The reality of rape: reframing the discussion
Updated: May 20
Change is needed in how we tackle the problem of rape. Conviction rates are low, and falling, and changes to policy and the justice system have been sluggish at best. Some have said that rape might as well be legal. Whether in the UK, US or elsewhere, the unaddressed prevalence of sexual assault and rape should be a matter of great shame.
One of the hurdles we need to overcome is in combatting and countering the many myths about rape that impact how it is discussed in the courtroom and wider society.
The media have a role to play in this. Of course, such is the prevalence of rape, they cannot be expected to report on every case. But those stories that are presented to us, particularly in the more influential national outlets, give a highly skewed picture about the reality of rape.
It is perhaps human nature that the public, and by proxy reporters, are attracted to the more extreme cases. Violent rapes, particularly those that involve murder, tend to garner headlines, as do those in the ‘public eye’ due to the high-profile nature of one or both parties involved.
In the former, convictions tend to come about because of the violent act and the corroborating evidence that comes with it, rather than the act of rape itself. But violent rape accounts for fewer than one in ten cases.
The latter tends to feed into the growing misconception of rape as being a ‘sexual miscommunication’ or misunderstanding. It is an easy defence to call upon because rape, by its nature, rarely has other parties witness to it. Perpetrators commit rapes away from possible witnesses, in the home, or in private places. How often have we seen accused sports stars or actors (for examples) lean on that defence? It is positioned as ‘one of those things’ that can happen at a party, a ‘classic he said, she said’ situation. These are the stories we read about.
We see this even in cases where there are multiple separate accusers. One of those ‘classic he said, she said, she also said, she also said, she also said, she also said, she also said, she also said, she also said, she also said’ situations, if you will. Even then, our laws inherently distrust the testimony of those multiple voices in favour of an unfounded belief that rape might just be a misunderstanding. Multiple times. With different people.
This impression of rape, combined with the overpromoted fear of false accusations, is reflected in our justice systems. It is very difficult to prosecute in that landscape. Because of the diet of cases we are exposed to in the media, they have informed the unrealistic thresholds that we have created in order to progress to a prosecution, never mind a conviction. The result is that victims of rape are often discredited and usually denied justice.
We need to address this by building laws and policies that better reflect the reality about who commits rape, and how.
Statistics published by RAINN, the US-based non-profit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, state that 39% of rapes are committed by an acquaintance, and 33% by a current or former spouse or partner. These are people known to the victim, not a stranger met at a party.
We also know that there is a high prevalence of serial offenders.
Per Armon Edelstein (2016), the numbers published show more victims than perpetrators because many offenders are serial sexual perpetrators who assault two or more individuals, in separate incidents over time.
Further studies suggest a high level of recidivation in convicted sexual offenders. A meta-analysis by Hanson & Morton-Bourgon (2005) found that 10-15% of adult sexual offenders will commit another sexual assault or rape within five years. Lussier & Cale (2013), in reviewing the problems associated with current measures of sexual recidivism, suggested that said rate only increases when tracking conviction beyond a five-year period.
It should be noted, of course, that these studies take place using convicted sexual offenders. These rates may substantially underestimate the true nature of serial sexual offending, given that the many sexual assaults and rapes are not reported to the criminal justice system, and those that are reported lead to staggeringly low conviction rates.
Nevertheless, the research challenges the myth that most rape accusations are just a difference of opinion. We’ve all read the stories that describe a woman who was raped after a night out, and heard others say she wasn't a victim of ‘rape’, as such, but a victim of misunderstanding. We hear that both the victim and perpetrator in question had simply had one too many drinks and couldn’t properly read the signs of consent. This is not what we see in real cases, however.
What the evidence actually shows us is that there are different types of perpetrators, from the current and former intimate partners, to the Brock Turners, to those who drive around, with their ‘rape kit’ and preferred locations, looking for lone and intoxicated women to rape.
Until our justice systems and laws reflect the above realities and grant them equal or greater weighting than the highly violent or ‘contentious’ cases that we are more likely to read about, we will continue to struggle to prosecute perpetrators.
So where does that leave us? Simply, with a need for reform.
A more survivor-centred approach is needed, in which we start from a position of believing accusers and deprioritising our tendency to put them on trial and question their motives for reporting rape. When you consider how low conviction rates are, and the invasive, protracted process that comes with rape cases, we should really know how unlikely it is that someone would come forward without due cause.
A better understanding of witness testimony is crucial, particularly in terms of how we handle memory evidence.
And finally, we need to be better at reflecting the realities of rape at all levels of society. It is the responsibility of politicians, researchers, newspaper editors, cultural leaders, and more, to articulate that rape is not something salacious that happens at swanky parties or something that is always accompanied by physical violence. It is insidious, it is everyday, and it is being largely ignored by those with the power to change it.