Why is rape so difficult for some people to understand? | Joanna Bourke

Eradicating rape depends as much on educating people about this crime as it does on legal reform

Rape is painful, demeaning and destructive. Why is this so difficult for some people – including some influential men – to understand? People who have survived sexual assault and rape are right to be appalled to hear the minister for justice minimising the effect of rape when the attacker was well known to them. In a discussion about whether criminal sentences should be reduced if the accused pleaded guilty, Kenneth Clarke made a distinction between "serious rapes" and "date rapes". He later retracted this distinction, but the implication that "date rape" is not "serious rape" is extraordinary for a man in charge of the criminal justice system.

This tendency to minimise the effect of sexual violence has also been seen in the furore over the arrest of the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on suspicion of attempted sexual assault. It turns out that a great many people suspected that Strauss-Kahn had a dark side. The media and other politicians seem to have turned a blind eye. Michel Taubmann, Strauss-Kahn's official biographer, even put forward the argument that Strauss-Kahn did not possess the "profile of a rapist". Presumably, real rapists are knife-wielding thugs from some deprived inner-city neighbourhood.

In contrast, it is well known that most rapes and sexual assaults are carried out by people one knows. Indeed, Tristane Banon, the novelist and journalist who has claimed that Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her in 2002, chose not to report his alleged violence to the police because he was a family friend. He was also incredibly powerful.

There are many problems with diminishing the harm of sexual assault when the assailant is known to the victim. The breach of trust in this form of rape can be particularly traumatising. As one woman stammered after being raped by her husband: "He raped me … It emotionally hurt worse [than stranger rape]. You can compartmentalise stranger rape … you can manage to get over it differently. But here you're at home with your husband and you don't expect that." Victims of rape by spouses or intimate friends are harmed in similar ways to other victims of rape, but they may suffer additional feelings of betrayal, inability to trust, and isolation.

Why do so many people remain opposed to making men fully accountable for sexually abusive acts? One reason is the fear of false accusations. This is a red herring. Fear of being falsely charged with rape has been stoked up by the vastly disproportionate media attention given to instances of malicious accusations. It is also stirred up by anxiety about the sexual act itself and the exact meaning of "consent" and how it is communicated.

In fact, false accusations are very rare. The most reliable statistics come from a major UK Home Office research project from 2000-03. Initially, the researchers concluded that 9% of reported rape accusations were false. However, on closer analysis, this percentage dropped dramatically. They found that many of the cases listed as "no evidence of assault" were the result of someone other than the victim making the accusation. In other words, a policeman or passerby might see a woman distressed or drunk, with her clothes ripped, and report it as a suspected rape. When the woman was able to provide an account for what happened, it proved that no rape had taken place. Once such cases had been eliminated from the study, only 3% of allegations should have been categorised as false.

Contrary to the notion that men are at risk of being falsely accused of rape, it is much more common for actual rapists to get away with their actions. Only 6% of offences reported to the police result in a conviction on the full charge of rape. Between half and four-fifths of sexual assaults are never even reported to the authorities in the first place. Fear of not being believed, concerns about re-victimisation, anxiety about being judged in turn, and the discomfort of the interrogation and medical examination are some of the factors responsible for failure to complain. Reprisals, especially if the offender is a partner or ex-partner, are common.

Clearly, rape is not an easy charge to make. The stigma attached to any person claiming to have been raped is significant, and in the (unlikely) event of a trial, the victim faces an ordeal that is often described as degrading in itself.

Eradicating rape depends as much on educating people about this crime as it does on legal reform. If the minister for justice can minimise the harm of certain kinds of violence, there is something seriously wrong. Good sex is a great source of delight. Being coerced to have sex, though, can be one of the worst experiences of a person's life. To imply that it is somehow less harmful because of prior contact with the aggressor is simply astounding.

• This article was amended on 23 May 2011. The original said that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been "arrested for attempted sexual assault"; this has been clarified. The original also said, "Only 6% of offences reported to the police ever result in a conviction". This has also been clarified.

Contributor

Joanna Bourke

The GuardianTramp

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