Since the start of September, several stories questioning the handling of rape cases by the police have emerged from the mainstream media. The first of these originated in the US, and concerned Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who attracted the attention of the international press when she decided to carry her mattress around campus as a performance art piece that highlighted the issue of campus rape.
Sulkowicz reported her own rape case to both the university and the police back in May, but no charges were brought against her alleged attacker. Although this might not seem like grounds for protest in itself, she has stated that she felt badly mistreated by police officers. She says that one officer emphasised that she had already had consensual sex with the perpetrator previously, and then told her friends that he did not believe her story because "of these cases, 90% are bullshit". He highlighted how "painful" the investigation process would be for her and filed the case as domestic violence despite there being no relationship involved.
Strong parallels can be drawn between this case and the recent story of an Oxford University student who reported to the police that she was raped while unconscious at a party. One of the two officers who came to her house reportedly described university rape as "just something that happens", and advised her to drink less in future. She then described receiving a visit from a woman who she was told dealt with rape allegations in the Oxfordshire area, and who insisted on speaking to her in private. She questioned her "rather forcefully" and said that nothing could be proved and that the evidence would not stand up in court. The evidence was clothes, bed sheets and used condoms. The complainant was told that she must decide then and there whether to press charges, and amongst the mounting pressure of being told that the process would be highly traumatic for her, she dropped the charges.
Looking at stories such as these puts the startlingly low referral rates for rape cases into rather clear context. Suddenly it's not so difficult to see why so few rapes are reported to the police in the first place, and why they're often not referred to the Crown Prosecution Service when they are reported. Since 2011, the number of rape cases referred to the CPS has dropped by a third and the number of people charged with rape has fallen by 14%, despite a 3% rise in reported rapes during the same period. The CPS stated earlier this year that it was investigating whether thousands of suspected rape cases had been wrongly thrown out due to police officers and lawyers being unable to correctly interpret guidelines. However, this significant drop points to something more significant than an innocent misinterpretation of official guidelines.
Hostile attitudes to complainants in rape cases are evident across the globe. When confronted with a rape allegation, many people will immediately begin questioning the woman - and it is most often a woman - demanding to know the exact details of the event, what she was wearing, whether she had been drinking, and whether she had previously consented to have sex with the accused. Any apparent gaps in her memory will be used against her. As Sulkowicz says, "the rapists are innocent until proven guilty but survivors are guilty until proven innocent, at least in the eyes of the police". At police level, this victim blaming extends to pressuring women to not press charges, often using emotionally manipulative tactics such as emphasising how traumatic the case will be for them.
Why would police officers and apparent sexual assault specialists want to do this? Why, when there is clear evidence for a case, would they continue to insist that it would not stand up in court? Possibly they have been trained to act in this way, to put pressure on claimants in the hope of weeding out those (very rare) false allegations. Perhaps the necessary training for dealing with survivors of rape and sexual assault is not a priority for police forces, or perhaps culturally prevalent attitudes to survivors are being cultivated amongst officers.
Both the Columbia case and the Oxford case describe officers as having attitudes of disbelief towards women, which suggests that they have been influenced more by the films and newspapers that depict accusers as liars than by the damning conviction rates of their own forces. This could suggest that they are not being trained to view sexual assault and rape as gender based crimes that are underreported and rarely prosecuted, but as suspicious cases in which the women should be interrogated before the accused men are. If referral rates are to be improved at all, police officers must be trained in their attitudes as much as they are in their procedures. Then, perhaps we will see an increase in reporting, as well as an increase in conviction.
This article was originally published by ALT Magazine.