There are those among us who, in our naive, glass-half-full fashion, did not believe that British rape statistics could get any worse. After all, with the British Crime Survey estimating that 47,000 rapes occur each year, the rates are already redolent of nothing so much as a war zone. (I realise that people often don't believe statistics, but this survey is indisputably huge - 45,000 people were interviewed for it - and, as far as I know, it is not carried out by a cabal of radicals.) Yet, incredibly, the numbers continue to rise, or at least spike. In the last three months of 2004, for instance, there came a sudden surge, with rape cases rising by 18 per cent. In October to December, the months when British women defy the cold, hail and snow by donning their shortest skirts and heading for the bars (give it about a month until we all start up again), the figures burgeoned.
Although the steady rise in reported rapes over the past 20 years is sometimes seen as a good thing (evidence of a concurrent swell of trust in the police's handling of rape), this argument, which denies any increase in the incidence of crime, cannot explain such a sudden hike. The reason, if anything, would seem to be the season - a period when people are happily drinking their way through a string of parties in the lead-up to Christmas. In 50 per cent of all reported rapes the victim was seriously drunk; the figure is likely to be far higher for cases that went unreported. This year, a UK study analysed 1,000 cases of suspected "drug rape" (women apparently sedated by their assailant with drugs such as rohypnol and GHB) and found that not one of the women had any evidence of such a drug in her bloodstream. It is worth noting, however, that GHB can be detected in the urine for 18 hours only - which you would probably know, if you intended to plant it. However, 65 per cent of the women had been drinking heavily or taking recreational drugs. The survey does not state whether they had been plied with either alcohol or drugs by their assailant. Slipping a drug into someone's drink is very much frowned upon, but getting a woman drunk for the precise reason of having sex with her is often treated with a nudge and a wink.
So, beneath the veil of binge drinking (the number of women drinking more than 35 units a week has tripled since 1990) lies an epidemic of rape in Britain. What is both interesting and shocking is that the sheer number of cases, and their continuing increase, challenge our perception of rapists as a psychopathic minority, a discrete band of "monsters" acting entirely out of impulse. Given the preponderance of rape cases, there must be thousands of rapists out on the streets, even if we accept that many will commit more than one offence. In addition, the spiking pattern of increase suggests that many are opportunists, capitalising during periods when women and girls are most drunken and vulnerable, retreating at others. In other words, they act not on a sudden urge, but in the knowledge that, at certain times, they will get away with it.
This is not the first evidence we have had that suggests rape might be a crime of opportunity as much as of impulse. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a number of highly controversial psychological projects sprang up at colleges in the United States, analysing male attitudes to rape. Half of a group of high-school males, for instance, said that they believed it acceptable "for a guy to hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse" if he found her sexually attractive. In a survey of 7,000 men, conducted by Shere Hite, 46 per cent responded in the affirmative to the question, "Have you ever wanted to rape a woman?".
But arguably the most distressing statistics came from a study conducted at the University of California in 1980. A group of men was read a story in which a woman politely refuses a man's offer of a lift home. Enraged by this perceived rejection, the man holds a knife to her throat and proceeds to full intercourse, the victim protesting wildly throughout the attack. Asked, after hearing this account (which studiously avoided the word "rape"), whether they might behave similarly, 17 per cent of respondents said yes, while 51 per cent agreed there was some likelihood that they would, but only - and this is key - if they could be sure they would get away with it. The results of this study, and many others like it, should have been enough to make us seriously reconsider our view of rape. Even if we apply a dose of healthy scepticism to the results (in some of the surveys the boys were very young; they had been exposed to pornography before questioning; it was a few decades ago, and attitudes may well have changed) they remain very difficult to explain away entirely. Here was almost 70 per cent of a sample of young men stating that, under the right circumstances, they would be tempted to rape.
These results are disturbing, but perhaps not surprising. If we look at evidence from war zones, for instance - settings where the chaos ensures little hope of redress - it is evident that the high numbers of rapes preclude the argument that they are committed by only the most brutal soldiers in a battalion. Estimates of the number of women raped during Bangladesh's nine-month war for independence in 1971, for example, ranged from 250,000 up to 400,000. In Uganda, a village health worker found that 70 per cent of the women in her community had been raped by soldiers in the early 1980s. Many testified to having been gang-raped by up to ten soldiers in a single episode.
Clearly, there is widespread evidence that some men - perhaps many more than we would ever expect - are willing to take advantage of chaos, aware that, in the right circumstances, they will be able to "get away with it". In Britain, these circumstances include the increasing incidence of binge drinking and a more generalised lawlessness. The only thing more depressing than the number of rape cases in Britain is the rate of conviction. Of 47,000 rapes that the British Crime Survey estimates took place in 2004 (and it is worth noting that the Tory think-tank Civitas believes the British Crime Survey underestimates figures for general crime cases by ten million), one in seven was reported to police. The conviction rate expected for these was 5.6 per cent. This fact alone must be considered indicative of the number of rapes. If we accept that rape is at least sometimes a crime of opportunity, it stands to reason that potential perpetrators will take note and advantage of a lower than 1 per cent chance of conviction. Given these odds, which potential rapist would feel any compulsion to stem his appetite?
Women should be able to drink as freely as men. They should be safe to weave drunkenly through the streets, if they so please, so long as they don't scare the pigeons or the neighbours. Realistically, however, it would seem that a drunk woman is more than ever a target for predators. As Jo Lovett, co-author of a recent Home Office report into rape, found: "There are people undoubtedly targeting women who are drunk. We have to address the myth that you can only be raped by a violent stranger."
A drunk woman, and certainly a woman who is paralytic, has far less chance of fighting back. (The British Crime Survey says 15 per cent of all raped women are too drunk to give their consent.) But another reason that drunk women are vulnerable has been pinpointed by Julie Bindel, founder of Justice for Women. "The fact is that many young women, through no fault of their own, fall into a cliche that makes them vulnerable. They're dressed up in heels and skirts, they're on the sauce, and they're more sexually open than previous generations. In my opinion, there's a constituency of rapists who know what juries don't like, and target women accordingly."
Thus, in court (if, by some miracle, the case should get that far, as only 10 per cent of reported cases make it to trial), a rapist is far less likely to be convicted if the victim was drunk. Aside from assuming that the woman's memory was impaired, juries often perceive drunken young women as "asking for it", female jurors apparently being most judgemental in this respect. As a judge commented in a Criminal Bar Association report last year, "Juries always want a victim who is as pure as the driven snow. Women on juries especially are very particular about young girls who go out and have nine vodka ices. I don't think there are many women on a jury who are particularly sympathetic in that situation."
The myths surrounding rapists - that they are wild-eyed types with shifty eyes and unkempt beards - are another factor that lets women down in court. It is very difficult for an accuser who has been drinking to secure a conviction against a defendant who is smartly turned out, holds down a job and has a girlfriend. So long as a rapist chooses his victim carefully, the issue of consent - always a "he said, she said" situation anyway - will be skewed in his favour.
Change is possible. In New York, some boroughs recorded conviction rates as high as 80 per cent after the advent of trained specialist rape prosecutors (a measure that has been implemented by the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK, but, as yet, without sufficient funding or success). Until conviction rates in this country rise, rapists will continue to have free rein to indulge their worst impulses, and women can never be entirely safe. And until the government properly addresses the imbalance that is written into our legal system, it seems likely that rape cases will continue to rise and spike. I, for one, am not looking forward to the figures that will be published after this year's party season.