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Myth and rape: will we ever stamp out victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault?

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In a week where wearing Spanx and lying drunk on a pavement have been implicated in discussions about rape, Stylist's Anna Brech considers whether it will ever be possible to cut through an endemic culture of victim-blaming when it comes to sexual assault?

In the original version of Sleeping Beauty by Giambattista Basile, the unconscious princess is raped by a king out hunting in the woods.

In Charles Perrault’s 1697 edition of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a sexual predator.

Centuries on from these dark tales of caution, the issue of rape is still clouded in myth and misunderstanding. It would make a great fairytale, in the very worst sense.

Except this isn’t fiction. The grim facts of the situation are all too easy to see.

The issue of rape has become a little like a dark, old-school fairytale: surrounded in myth and mis-truths

Conviction rates for rape in the UK are among the lowest in Europe. On average, just 1,070 rapists are convicted of their crime in Britain – despite the fact that 12,000 men and 85,000 women on average are raped in England and Wales every year.

One in 20 women under the age of 60 have been raped during their lifetime and one in five women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The number of rape suspects convicted between 2012 and 2013 fell by 129, and the number of rape cases referred to prosecution has dipped by more than a third since 2011.

There’s nothing ambiguous about the facts of rape in the UK. Sexual assault happens every day, but the figures show we are losing the race on convictions and worse still, victims are losing faith in the prosecution service.

We can’t really blame them. In an age when rape is still casually shot through with lazy assumptions and misconstrued beliefs (she was lying drunk on a pavement! She didn’t say no! Why was she out at that time anyway?), the concept of objective, clear-eyed justice seems elusive at best.

Only last week, it was revealed that a lawyer in the UK told a woman who had been raped that they would not be pursuing her case "particularly bearing in mind the type of underwear that you had on at the time" (the underwear, it transpired, was Spanx – that awful, rape-inviting mode of body-shaping hosiery).

Spanx: to blame for rape?

And then Roger Helmer, the UKIP candidate for Newark, jumped on the rape-shaming bandwagon, seeking to "clarify" a 2011 blog he wrote suggesting women should be held responsible for date rape under some circumstances.

In his latest article, Helmer compared his stance to leaving your door unlocked while you are away on holiday (you leave your door unlocked, you might get burgled – a delightful analogy).

"Everyone who is a potential victim of any crime would be well advised to take care," he notes.

At which point, presumably, we are supposed to nod our heads sagely in agreement.

Except it’s not exactly clear what "taking care" in this instance means. Not wearing a short skirt? Not stumbling home at 2am in the morning? Or as Helmer so helpfully outlines, not lying incapacitated on a pavement "in a clubbing area."

The problem with adding any kind of caveat to rape is that it implies a level of rationality and reason to a crime that carries neither. There’s no rhyme or reason to why you are raped; it’s a random, horrible event for which the perpetrator carries sole responsibility.

A Slutwalk march through London in 2012, demanding that women not be blamed for rape

Of course, rape is a crime that has been treated with suspicion and disbelief for centuries.

British judge Lord Matthew Hale said in the late 1600s that rape was "an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent".

By 1918, The American Journal of Urology and Sexology was running articles that warned lawyers to "the great danger that men are often in from false accusations by female children and women".

But fast forward to 2014, and it’s depressing to realise that while a lot has changed in the justice system, clichéd thinking and stereotypes still exist.

There is some cause for hope. Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is determined to combat what she’s identified as a worrying variation in the way in which rape cases are dealt with across the country.

She’s also pushing through guidance for judges in rape cases to direct the jury at the start of the trial that they should ignore the victim's past sexual conduct or any use of drink or drugs by the victim prior to the assault (this warning generally takes place at the summing up stage at the moment, meaning jury members may already have formed their own judgement).

These are welcome steps in the right direction but we can’t afford to be complacent. As long as rape convictions continue to fall, we need to be vigilant of every instance of stereotyping and victim-blaming in cases of rape - or risk fostering an unjust system for everyone.

What do you think? What more can be done to combat victim-blaming in cases of rape and how can we get the conviction rate up? Let us know in the comments below.

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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