Today, the End Violence Against Women Coalition published their survey on attitudes towards rape and sexual violence in the UK. YouGov asked 3,922 people to respond, revealing that “myths about rape remain very common.”
The findings demonstrate an alarming ignorance about what constitutes rape, and who is responsible for sexual violence committed against women (and men, although the vast majority of rape victims in the UK are female).
The survey found, for example, that a third of respondents didn’t believe it was rape if a woman was forced to have sex against her will, but there was no additional physical violence. This ignores how forcing someone to have sex in itself physical violence, even if there are no weapons, slaps or kicks involved. Being penetrated without consent can only ever be a physically violent act. To deny this is to really lack empathy with a woman’s body.
Other concerning findings included that a third of male respondents didn’t believe it was rape if a woman flirted with a man beforehand, and a third of people believed it wasn’t rape if a woman withdrew consent during sex. A worrying 24 per cent believed that “that sex without consent in long-term relationships is usually not rape.” [my emphasis]
These survey results are extremely distressing. It’s shocking that, 27 years after rape within marriage became a crime in the UK, people still believe that women in long-term relationships are objects which can be raped. What this translates to is the belief that if a woman says yes once, then she can never again say no – that an initial agreement subsequently makes a woman unrapeable.
This was echoed in another result which found that 11 per cent of respondents answered “the more sexual partners a woman has, the less harm she will experience from a rape.”
It’s frankly alarming that so many people believe a woman trades in her right to say no if she’s had sex more than once or with more than one person (most women). When we have sex, we don’t give up our right to bodily autonomy.
These views entrench male entitlement to women’s bodies. We should all be worried that a significant minority of British society still believes a man is entitled to access a woman’s body if she flirts with him, is drunk, has had sex with him before, or has had sex with any men before.
Not least because these attitudes have an impact on women’s access to justice.
Recent high profile cases, in different legal systems, demonstrate the problems with rape myths in the courtroom. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a rape case in Ireland where the girl’s choice of knickers was used as evidence to prove she was “open to meeting someone and being with someone.” Then there was the Belfast rape case, where the complainant was judged negatively for drinking and flirting with the accused men before she alleged they raped her.
A further example was the evidence presented during Ched Evans’ successful retrial. Here, the complainant’s previous sexual partners told the court she had consented to sex in specific (although common) positions with them on other occasions. Ched Evans was found not guilty, but what concerned feminist activists about this use of evidence was the suggestion that if a woman consented to sex one way at one time, then that could be used to argue for her consent on subsequent occasions.
In each of these cases, the alleged offenders were found not guilty, based on a range of evidence presented in the courtroom.
There was one silver lining in the EVAW Coalition survey. A breakdown of the results found that younger people are less likely to hold damaging views about rape and rape victims. For example, while 42 per cent of over-65s believe that “in most cases if a woman changes her mind halfway through but the sex continues, it isn’t rape”, only 22 per cent of 25- 49-year-olds said the same.
Similarly, “more than a third (35 per cent) of over-65s we asked think that in most cases isn’t rape to have non-consenting sex with your wife or partner, compared to just 16 per cent of 16-24s”.
This tells us that attitudes can change, and with the right conversations and the right education, they will continue to change. The generational shift in how we think about rape gives some hope, but it must be supported by proper sex and relationships education that focuses on consent and respect.
Today’s survey shows how challenging rape myths is working – slowly – but that we must do more to dispel beliefs around rape that say women who talk to men, drink with men, have sex with men, or are in a relationship with men, cannot become victims of rape. Unless we do, then women will still struggle to come forward to report sexual violence, juries will still struggle to convict those guilty of sexual violence, and male entitlement to women’s bodies will remain entrenched.