There is no great stigma attached to being a rapist

On the contrary, our society is surprisingly tolerant of rape.

There is no great stigma attached to being a rapist. Of course, it’s not a word anyone wishes to see applied to themselves. We’d all hate to be called rapists, just as we’d hate anyone close to us to be accused of rape. But when it comes to committing rape - actually having sex with someone who is not consenting? It seems a lot of us are totally cool with that. Go ahead, rape away, just make sure no one calls it by that name.

A 2010 survey reported by Sky News revealed 46 per cent of men aged 18 to 25 do not consider it rape if a man continues to penetrate a woman after she has changed her mind. Last week a survey conducted by Rape Crisis and Reveal magazine showed a third of women do not believe a rape to have taken place if an alleged victim did not fight back. It’s only eight years since a poll by Amnesty International suggested 8 per cent people believe a woman to be totally - that’s totally - responsible for rape if she’s had many sexual partners. The truth is, an alarming number of people are very comfortable indeed with the idea of rape in certain circumstances. Like George Galloway, they merely see it as “bad sexual etiquette”. Rape doesn’t horrify them, not a bit; rape accusations do.

Take the case of the actor Michael Le Vell, who was this week found not guilty of 12 charges relating to rape, sexual assault and sex with a minor. During the trial, the press pored over details of Le Vell’s private life, caring not one bit for the reputation of a man who had not (and still hasn’t) been convicted of anything. And yet it’s only now, once the trial’s over, that we discover the true horror of it all: the fact that Le Vell was accused at all.

Soon after the verdict Phillip Schofield tweeted his outrage, proclaiming it “bloody ridiculous a mans [sic] life & reputation can be so comprehensively trashed in this way” (it’s probably churlish to mention Lord McAlpine at this point, but still). Calls were swiftly being made for anonymity to be granted to those accused of rape, with Christine Hamilton helpfully suggesting “it’s outrageous that we should know who the accused is but not the accuser, whom the jury obviously think is a serial liar”. Similarly keen on making up allegations about other people’s allegedly made-up allegations, men’s rights campaigner Peter Lloyd wrote in the Mail that “even UK charity Rape Crisis admit that almost 1 in 10 rape allegations are false” (Rape Crisis have of course refuted this false allegation). Amazing though it is, one acquittal has made it open season on rape allegations. Just what is going on?

Having no interest in his private life and no reason to question his acquittal I have a great deal of sympathy for Michael Le Vell. I don’t, however, feel I am in a position to call his accuser a serial liar (maybe the wives of disgraced Tory MPs have special instincts for these things). I pity all victims of rape whose credibility is undermined by insinuations such as those made by Hamilton, just as I pity the small number of men who are falsely accused of rape. It’s a mess. Yet what strikes me as particularly bizarre is that in a society so tolerant of rape, in which significant numbers of people believe many forms of assault don’t even count, it’s being suggested that rape defendants need anonymity because so much shame and stigma is attached to being a rapist. This is nonsense. We’re far less likely to excuse shoplifting or benefit fraud than we are rape. We’re fine with rape. We just don’t like those who accuse and we don’t like those who are accused, either.

Rape culture is so endemic that an actual rape trial doesn’t just put the accused in the dock; broader cultural attitudes are on trial, too. Unless we’re talking about the Yorkshire Ripper or John Worboys - those extreme, nowt-to-do-with-us types - an accusation of rape doesn’t just point the finger at an individual. It challenges the widespread assumption that sex without the consent of another person isn’t really a crime. I can’t help feeling there’s a serious amount of wilful distancing in our shunning of those on trial for rape. We might not have done the things they’re accused of, but we’re way too close to them for comfort.

Hence the stigma but hence, too, the relief and triumphalism following an acquittal. Phew! So it wasn’t them - it wasn’t us - after all! Even though a not guilty verdict does not itself demonstrate that a complainant was lying (sorry, Christine), in terms of the fury it releases it might as well do. A litany of entirely implausible reasons for making a false accusation - such as a need for attention and fame - pour forth, together with contradictory demands that the fame-hungry attention-seeker’s anonymity be revoked. Yet there’s little to be gained from “crying rape” (as it’s so tastelessly called). Four fifths of assault victims responding to Mumsnet’s We Believe You survey had not made a report to the police, with most feeling that the media, the legal system and society at large are unsympathetic to rape victims. Oddly, we seem to think that if those accused of rape are losing out, those doing the accusing must be winning. This is rubbish.

Attitudes to those accused of rape can be terrible but let’s not pretend for one moment that this is because we’re overly sympathetic towards those making complaints. We’re not. Both complainants and defendants face speculation, suspicion and dismissal. Whenever there’s reasonable doubt, rather than support those we believe, we denigrate those we don’t. This isn’t because we’re disgusted by rape. On the contrary, we just don’t like anything that reminds us how tolerant we are of something we ought to despise.


Protesters pose for a picture at Slutwalk. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.