12 Aug 2008

It's just been on both BBC and Channel 4 news that a rape victim has had the full amount of compensation for her attack restored to her, after originally having it cut by 25% for the sole reason that she had been drinking on the night of the attack. This was deemed 'contributory' behaviour. It has also emerged that 14 other victims were subject to the same reductions - all 15 women have now had this ruling overturned.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority originally told the woman in question that the reason for the reduction was that "the evidence shows that your excessive consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor in the incident". This was not the woman's first experience of indifference or even outright hostility from the authorities - her rapist was never caught, and she complained about the way her case was handled by the police, leading to two officers being disciplined and her receiving an official apology. We can only wonder what those officers did, or failed to do, to warrant this. My guess is that their attitudes were probably similar to that of CICA's, and their victim-blaming mentality meant they did not investigate the case to the fullness of their powers. How can we blame them for viewing the victim as a drunken slut who 'asked for it', when the highest powers in the land send out a message saying exactly that?

Obviously it's positive that some sense has prevailed, and that 15 women have been vindicated in the fight for justice - although I'm sure no amount of compensation helps to erase the pain, terror and humiliation of a rape, nor the fact that the majority of rapists get away with it, as they did in the first woman's case. But, the fact that in these supposedly enlightened time, that a ruling body can even think about blaming a woman for her attack, is stunning. As the victim pointed out simply - "there is nothing you can do to prevent yourself being raped. It is not illegal to go out and have a drink , it is illegal to rape somebody." So where on earth does this tendency to blame the victim come from, and how has it been allowed to go unchallenged to the point where ruling justice authorities can use it to abuse women who have already been through hell? Is it not depressing enough that the chances of securing a conviction after your ordeal are absolutely pitiful? That, all things being equal, the man who committed one of the vilest acts a human being can ever inflict upon another human being, will get away with it?

From the BBC News website: Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, said the original decision by the CICA was symptomatic of the "blame culture" experienced by rape victims. 

"It used to be that they were always blamed if they were wearing a short skirt, today it's that they were drinking," she said. "It's very important for women who've been victims of rape to get compensation because often it's the only acknowledgement you are going to get that you have been a victim of crime, given that the conviction rate in this country is only 6%."

So, is there a connection between the low conviction rate and these attitudes? I fail to believe they are mere coincidence. There seems to be two twisted beliefs that intertwine to make women's fight in the courtrooms nigh impossible. One, that rape doesn't really exist - there's only women who change their minds the next day, or can't remember what they did because they were drinking, or who are a bit slutty so make accusations to cover up their hunger for sex, or to ruin a man's reputation. Quite where the idea that the 'easiest' way to ruin a man's reputation is to make a rape accusation, and hence it's what most rape complainants are really doing, is baffling. Anyone who's done even a smidgen of reading about what goes into even getting a rape case to trial will know that it's mentally and physically exhausting, harrowing and humiliating for the victim, and will most likely end in acquittal. But then we have the other, more sinister thread of belief that seems to permeate Britain, and that's that rape does go on, but we don't actually care. We see women as 'inviting' attacks through manner of dress, alcohol consumption, flirting. How else can the CICA's words been interpreted? Cutting someone's compensation on grounds that drinking is 'contributory behaviour' - as if the victim is somehow a colluder in their own assault? How can anyone give this illogical guff the time of day unless they believe that women want, or deserve rape? I find it absolutely terrifying. At best, the CICA are grossly confused, out of touch and have chosen the wrong case to try and make an example out of. At worst, they are misogynists who believe women are to blame for the constant acts of sexual violence that are exacted upon them every day, largely without any retribution.

After CICA's u-turn - only under mounting legal pressure and the exposure of it sowmen hating ways - The Ministry of Justice also added it was not its policy to "reduce the level of award to a victim of rape due to alcohol consumption. "This stance supports our view that a victim of rape is not in any way culpable due to alcohol consumption." But this doesn't make it any less terrifying that CICA was able to get away with blaming the victim until now. I wonder who makes up the committe who came out with the now-overturned decision? Can we comfort ourselves by thinking it was a load of grey-haired old white men largely out of touch with modern culture, who still resent women for setting foot outside of the kitchen and can't get their heads round females being anything other than saintly virgins or blameworthy whores? That's the easy get-out. However, it seems women can be each other's worst judges. In a survey of Irish women in Ms. Magazine, one-third of respondents felt rape victims were to blame for their attack. A friend who sat on the jury at a sexual assault trial reported to me his shock at how the female jurors were far more harsh towards, and dismissive of, the testimony of the victim. They all held forth on what they would have done in the situation, how they would have fought the attacker off, and how they didn't believe a rape had taken place due to the lack of physical marks and evidence of a struggle. Think it's just the patriarchy against you in a courtroom? Sounds like it's more likely to be your own sisters taking you to task.

