A study released today revealed that one in five festival goers have been subject to sexual harassment there, with the figure rising to 43% of women under 40. Campaigners say the report should be a wake-up call for the industry to “start treating sexual violence as seriously as other crimes.” The sinister extent of rape culture in this country remains widely unseen – especially where it extends to the state itself.
Much of the rhetoric around tackling sexual violence focuses on encouraging women to come forward and report their assaulters to the police – to treat it as a crime, and use the formal mechanisms of police and state to deliver justice. But those mechanisms have perennially failed survivors of sexual assault.
In 2014 it was revealed that a quarter of rapes reported to police were not even being recorded as crimes. Of those, only 28 percent were being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for further action. Since then, we’ve seen institutional abuse exposed, the globalisation of #MeToo and a resurgent feminist movement here in the UK. At a moment like this you might expect the state – and especially the police – to pick up their game when it comes to sexual and gender violence. But what we’re actually finding, beneath the progressive rhetoric, is a strong political backlash.
Research suggests that a staggering 85 percent of adults raped in the UK never report to the police in the first place. With that in mind, this seems a bizarre moment for the Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick to abandon the force’s policy of believing people when they first report they have been raped.
The ‘believe first’ guidelines were introduced after the breathtaking scale of police failures to investigate allegations against Jimmy Savile were revealed. Rather than impartiality, her comments indicate a return to a historic double standard, with people – especially women – reporting rape less likely to believed than victims of any other crime.
The usual counter-argument is that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a cherished moral principle in our society and with some notable exceptions – young black men walking at night, for example – this is true. But innocent until proven guilty is a legal consideration put in place to protect the civil rights of those wrongly accused of a crime; it does not in any way lessen the obligation of the police to investigate reported crimes properly.
What see all too often in practice, when it comes to women reporting sexual violence, is a principle of ‘don’t bother investigating unless you really can’t avoid it’ .
Imagine calling the police after being burgled. They arrive to find you traumatised and injured, only to tell you they have to ‘keep an open mind’ about whether a crime has taken place. You wouldn’t accept the fact someone else once lied about being burgled as a justification for being treated like a criminal in your hour of need.
Yet, this is the reality facing many rape survivors, forced into silence and isolation by a culture of disbelief not just in wider society but the very police force meant to protect us. And the moment that silence begins to break, we are met by the assertion “it isn’t all about victims” – from the Met’s first female commissioner, no less.
“If it’s a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it,” says the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. “And what might be a misunderstanding between two people, clumsy behaviour between somebody who fancies somebody else, is not a matter for the police.”
These comments are particularly incomprehensible given that the Met also credits the new guidelines with a 20 percent increase in rape reporting last year. However, they also warn the increase is so sharp it may also indicate an actual rise in sexual violence. As many survivors and advocacy groups are crying out, this may well have something to do with the fact that the police drop so many cases now that experts say rape has effectively been ‘decriminalised’.
But the criminal justice system has far more to answer for than simply ignoring sexual violence. In many cases, the state is actively complicit.
The Spycops Scandal has highlighted the way undercover police officers have infiltrated campaign groups, entering into abusive sexual relationships and even fathering children under false identities. But police involvement in sexual violence extends much further.
Many women have bravely spoken out about sexual abuse in prison and police custody. But staying out of prison isn’t enough to keep us safe. In 2012, the Guardian revealed that at least 56 officers from 25 forces had raped, assaulted, harassed or groomed women they met in the line of duty.
Since then, hundreds of officers have been implicated in sexual abuse allegations, with a senior police watchdog calling this “the most serious corruption issue facing the service.” Perpetrators often target vulnerable women in domestic violence shelters, sex workers, homeless women and women with substance abuse issues.
Looking deeper into this culture of complicity, we start to understand why it is harder today to successfully prosecute a rapist than it was in 1977. Over the past 40 years, the conviction rate for rape has plummeted from 32 to 5.6 percent. Of the cases that do make it to court, as few as 1 in 30 can expect to win a guilty verdict.
Still, if we are looking at an increase in sexual violence, it could not have come at a worse time. The state isn’t just failing survivors in the courtroom; it’s failing them in almost every sphere of life.
Funding for women’s refuges has been slashed by a quarter since the government’s austerity program was introduced in 2011. Survivors of sexual and domestic violence are now being turned away from shelters and onto the streets at a rate of 200 per day and psychological support is evaporating as quickly as practical protection.
According to a report produced by the Women’s Resource Centre and Rape Crisis (England and Wales), the funding cuts have forced over half of Rape Crisis centres to cut services or close down, with just 21 percent of services now fully funded and survivors waiting on average three months for support and counselling. The report concludes that support for those needing to rebuild their lives after rape has been turned into “a privilege determined by a postcode lottery.”
State support for individuals is also being hacked away by government cuts. In January, for example, the High Court confirmed that government’s Personal Independence Payments system was ‘blatantly discriminatory’ towards people with severe mental health issues.
Almost half of women who experience severe mental distress are survivors of sexual violence, yet the only government intervention specifically addressing survivors is the Family Tax Credit ‘Rape Clause.’ This allows payments only for a woman’s first two children – unless one child was born of rape, in which case the woman is forced to disclose this to the authorities or lose the payments her family is entitled to. This approach is pushing thousands more families into poverty.
Clearly, having a woman in No.10 isn’t doing us any more good than having a woman in Scotland Yard. But perhaps these things aren’t happening in spite of each other – but because of each other. The men and women in No.10 and Scotland Yard are still holding us back. It’s the survivors breaking the silence over sexual violence that will change everything. Let down and ignored first by men in power and now by women, we are realising that justice isn’t coming from above. That is the first step towards bringing it up from below.
The author writes in a personal capacity.
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