By Harriet Seedhouse
You hear about instances of rape, sexual assault or harassment almost every day in the news or social media, and while there are many who simply think “this happens to other people”, for a large number of people, this is an all too familiar situation. According to the Office for National Statistics, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 in the UK. But if these things happened to you, would you report it? And if you were to report it, wouldn’t you expect something to be done about it?
Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police, and there are a multitude of reasons why people don’t: fear, shame, self-blame, humiliation. It can take great courage for someone to report any crime to the police, let alone something so dehumanising; so when this does happen, one would hope that not only are their claims taken seriously, but also that perpetrators will be prosecuted for their actions.
As can be seen in recent court cases that have made the news, lawyers will go to great lengths to defend rapists, no matter how negatively it affects victims. In 2018, a 17-year-old’s underwear was held up in front of an entire courtroom as proof of that she consented to the alleged rape in an alleyway by a 27-year-old man. Wearing certain clothes does not amount to consent, nor do previous relationships or even the absence of a “no”, yet the victim blaming mentality that the media peddles on a daily basis has led many people to think that their reports wouldn’t be believed. It is understandable that, with the way society treats victims, many people don’t want to subject themselves to the trauma of a court case or news reports and therefore don’t report sexual assaults.
Whether you report a sexual assault or not, these offences can have catastrophic effects on the lives of victims, both mentally and physically. STIs, bruises and physical injury may mean that you need immediate hospital treatment and the fear of reporting can stop many people from accessing this. A large percentage of those who are survivors of rape and sexual violence will also have long lasting mental struggles, from disassociation to depression, and so for many people, the stress of reporting and going through the rigmarole of court procedures would only exacerbate these.
When you take all these factors into account, it’s not surprising that many people are reluctant to report sexual offences. What’s worse, the number of prosecutions continues to fall year on year even as more and more are finding the courage to report sexual assault. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) recently released data which showed that over the past five years, rape offences reported to police have risen by about 65% to 55,195. One would hope that the increase in reported rapes is only due to better reporting practices by the police. However, such a drastic increase suggests that, while this will no doubt have influenced these numbers, the number of rapes might also be increasing.
Even with this rise in reported rape offences, a Guardian analysis of the CPS data concludes that “the number of cases referred by the police for charging decisions fell by 32% in the year to September 2019, while prosecutions by the CPS fell by 26% and convictions dropped by 21%.” These reports are published to hold all parts of the criminal justice system to account, from the police to prosecutors, and in order to enhance transparency in regards to the CPS performance, annual data on Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) offences and hate crime is now published quarterly. With this new information, one wonders: is there anything to be done about this fall in prosecutions or are we to just sit back and accept the fact that many offenders are still free?
Evidence gathering is often a key barrier in the police referring a case to the CPS since crucial evidence is often on the clothes of victims and the delay in the reporting process usually leads this evidence to be worthless. Lack of evidence coupled with the trial by press that often occurs when a rape allegation is made public only further contribute to the lack of belief in victims’ stories. With the growing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there has been concern around the world over just how many of these claims are real and how many are lies. There is no doubt that all reports should be believed regardless of the victim’s situation or how much evidence there is, yet the media quickly jumps to the conclusion that victims are lying. A drop in sexual assault prosecution rates illustrates just how much this affects real victims’ lives.
However, one of the key things to take away from the CPS data is that no matter what is happening with regards to the prosecution rates, reports of these instances are increasing. More people are gathering the courage to come forward and confront their attackers, even with the knowledge that it may not lead to justice being served. This is paving the way for many more people to continue reporting these horrific offences and hopefully, with the increased scrutiny on the CPS, there will be more done to ensure these figures don’t decline any further.
Harriet is a second year aerospace engineering student at the University of Surrey.