Ched Evans playing for Sheffield United in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Ched Evans and Ma’lik Richmond: why should rapists get a second chance to be celebrated?

Sports stars who are convicted of rape get to return as heroes on the field. If there were justice for women, rape would be a crime that makes us all turn in disgust from the perpetrator.

Most rapists get their second chance. It’s worth remembering that as we argue over the rehabilitation of two sports stars and convicted perpetrators of sexual violence, Steubenville high school wide-receiver Ma’lik Richmond (convicted of rape in 2013 alongside teammate Trent Mays, released from juvenile detention in January this year and now training with his school team again) and Sheffield United’s former star striker Ched Evans (convicted of rape in 2012, due for release in October and apparently expectant of a return to Bramall Lane). As rapists, these men aren’t exceptional so much because of their talent or fame, but because they got caught at all.

Of 100 complaints of rape to the police in England and Wales, only 6 per cent will ultimately result in the accused being convicted of rape. There are ways of making this figure look less dreadful. For example, because some of the accused will be convicted of offences other than rape, the attrition rate is actually 12 per cent. Focus only on cases brought to trial, and things become even brighter: the conviction rate in 2014 was 60 per cent. But what about the victims who never even make it as far as the police desk? According to a 2004 study by Walby and Allen, only 20 per cent of rape victims report the crime at all.

Suddenly the denominator swells alarmingly. Crudely combining all this data produces the rather sickening possibility that for every 100 rapes, only one will lead to a man being convicted as a rapist. (And yes, 98 per cent of rape defendants are men. Rape, as if this needed to be repeated, is overwhelmingly a crime of male violence against female bodies.) That great majority of rapists who will never encounter justice are free to carry on with their lives: they go to work, they see their families, they go out with their friends. A significant number of them rape again, and again: when a backlog of abandoned sexual assault kits was tested in Detroit, 100 serial rapists were identified from the first 1,600 kits.

So when I resent the return of Richmond and Evans to their “normal” lives, maybe there’s an unfair sense in which I want the few convicted rapists to be punished for the all those crimes against women that will never be subject to the law. That, I know, is not justice, but then there’s a very strange public view of what “justice” is in both these cases anyway. Despite the laws that are supposed to protect their identities, the victims have been widely named and their photographs circulated; they’ve been abused as “stupid” and “sluts” and “liars” and worse, and threatened with further violence. Meanwhile the perpetrators have lost very little: they’re frequently referred to as though they were the wronged party in these cases, even though their lives seem to have been there, waiting for them to return (an unusual privilege for the imprisoned).

When Evans’ supporters talk about “Justice for Ched”, they mean exonerating their hero (Evans was refused leave to appeal in November 2012) and shaming the woman they see as responsible for his punishment. The attitude is a strangely contradictory one, although completely consistent with the warped public attitude we have to women’s bodies: of course no one doubts that rape is a terrible crime, it’s just that they don’t think that the terrible crime happened in this case (the jury was unanimous that it did), and even if they accept there was a rape, it probably wasn’t that bad anyway. A caller to Radio 2 on Thursday described Evans as “a naughty boy”, as if forcing one’s erect penis into an unconsenting woman were an act of mere childish mischief.

Richmond is infantilised into irresponsibility too, although given that he was only 16 when convicted, it’s more understandable: notoriously, a CNN reporter relaying the verdict in his trial told her audience that it was “incredibly difficult . . . to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their life fell apart”. And though I share the mass revulsion those words inspired, reading Ariel Levy’s detailed account of the case, I do understand how Richmond made a sympathetic figure, a tearaway kid turned good by football. That is understand, up to the point where Richmond says that he hasn’t broken any code by “fooling around with someone his friend had been involved with”. The victim, he says, was “community property”.

When we excuse rape, we condone the belief that women are things and not people, objects for penetration that should be careful how they comport themselves if they want to avoid getting penetrated. When Richmond and Evans return to the field, they will return as heroes – not just sporting heroes now, but heroes of masculine violence. When their fans chant for them, some of them will chant about rape, chants that glorify men for the assault on women while demeaning the idea that an assault on something as barely-human as a woman could count as a crime at all. And this, after all, is what I object to: not that criminals should have a second chance at life, but that rapists have a second chance to be celebrated.

If there were justice for women, rape would be a crime that makes us all turn in disgust from the perpetrator. We would see rapists as what they are – men who have committed one of the ultimate acts of denying female humanity, men who have performed an act of intimate savagery by penetrating the bounds of a woman’s body against her wishes. If there were justice for women, the shame, disbelief and misogyny that lead to the 6 per cent attrition rate for rape conviction would not exist. If there were justice for women, Richmond and Evans would be humbly recusing themselves from the world while they await forgiveness – they wouldn’t be gently settling back into the lives they had before. But there is no justice for women. And these two rapists, like so many other rapists, get to go on with their lives.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.