Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2318

How the police and the law fail women over rape

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
Women who report rape find their experiences trivialised, writes Siân Ruddick, while rapists are rarely brought to justice
Issue 2318
West Mercia police were forced to apologise last month for this poster blaming women for rape
West Mercia police were forced to apologise last month for this poster blaming women for rape

The entire criminal justice system is stacked against women who experience rape—from the attitudes of the police to low conviction rates and low sentences.

Just 25 percent of rape and attempted rape charges result in a conviction. And many of those convictions are on lesser charges—just 6 percent of them are for rape.

In July last year Lord Justice Moses slashed the two-year sentences of six men convicted for the rape of two 12 year old girls. He described one of the 12 year olds as “the more sexually experienced”.

She was raped by five of the men, while the other girl was raped by one. In his judgment Lord Justice Moses ruled that the girls had “wanted sex” and that this was “what young people do”.

Then in March this year a woman failed in her appeal to quash a conviction for perverting the course of justice. Known only as Sarah, she was prosecuted for withdrawing allegations of rape—which her prosecutors said were true—against her ex-husband.

This was despite the court recognising that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her husband had faced six charges of rape, but these were dropped when she withdrew the allegations.

When she went to the police to tell them the charges were in fact true, they charged her instead. Sarah served 18 days of her jail sentence before being released. She was then given a community sentence and a two-year supervision order. But her criminal record still stands.


Some 23 percent of women will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. But when you see cases like these it’s no wonder that 40 percent will tell no one about it, not even friends or relatives.

In fact, according to charity Rape Crisis, 85 percent of rapists are known to the women they attack. Women are most likely to be raped at home or in the home of someone they know.

Official statistics for rape and sexual assault are highly flawed. Surveys by Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid show that over 80 percent of women do not go to the police after an attack. The most common reason given for not reporting is that women fear they will not be taken seriously.

It’s not just the court system that’s deeply flawed. The police’s failure to take women seriously when they do report rape means that few cases even make it to court. Statistics show the police often declare that “no crime” has been committed.

In 2011 a Crown Prosecution Service report showed the way police record rape allegations. Kent police recorded 30 percent of rape allegations as “no crime”. Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, said the figures were insulting.

“The whole practice of ‘no criming’ does send out a terrible message—and the higher the no crime figure is in each area, the worse the message it sends out,” she said. There were 15,940 rapes reported in the year to March 2011. In total 12 percent of those were listed as “no crime”.

The people responsible for deciding whether or not rape allegations count as a crime are supposedly highly trained police officers. But they have failed dismally. In London the Metropolitan police’s Sapphire unit is responsible for a terrible scandal (see below).

The legal system is shaped by women’s oppression

The whole criminal justice system represents the most backward ideas in society. And the legal system reflects the reality of women’s oppression.

It is based on backward, reactionary ideas about women. It still draws on concepts set down in the days when women were seen as being owned by “their” men.

Shockingly, rape inside marriage was only finally made illegal in Britain in 1992. And up until 1994 judges were “obliged” by law to tell juries in rape trials that “women and small children tend to lie about these matters”.

Such sentiments persist in the courts—and in wider society, driven through by the media. But why do they treat women in this way?

The state sanction of relationships through marriage puts women in the care of their husbands. Women are “given away” by their fathers to their husbands when they get married—passed from one man to another.

The family plays a vital role under capitalism. It feeds and clothes the next generation of workers, saving the ruling class huge sums of money and effort. In order to maintain the status quo, the state has to use every tool it has at its disposal. The legal system is one of these.

Women’s oppression under capitalism means that women do not have equal rights to men. Among other things their bodies and choices are not theirs to own.

The legal system does not stand apart from this. The justice system reflects ideas about “natural” roles of men and women in society.

Judges think that men can barely restrain themselves sexually. And women are held responsible for attacks they face, questioned about the way they dress or their sexual history.

Ideas about women’s sexuality have changed over the past 40 years through the struggles by working class men and women. But the system that reproduces and preserves oppression remains in place.

Failures of the Sapphire unit

Four Sapphire unit police officers were disciplined in 2005. This related to their investigation of the rape of a 15 year old woman.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found police failed to forensically examine the scene, and failed to identify and arrest the suspect at the earliest opportunity. It also found that the woman’s phone had incorrect tests carried out on it. This damaged valuable evidence.

Three of the officers got a written warning. The others were given “words of advice”. They were all allowed to continue to work on rape cases.

Met cops wrote false evidence

The Met police were exposed again in November 2010. This time three of its officers had falsified evidence. The IPCC found that an allegation of rape was “no crimed” after officers faked part of her statement.

Sentences were inserted saying that while the woman regretted her encounter with the man, she had given her consent. This made it appear that she had retracted her claim, avoiding it appearing as an unsolved crime in police figures.

Prosecutors ruled that the woman would not be a “credible” witness and the case was dropped.

Rape reports fall? No wonder

Reporting of rape in London has fallen by 14 percent this year. Campaigners say this is because of falling confidence in the police.

And it’s little wonder. A retired Sapphire officer has spoken out on the “canteen culture” in the unit. He said officers disbelieve women coming forward. He also said that officers have a name for women who have been attacked more than once—“frequent flyers”.

» Judith Orr: Trivialising rape won’t challenge imperialism

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance