Yesterday it was revealed that the notorious black cab rapist, John Worboys, would be released after serving a minimum sentence of eight years (he has been in custody for ten). It’s believed that Worboys assaulted over 100 women — that number reflects the complaints made to the police before and since his conviction. His sentence reflects a conviction of one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges.
Although the proper procedures have been followed in his release, the shortness of the sentence served by Worboys feels like another instance of women being failed by the justice system.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
When the first woman turned up at a London police station to report she had been drugged and raped by a black cab driver, she wasn’t believed. In a heartbreaking interview on Channel 4 News, Worboys’ first reported victim told the programme that not being believed meant she lived with the guilt of his subsequent rapes. If she’d been “more believable”, she said, she feels he could have been stopped.
A few years later, a 19-year-old woman reported that she too had been drugged and raped by a black cab driver. The police officers laughed at her. She said that the police accused her of getting drunk and falling over, and treated her like a criminal.
This was 2007. The first woman’s report was years before that. Yet it took until 2009 before Worboys was eventually arrested.
Following his conviction, Worboys’ victims went to the independent police complaints commision, which found in the women’s favour but no officers were ever sacked.
Meanwhile, two survivors who were attacked in 2003 and 2007 won a human rights case over the way they were treated by the police after they made their first complaints. Although they won this landmark case, the officers involved appealed against the ruling in the Supreme Court and were backed up by Theresa May. As Home Secretary, she intervened on behalf of the police officers in their attempts to overturn the court’s ruling.
The survivor known as “DSD” said in response to her Human Rights case: “The experience of being disbelieved and failed by the police was as bad, if not worse, than being a victim of Worboys. I brought this case not just for myself but because the police should be held to account when they have failed so badly.”
Worboys was free to rape and attack women for years after that first report — almost as many years as he has served for his crimes. Women were mocked, disbelieved and treated like criminals while he continued to rape what the Met now believe was more than 100 women. When his case came to trial, prosecutors was decided not to pursue a number of other accusations made against him. Keir Starmer, who was DPP at the time and is now Labour’s Brexit spokesman, is now facing criticism for that decision.
It’s not for me to talk about the sentencing and the legal justifications behind it. The Secret Barrister has written a forensic explanation of how parole boards work and how sentencing is calculated, to illustrate why Worboys got a minimum sentence of eight years.
Instead I want to try and express why women feel so hurt and angry by his release. And hurt and angry is how we feel. On my Twitter timeline, talking to friends and family, there’s this sense of shock and hurt and anger that once again it feels like women have endured the most horrific violence, a humiliating and painful aftermath, and it’s not taken seriously by the systems meant to protect and defend us.
Women are angry because a rapist was sentenced for eight years for rape, even though the crime can carry up to a life sentence. You may remember in 2010, former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke caused controversy when he didn’t believe men would get as little as five years for this crime — saying that wouldn’t be the case for ‘serious rapes’. One wonders how serious the Worboys case is considered, when he only got eight.
Women are angry because we spend our lives being taught to avoid men like Worboys. Because every day thousands if not millions of us take subtle steps to adjust our lives to “keep ourselves safe” from violent men. We leave the party early. We carry our keys in our hands. We crowd onto night buses while men walk. We get cabs instead of walking home.
One of the reasons the police didn’t believe Worboys’ accusers was because women are supposed to be “safe” in cabs — so when this story came out we had to make a whole new set of adjustments. We do everything right, we play by the unwritten rules, and yet we’re still not safe. We’re still not believed.
Women are angry because we are caught in a double bind. We are taught to be on our guard from the time we are teenagers, and yet are told our fears are irrational. We’re meant to be accommodating to men, to smile and say yes and be nice. And at the same time we are told to be afraid of men and adjust our lives to keep ourselves safe. It’s an impossible demand.
We’re angry because women are made to feel guilty for not reporting. And yet when women do report, we face the indignity of not being listened to. Of being laughed at. Of being taken to court, as the government backs the men who laugh at us. And then if after years of fighting the man finally goes to prison, he’s out within the decade.
We’re angry because so often rape victims endure a life sentence, and yet the physical and emotional impact of assault is not spoken of.
We’re angry because we’re told being accused of rape is the worst thing that can happen to a man, and yet we know that every year thousands of men lie about rape and commit violence with impunity. Even those who do get convicted can be out within five years while women live with the impact of assault for decades — if not their whole lives.
We’re angry because when we see Worboys leave jail, we think about all our sisters who have reported and not been believed; who have not reported because they don’t trust they’ll be believed. We think about the men who raped our friends and family who never saw the inside of a police station let alone a courtroom or cell. We think about the thousands of women every year who know they will never get justice for the violence committed against them.