I suggested to my friend that the female jurors' unwillingness to believe the victim - in addition to the fact her story was indeed shaky and inconsistent - was a form of self-protection, a way of immunising themselves from the notion that this humiliating and terrifying ordeal was something that could ever happen to them. 'Oh, I'd kick him in the balls' 'Stupid woman - why didn't she do x?', 'Well, it wouldn't have happened like that if I'd been there.'. Basically, we feed into what CICA wanted us to believe - that there's no such thing as 'REAL' rape, just women who don't fight hard enough or who are too intoxicated or who gave 'mixed messages'. And as long as we can assure ourselves we wouldn't do any of those things, we can rest easy in the smugness that It'll Never Happen To Us. One of the most frightening things to face about rape is that it's most likely to be done by someone you know - and how are you supposed to tally that with everything you're taught? Jessica Valenti hit the nail on the head by pointing out that women are taught to live their lives by a Rape Schedule - where to go, where to avoid, what to wear, who to seek out for protection, how to basically stop a crime that by it's very nature is a crime that takes place whether you try to stop it or not. It is NON CONSENSUAL. You do not 'LET IT HAPPEN' 'INVITE IT' or 'ASK FOR IT'. It is not a 'bit of fun that gets out of hand' 'a bit of slap and tickle', it is a violent and vile act that has NOTHING TO DO WITH SEX. And yet, male responsibility is conspicuous by its absence in all arguments. Everything comes down to the woman - how she behaved, what she did or did not do, and therefore how blameworthy we see her in her own assault.

A total re-examination of attitudes, and a re-education of us all, is needed, if we are ever going to escape a society rapidly becoming so diseased with misogyny that even the highest legal authorities are now spouting what the man and woman in the street secretly believe - that rape is a woman's problem, and women are the ones to be scrutinised whenever and wherever it occurs. We need to bring men and male responsibility into the arena, and face facts that are hard and ugly to face. Men rape. Fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, boyfriends, flatmates, colleagues - the better they are known to you, the more likely they are to be the ones to do it. And they get away with it, because of social prejudices which feed into a confused and lumbering legal system where a woman's integrity is still largely the issue at stake, rather than the moral and sexual behaviour of the defendent. We weight everything upon women's shoulders - the responsibility for avoidance of rape, the responsibility for being raped. Why do we never shift the burden onto those who commit this most vile of woman-hating crimes? If we acknowledge that a woman was raped by her husband, does it mean the rest of us have to look at our husbands and boyfriends with new mistrustful eyes? If we accept that men do take advantage of drunk women, or drug women's drinks on nights out, does it mean our enjoyment of a few Strongbows and a dance at the local club will forever be compromised? If we have to consider that maybe it's not just some freakish loner lurking in an alley who is the danger, and instead often men who appear eminently respectable, with jobs, families, and partners, will it paralyse women to the point where we're afraid to be anywhere, because nowhere is safe?

Education has to start early. We educate children about the dangers of sexual abuse, who to avoid, what to say, what to do. But we also counter this with an assurance of blamelessness - if someone forces you to do something you don't want to do, it isn't your fault, and you should tell on that person. Somewhere on the way to adulthood, this simple and true message gets warped to a point where even going to the police is a huge act of bravery for a rape victim, because of the culture of disbelief and blame, and as in the case of the woman above, a tendency to mishandle and blunder cases that the police are often as badly as educated about as the rest of us. Why aren't we educating boys about what consent really means? Not because it's something that should need spelling out, but so that there are no excuses, no grey areas. Why aren't we teaching boys and girls that rape isn't about a man just 'not being able to help himself' or a woman dressing too provocatively or any of the other illogical bullshit that implies men force themselves upon women simply due to being excessively horny? If that were the case surely the male species would long ago have been imprisoned in zoos and labelled an embarrassment to civilised society. Men know that a short skirt, a low-cut top, a smile, a dance, a drink, a chat, does not give anyone the right over another person's body. They KNOW this. But those who actively want to demand access to someone else's body and are not interested in gaining consent, can hide behind the excuse that They Didn't Know. She smiled at me, your honour, she rubbed against me on the dancefloor, she was drinking, she let me walk her home, she said no but she acted like she meant yes, you know what women are like...the rapist knows there are a million ways he can get out of it. So we need to make sure all excuses are consigned to the bullshit pile, and that everyone - men and women - know there are no excuses.

Until people understand though, that rape isn't just 'sex that gets a bit out of hand', we're going to get nowhere. People are going to keep seeing rape on some kind of a sliding scale, as something that's obviously horrific if it happens to a virginal 12 year old, but if it happens to a sexually experienced 35 year old who had already had sex with the man in question, well, she must be culpable in part. Until we separate rape from consensual sex - two acts that could not be more removed from each other - we are going to keep falling into this trap of believing that an outfit, a drink or a smile are what causes a man to hold a woman down and force his penis into her vagina, anus or mouth. We have to be unwavering in our certainty that nothing gives anyone the right to do this, that no 'signal' can ever be construed as invite to force, that every person's body is inviolably theirs to control how they wish, and that anyone who commits this violation - whatever excuse they make - is woman-hating scum who should be met with the severest punishment imaginable.

The victory of the 15 woman over CICA today sends out a powerful message. But I wonder how much damage has been done by the earlier message CICA sent out, one it only retracted when its back was up against the legal wall. Is it good that debate has been stirred up, that judicial bodies have been forced to re-examine and apologise for their vile prejudices? Almost certainly. But for every right thinking person celebrating that sense has been seen, I'm sure there'll be a few others, male and female, who agree with CICA's original ruling. And that is precisely why there remains such an uphill struggle for women ever to be truly protected from sexual violence. At the moment, we can neither claim protection from it, nor justice for victims where it occurs. What a sad indictment of the modern world.

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