The government has set out how it plans to reverse plummeting rape prosecutions – but we also need politicians to invest in tackling the harmful attitudes that drive and enable sexual assault.
By now, the dust has begun to settle on the government’s rape review report – a 55-page document in which ministers attempt to “understand why we are letting down rape victims” in England and Wales, and set out how they plan “to right this wrong”. The most striking thing about the report is its tone. This is not a government famed for its willingness to throw up its hands and admit its mistakes, yet the review is filled with remorse, as ministers including Home Secretary Priti Patel say they are “deeply ashamed” of how survivors have been treated.
It’s important for those in power to acknowledge when they’ve failed – and it’s undeniable that rape survivors are currently being failed by the criminal justice system on a staggering scale. According to the most recent Home Office figures, just 1.6% of rapes reported to police in the year to December 2020 resulted in a charge or summons, meaning that the overwhelming majority of survivors did not see their case make it to court.
But an apology from politicians, while symbolically valuable, doesn’t do a thing to alter the realities of rape in England and Wales. And behind the striking rhetoric, the actual policies in the government’s report have received a decidedly mixed response from experts, with many believing the action plan could have been much bolder and braver. In the words of Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales: “There is no hiding that this review presents some missed opportunities.”
The review was framed as taking an “end-to-end” look at rape, examining all aspects of how the crime is handled in England and Wales. But Katie Russell, spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales, tells Stylist that the government should have taken a bigger-picture view of the issue.
“A genuinely end-to-end review of the criminal justice system doesn’t start at the point where the offence takes place,” she says.
“This is a systemic problem that’s rooted in victim-blaming, rape myths and stereotypes – many of them very misogynistic and sexist. So as part of the end-to-end review, we wanted to see a commitment to a government-funded, awareness-raising campaign on consent and what sexual violence constitutes in law.”
Stylist is currently calling on the government to fund a long-term public awareness campaign about male violence against women as part of our initiative #AFearlessFuture. Not only does evidence suggest that expert-informed public awareness campaigns can help reduce and prevent harmful behaviours, Russell says that challenging rape myths and stereotypes could also improve survivors’ experience of the criminal justice system.
“Messages that raise awareness and understanding about what consent is, and what sexual violence and abuse are, have the real potential to reduce offending in the first place,” she explains. “But they’d also give victims and survivors the courage and confidence to report [rape to police] – and have a positive influence on [criminal justice] outcomes when survivors do report.”
A 2019 review by Dr Fiona Leverick, professor of criminal law and criminal justice at the University of Glasgow, found overwhelming evidence that “prejudicial and false beliefs” about rape affect how jurors evaluate evidence and make decisions in rape trials. Russell notes that this dynamic has a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system: “The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] are making their cautious charging decisions based on assumptions about jury prejudice.”
Stereotypes about rape can also affect women of colour in specific and harmful ways. Sumanta Roy, head of research, evaluation and development at Imkaan, has observed that Black and ethnic minority women are more likely to be viewed as complicit in violence perpetrated against them, less likely to be considered ‘victims’ of sexual violence and “can experience harmful assumptions from professionals who pathologise violence as part of a ‘cultural norm.’” All of these myths can deter survivors from reporting rape to the police.
“Unless the government is prepared to ask questions about who is engaging with the criminal justice system, and crucially, who is not and why, it will continue to operate as a two-tier system which is not fit for purpose and works against survivors who experience the most marginalisation and barriers to justice,” says Roy.
There are signs that the government may yet listen to those calling on it to invest in challenging the attitudes that underpin and enable male violence against women. While the rape report doesn’t contain any specific commitments around launching a public awareness initiative, it does feature a pledge to develop a “cross-government” campaign that will create “long-term behaviour change” around this issue, with more details expected in the forthcoming violence against women and girls strategy.
Now, we must demand that any campaign is created with the input and expertise of specialist organisations, including those representing the most marginalised women. As Russell says: “Unless we tackle myths and misunderstandings around sexual violence and abuse more broadly, any changes to the criminal justice system are unlikely to really be able to achieve the significant improvement that’s needed.”
If you, or anyone you know, needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12pm - 2.30pm and 7pm - 9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre or visit the website for more information
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.