Thursday, 11 November 2010
It's never a great week to be a victim of sexual violence in the UK, but this week is particularly awful and shocking...
This is thanks to the news that a woman in Wales has been jailed for eight months for making a false retraction of rape claims against her husband after feeling so intimidated by him and his family that she felt it was best to withdraw her allegations. The police and CPS felt the case against her husband was strong enough that it was scheduled to go to trial when this woman was imprisoned for a false retraction. She is now in prison and the charges against her husband have been dropped, despite the fact that a false retraction suggests to me that the original allegation must have been true.
This case means that women can now be prosecuted and imprisoned for both reporting an allegation of rape and withdrawing an allegation of rape if the police and CPS deem them to be false. I am not naive enough to believe that false allegations don't exist, but I'm also aware enough of the massive failings of the police and the CPS in investigating so many rape cases, that I just don't trust their judgement. In my experience, neither the police or CPS is actually on the side of the victim, just what suits their agenda better at that time. The Metropolitan Police in particular have been reprimanded on more than one occasion for 'no criming' allegations of sexual crime at a very high rate. This essentially means that although an allegation has been made, the police decide (often without any investigation at all) that nothing actually happened and write it off without it affecting their statistics. It has long been suspected that 'no criming' has been used to avoid difficult to investigate cases fouling up the unsolved crime rates. It also has the handy of side effect of allowing police officers and the CPS to see the person who made the allegation as a liar and score points with an arrest or charge against them for perverting the course of justice. In the current climate of league tables, an arrest is an arrest and who cares if it's against a frightened vulnerable victim who has just seen their allegation of sexual assault dismissed like an inconvenience?
This attitude helps no one and simply helps foster a culture of disbelief against victims that is used to legitimise the police being able to get away with not bothering to investigate allegations of sexual crime. After all, if all women are lying about rape and going to prison for it, then why should the police bother spending their resources investigating mere lies? And if people in authority say women are lying, it becomes much easier for the papers (step forward the Daily Mail) and the people who comment on them to tar all women with the same brush and disbelieve everything they say.
But the problem is that in the majority of cases, these women (and it is primarily women) aren't telling lies. Like me, they not only had the audacity to 'get themselves raped', but to do it in an inconvenient and awkward fashion that requires some actual detective work to make things clear. Instead of treating them with respect for coming forward and refusing to be intimidated by their attackers, the police sees them as a pain in the arse for not managing to be assaulted on CCTV by a perfect stranger with at least 3 witnesses and irrefutable physical evidence. So they punish victims further by ignoring what evidence there is because it isn't just handed to them on a plate and then they try everything by hook or by crook they can to get the allegation to go away.
I'm sure by now you're sympathetic to the plight of these victims, but assuming that I'm a teensy weensy wee bit biased here and making things seem much more sinister than they really are. And you know what, maybe am I, but that's probably because I've experienced this first hand when I reported my first rape.
My rapist threatened me and my female flatmates if I went to the police about what he'd done. I believed him and since he'd raped me in the kitchen of our house, he definitely knew where we lived. For three months I tried to deal with what had happened, but it became apparent that living in a permanent state of fear was causing me to fall apart. I decided that I needed to take back control and that meant reporting the crime against me. Having no idea how to do such a thing, I turned to Google and found an email address for the Met who advised me to go to the police station that housed the Sapphire Unit for my borough and report in person. I was assured that the gap between the attack and reporting wasn't a problem.
I plucked up the courage and went off to Clapham police station and made probably the biggest mistake of my life. From the outset the police were dismissive, criticising me for coming at lunchtime, making me wait almost an hour and half before I saw a Sapphire officer. It only got worse from there, interrogating me repeatedly as to why I hadn't reported earlier and seeming to dismiss it when I explained about the threats. They rolled their eyes and sighed when I explained I no longer had the forensic evidence and went completely silent when I identified my attacker and where he worked, looking meaningfully at each other and leaving the room for another 45 minutes.
When they came back in, they told me I could leave. I asked them if I could tell my flatmates that they would be expected to be interviewed, assuming this would be the next step after arresting my attacker. I was told that no one would be being interviewed and that I needed to go away and think very carefully about what I was saying and make a decision about whether I wanted it recorded in a statement next week and the consequences of that decision to me. Too distressed to go home I sobbed my way to a friend's house, discovering the only way to get a seat on a rush hour bus is to howl like a banshee and drip snot everywhere. (So tough do I think I am I had forgotten to bring any tissues...)
