually not rape. Crucially for the legal system, this shows an enormous disparity between the reality of rape and myths around it: 90% of women who are raped know the person who raped them but, for many British adults, the most commonly understood scenario is a violent act of rape committed by a stranger in a dark alley.  

The #MeToo movement has shone a light on the scale of sexual violence and reportedly encouraged more women to report rape, but it means little without public attitudes – and, in turn, the justice system catching up. The failings are evident: last month, it came out there had been a 23% drop in CPS charges of rape (the lowest in a decade), despite the fact the total number of rapes reported to police has almost doubled since 2013-14.

Rape culture is not fiction. In reality, there is no female superhero to save us. But those in power can act; MPs are calling for an urgent inquiry into the criminal-justice system’s treatment of rape, including whether juries are the best way to deliver justice in such cases, and this must surely be a priority. Women can now hear the thoughts of swathes of men excusing rape. The sound is deafening.

@DrFrancesRyan

Photo: Getty Images 
Tagged in:
Sexual assault
Sexual abuse
sexual harassment
reporting rape
gender equality
UK news
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