A new survey of attitudes to rape and sexual violence commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, has found that a significant proportion of the British public are confused about what counts as rape under UK law.
4,000 people eligible for jury service were surveyed across Britain, as part of efforts to understand why sexual offences remain so difficult to prosecute, at a time when reports of sexual violence to police are rising exponentially.
UK Legal Definition Of Rape
Under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act rape occurs whenever someone ‘intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth’ of non-consenting person with his penis, without reasonable belief that the other person consents.
Assault by penetration is an equivalent offence, which covers cases involving non-consensual sexual penetration by means of any object or body part other than a penis.
The maximum sentence for either offence under UK law is life imprisonment.
But despite a massive leap in the reporting of sexual crime to police, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a series of high-profile revelations regarding historic sex crimes, there was 23% drop in charges for rape last year.
Rape Reports Rise As Rape Charges Fall
2,822 men were charged with with rape in the year 2017/18, down from 3,671 the year before.
In rape cases the barrier to prosecution remains high, with the Crown Prosecution Service declining to prosecute ‘weak’ cases. The 3,671 men charged in 2016/17 represent just a small proportion of of the 41,186 rape offences recorded by police forces in that period.
Public Perceptions Still Hinder Rape Prosecutions
Unfortunately public attitudes to rape play a large part in how prosecutors assess the merits of trying a rape case, when deciding whether or not a case is strong enough to bring to court.
The survey data published today reveals that a third of Britons questioned didn’t think that a rape had usually occurred in cases in which a victim is pressured into having sex, but there is no physical violence.
One in ten survey participants were either unsure, or believed a rape had not usually occurred in cases in which one partner was sleeping or heavily intoxicated.
Alarmingly, 33% of men surveyed thought that a woman cannot change her mind about sex after a sexual encounter has started.
Generation Gap In Rape Attitudes
However, these figures may disguise a generational divide in attitudes to rape in the UK.
While a third of those surveyed overall believed that generally no rape had occurred in situations in which consent is withdrawn partway through the act, but the sex continues regardless, only 22% of those in the 25-49 age bracket shared this belief, compared with 42% of over 65s.
Similarly, 35% of over 65s did not believe that non-consenting sex with a wife or a partner met the legal definition of rape, compared to just 16% of 16-24s.
This generation gap may be partially explained by the fact that less than 30 years have passed since UK law was amended to criminalize rape within marriage, which only became a crime in 1991.
Combating Sexual Violence Requires More Than Hashtags
Despite the cultural impact of the #MeToo movement, with ever more survivors of sexual violence coming forward to share their stories, practical and legal support for rape victims may be more difficult to come by than many members of the public believe.
The research showed that 60% of those surveyed believed that free counseling services are automatically available to victims of rape in UK. In reality there is no statutory provision for these types of services and funding for rape crisis centres, which provided this sort of support in the past, has been cut drastically in recent years as a part of government austerity measures.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition said “This research shows that confusion and myths about rape are still very common, and this could explain why it’s hard for juries to make fair decisions if they don’t understand or agree with our laws on rape.”