Making matters worse

Hard-won gains to improve rape conviction rates are under threat

Following Ched Evans’ acquittal on rape charges, Labour’s shadow law officers should have been speaking out fast and furious. As Vera Baird argued cogently in the Guardian last month, the case put progress back 30 years.

The supreme court’s decision to allow the sexual history of the woman in the case to be paraded in court, the apparent ignorance of the alpha male involved of the need for consent, the bizarre way he joined and left the sexual encounter, not to mention his mates videoing it and his fiancée offering a £50,000 reward for smut. All this made the woman the victim in the courtroom as well as the hotel room.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s link between celebrity and impunity in the sexual abuse of women threatens to throw us all back to the dark ages.

We need to be speaking out for tighter controls on a woman’s sexual history being presented in court, tougher rules on consent and a major campaign to make the simple point that sex without consent is rape, whatever the woman or man is wearing, has drunk, or might have done in the past. It was heartening to see over 40 women Labour members of parliament take up this matter by writing to the attorney general. It will be important that the Labour frontbench follows this lead.

The statistics on rape remain alarming. A record rise of 31 per cent in rape cases was recorded in 2014, yet it is still considered one of the most underreported of crimes. Official figures show that one in five women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. But just under one in seven of them report it to the police.

On a practical level, Southwark and Islington councils, when both were led by Labour women, pioneered the introduction of special suites for interviewing rape victims to try to boost women’s confidence in the criminal justice system and increase the number of prosecutions. A raft of other measures ensued.

Increases in prosecution and conviction rates have been hard-won. It is a cause that has long been championed by Labour women, most notably the late, heroic member of parliament Jo Richardson.

One of the key legal improvements made in the past was the restriction of the ability of men accused of rape to argue that they honestly believed the woman consented to sex, however unreasonable that belief might seem. As in, ‘I thought that, because she agreed to have sex with my friend and he invited me to come and join in, I honestly believed she consented to have sex with me too.’ Regardless of whether that belief was reasonable, as in whether the man in question lied to get into their room, found the woman drunk and failed to speak to her.

In the run-up to this change being made in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it was controversial among Labour MPs – and barely a glimmer on the horizon for many Tories, so deeply ingrained are cultural assumptions about women’s behaviour.

Feminist writer Sian Norris’ powerful recent article on the implications of the Evans case for our already fragile understanding of consent quoted a study which found that 43 per cent of young adults would not assume the person they are intimate with does not want to have sex when they say ‘no.’

So if ‘no’ can be taken to mean ‘yes’, what else can? A scream, which could indicate pleasure, not fear? Or a cry of ‘help’ which could mean a call for more pleasure rather than an appeal for protection from a rich, powerful, talented man who assumes his celebrity equates to a 21st century droit de seigneur.

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Sally Keeble is a former minister

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