By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2716

New figures show ‘rape has been effectively decriminalised’, say campaigners

This article is over 3 years, 9 months old
Issue 2716
On the 2011 Slutwalk protest in London women refused to be blamed for rape
On the 2011 ‘Slutwalk’ protest in London women refused to be blamed for rape (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Rape convictions in England and Wales fell to a record low last year.  Despite higher levels of reporting of rapes in 2019-20, the number of prosecutions and convictions has been slashed by half in just three years.

The police recorded more than 55,000 rapes, resulting in only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 people found guilty.

Sarah Green from End Violence against Women said, “Today’s figures show starkly that we are right to say rape has been effectively decriminalised.”

It is a systematic failing of victims, the vast majority of who are women.

Part of the reason for the low conviction figures is because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) don’t pursue enough complaints.

This is partly because of myths about the reality of sexual violence.

In 90 percent of rapes, the parties are known to each other—yet campaigners say the CPS is reluctant to push ahead with these prosecutions because of how this dynamic is perceived.

“We still hold a lot of myths and stereotypes about what makes a ‘good’ rape victim,” said Katie Russell from the Rape Crisis charity.

“There are a lot of very practical issues with the prosecution of cases where one party says it was consensual and the other party doesn’t.

“The cases that are easier to pursue from a police and CPS perspective, and will gain more sympathy from juries, are stranger rapes, where they are obvious signs of physical violence,” she said.


Another reason is because the CPS want to have a high rate of conviction—so will only proceed with complaints it thinks have a good chance of winning.

End Violence Against Women and the Centre for Women’s Justice are pursuing a judicial review into the CPS’s prosecution criteria.

They are arguing that the CPS had become more “risk averse” in whether to proceed with prosecutions.

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The Guardian newspaper reported in 2018 that CPS workers were told during training sessions that taking “weak cases out of the system” would result in more favourable conviction rates.

Another factor to consider is that victims don’t always want to follow through with investigations—some 41 percent of people choose not to proceed with their complaint after reporting it.

Partly this is because of the invasive nature of proceedings. Until July, it was legal for the police to request a victim’s phone history over a period of years.

Women are failed at every level of the legal system.

The police are partly to blame—they are passing on fewer reports to the CPS. In just three years, referrals from the cops have dropped 40 percent.

Women are treated like criminals rather than victims when they go to the police with rape and sexual assault allegations.

Victims put off reporting crimes because they know the system is stacked against them.

Only a tiny minority of complainants will ever enter a courtroom, and an even smaller number will see their rapist brought to justice.


There’s a widespread tendency to blame victims.

Throughout the legal system, women’s concerns are trivialised or ignored and standard practices serve to subtly or overtly place the blame on women and their behaviour.

And some victims are questioned on their long-term sexual history—as though this has any bearing on whether they gave consent on that occasion.

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These ideas about sexual assault reflect a much wider view of women’s place in society and of systematic women’s oppression.

A survey, released in December 2018 by End Violence Against Women, showed the extent of these attitudes.

Some 11 percent of respondents said that “the more sexual partners a woman has, the less harm she will experience from a rape.”

A third of men, and 21 percent of women said that it would not usually be considered rape if a woman had flirted on a date.

As shocking as the most recent figures may be, they are not surprising.

The legal system notoriously doesn’t protect victims of sexual violence, from the moment they make a complaint until the point their rapist walks free.

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