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17 March 2008

What about rape victims?

We want to see all political parties making the greater commitment of ringfencing proper funding for

By Katherine Rake

Every 34 minutes a rape is reported to the police in the United Kingdom. Thousands more victims do not come forward. Yet three-quarters of local authorities have no services for rape victims. It is only women who are ‘lucky enough’ to be attacked in the right area that can expect to have any access to support services.

This should be a national scandal – a political disaster for the government. Instead, the issue of rape, and support services for rape victims in particular, remains low on the list of political priorities.

In part, this may reflect the fact that the population has little understanding of just how prevalent rape is. Ever year, 47,000 women are raped. Yet a 2005 poll showed that only 4% of respondents thought that the total number of women raped every year exceeded 10,000.

This vast underestimation of how often rape actually happens is linked to stereotypical ideas about what constitutes ‘real’ rape.

Recent research by Eaves Housing found that the majority of press coverage of rape focuses on sexual violence which is committed by strangers, in deserted streets at night-time. In reality, such cases only constitute 17% of all rape.

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‘Real’ victims of rape are often portrayed by the media as young, innocent girls who experience these attacks at the hands of ‘sex beasts’. Rape, unlike gun or knife crime, is not seen as part of a wider social problem which requires policy solutions and national networks of support services. Rather, it is understood as a random act by a violent maniac.

In fact, the statistics show that rape is something which happens every day to ordinary women, often in their own homes, and usually at the hands of someone they know. Furthermore, numerous studies bear witness to the fact that rape by a former or current partner is highly traumatic and disruptive to victim’s lives. But the reality of acquaintance rape is not widely accepted.

At best, acquaintance rape, which constitutes 83% of all rape, is often understood as being a misunderstanding, something which is not as serious as ‘real’ rape, and which victims must bear some of the responsibility for. At worst, it is explained as the result of women who regret drunken one night stands crying rape.

In this way, questions about the victim’s character dominate and cloud the debate. The real question of why most victims of rape have no support services available to them is supplanted by doubts cast on the victim’s own behaviour and credibility.

Women who are too promiscuous, too flirtatious, too drunk, or too provocatively dressed are commonly perceived as leaving themselves open to attack. They are seen as sending out the wrong signals to men, and therefore as complicit in the sexual violence they suffer. For example, one third of people believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she ‘flirted’ with a man who later raped her.

This attitude is in some ways understandable. It is tempting to believe that if women are careful, if we don’t behave in the wrong way, then these things can’t happen to us. It is tempting to believe that ‘real’ rape is not something which happens every day in women’s homes, but an isolated event which affects a very small minority of women.

However, popular underestimation of the prevalence of rape, and the very real damage which it causes to women’s lives, has devastating consequences for women who are left with nowhere to turn after being raped.

It is against this backdrop that Rape Crisis centres are being allowed to close without the public outcry that such a blatant failure of government merits. The Conservatives have at least promised that in government they would stabilise support for rape crisis centres by establishing three-year funding cycles.

But we want to see all political parties making the greater commitment of ringfencing adequate funding for a network of rape crisis services to be established right across the country.

The standard of care provided to those who experience sexual violence is a telling measure of societal attitudes to rape. The current climate is one in which the prevalence of rape is denied. If ‘real’ rape is condemned by blaring tabloid headlines, sexual coercion and rape by acquaintances is often either rendered invisible or explained away as a misunderstanding. It is in such a context that sexual violence can thrive.

Services for rape victims are an absolutely essential first step. However, if they are to significantly reduce the prevalence of rape, the government will have to make a commitment to creating a shift in public attitudes by launching a public education campaign on this issue.

Katherine Rake is director of the Fawcett Society

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