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MPs launch campaign to stop sexual history being used against rape victims in court

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Emily Reynolds
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Rape complainants are being subjected to intrusive and unfair questions about their sexual history – and now a new campaign is calling for a change in the law.

A campaign has been launched to prevent “unfair” questions about sexual history being used against rape complainants in court.

The cross-party campaign, led by MP Harriet Harman and Dame Vera Baird QC, has already been backed by a number of women’s charities including Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis, End Violence Against Women, Victim Support, Limeculture and more. MPs from the Labour Party, Lib Dems, Green Party and Plaid Cymru have also pledged their support.


The campaign hopes to reform Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which is supposed to restrict when a complainant’s sexual history can be used in a court case. Sexual history is only supposed to be brought up if its exclusion could mean the jury could come to an “unsafe conclusion”. 

But after the 2016 acquittal of footballer of Ched Evans, which hinged on the use of Section 41, MPs and activists became concerned that it had been used to cast aspersions on the word of the victim. Two previous men testified during the retrial, giving details about the victim’s sexual preferences and language she had previously used during sex.

After the acquittal, Baird said Evans had “called men to throw discredit on [the woman’s] sexual reputation”.

“That, I think, is pouring prejudice, which is exactly what used to happen before the law in 1999 stopped the admission of previous sexual history in order to show consent. We’ve gone back, I’m afraid, probably about 30 years.”

Now the campaign is publishing new evidence strengthening a reform of the law. According to research conducted by Baird, sexual history was brought up 11 times in 30 trials – around 37%. In one case, the defence barrister said it was important to show the complainant was “an adulteress”. 

“We cannot allow rape trials to be inquisitions into the complainant’s sex life,” Baird says. “The fear of a complainant being confronted with evidence relating to sex with other men is, and has always been, a huge deterrent to reporting rape.”


“We know the government’s review does not reflect the situation in courtrooms across the country and call on them to use the opportunity of the domestic violence and abuse bill to protect complainants and ensure they are treated fairly in the courtroom.”

And MP Harriet Harman said that it was “not what women should have to put up with”. 

“The government cannot go on ignoring the evidence of the scale and nature of the problem. We need a change in the law to ensure that trials are fair and that complainants do not face the ordeal of their sexual history being dragged through the courts.”

Image: Rex Features

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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