After several days I plucked up the courage to go home and tell my flatmates that despite what the police said, they should expect to be interviewed about what had happened that night. I just didn't believe the police would do nothing. And I could scarcely believe what happened next.
My housemates went ballistic when I told them I had been honest with the police that there were drugs in the house the night I was attacked. Instead of being glad that a violent attack against their friend was being taken seriously, they panicked that they were going to get in trouble with the police. When I pushed them to look at the bigger picture, it all started coming out....
They didn't believe me that I had been attacked. Unsure of how the law would address what had happened to me, I had described it as an attempted rape ( I later discovered under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 that it would legally be seen as rape and began addressing it as that.) They demanded I tell them in detail exactly what had happened and when I tried to while retaing some privacy, they dismissed my details as lies and told me it didn't match what my attacker had told them. It became apparent that they had all been spending time with him without my knowledge and he had told them that I had got the wrong end of the stick and that I was a very troubled young woman who was threatening to say terrible things about him. Apparently he was so scared by this he felt he had to buy one housemate a Chloe handbag and take another on an all expenses trip to Spearmint Rhino. They had responded by letting him sleep in my bed while I was away in Belfast and happily partaking of the drugs he always seemed to have around, even though they barely knew him.
It was apparent that they simply didn't care what had happened to me. They veered between calling me a liar and telling me they would let my attacker back into the house to finish what he had started if I didn't go back to the police and tell them I had lied and that there were no drugs in the house. Terrified that they would call their new friend and let him do whatever he wanted, I barricaded myself in my bedroom that night and never spent another night there again, feeling safer to be homeless. I had lived with some of these people for three years and considered them close enough friends to have feared for them after being attacked.
I went to the council to declare myself homeless and ask for help. I considered just packing up and going back to Belfast, but I was worried that 'running away' would make me look guilty. I accepted the offer of a sofa from two friends and went back to the police to make a statement that would involve me telling them the witnesses had threatened me.
My righteous indignation ran out of steam pretty quickly when the investigating officer handed me a pre -typed statement saying I was not persuing the allegation and allowing it to be recorded as a 'no crime'. Incensed that I had just lost my home over something that wasn't even going to be called a crime, I reminded her about the threats and how scared I was. She leaned over the statement and told me if I didn't sign it, she couldn't guarantee that the police would be able to provide the crime reference number the council needed to declare me in need of housing. Forced to choose between persuing an attack that had no witnesses and no forensics and having a roof over my head, I signed. I withdrew a perfectly true allegation of rape because the police bullied me into it.
I was too scared, too bewildered and too confused to fight their request even though I knew it meant a self confessed serial rapist would go free without so much as a tap on the shoulder. I had no idea I was also setting myself up for the possibility of being prosecuted for making a false allegation, wasting police time or perverting the course of justice. Part of me is glad I didn't have that extra worry as ignorance can be bliss, but part of me is chilled to the bone that other women are not forewarned as to what the consequences of reporting a crime against them can be. No wonder 99% of the women posting on Mumsnet said yesterday that they would not report it if they were raped...
With a 6% conviction rate, the risk of being prosecuted for both making and withdrawing an accusation, having your sexual history, alcohol consumption, mental health and choice of dress dissected in court, the possibility that the police officers involved will fake your statement and the fact that the average rapist gets 7 years and is out in just over 3, it is a minor miracle that anyone ever reports a rape. But yet the reporting rate is rising year on year. Women are refusing to be cowed by their attackers and are coming forward in record numbers to say that what happened isn't right and the people involved must be punished. They don't want other women to suffer as they did and they want to protect them by making sure dangerous rapists are taken off the street.
Instead of responding with integrity and respect for these women, the police, the judiciary and the government resort to bullying, ignoring and slandering them. They drop cases without warning, they destroy or fake evidence, they prosecute victims as liars and they withdraw funding from Rape Crisis groups. They treat victims like modern day lepers and allow rapists to continue violating women and destroying their lives without fear of punishment.
We need to keep up the pressure to prevent things getting worse. We can do this by writing to our MPs, questioning our police forces and donating to charities that help victims of rape. But we can also do it by challenging the propaganda of Daily Mail and its ilk. We can remind people that rape jokes really aren't funny. And we can believe any woman who confides in us that she's been raped, no matter what she was drinking, saying or wearing. They might be small steps, but they're all going in the right direction...