The issue of rape cannot be separated from a society that commodifies women and sexuality, and demeans both men and women, argues Judy Cox
In 1982, a man was found guilty of raping a teenager. He was let off with a small fine because the judge decreed that the 17-year-old was guilty of ‘contributory negligence’ because she hitched a lift. Decisions like this one prompted many young women like me to become politically active, to protest against the way rape victims were treated. We went on Reclaim the Night marches with the slogan, ‘Whatever she wears, wherever she goes, yes means yes and no means no’.
Back then, many believed that sexually active women could not be raped, that husbands could not rape wives, that the only rapists wielded knives and wore balaclavas. This week’s retrial of Ched Evans risks turning the clock back to those days.
Those accused of rape deserve a fair trial and no doubt some are not guilty. However, the way this retrial was conducted erodes the hard won legal protections women have gained. Firstly, the woman involved had her right to anonymity blown away on the internet and has been persecuted as a result. This will intimidate women who have been raped from coming forward.
Secondly, intimate details of the woman’s sex life were heard in court. Experts have argued that this does not set a precedent for future cases as there were specific reasons why the woman’s sex life was relevant in this case. This is rubbish. The issue was consent, whether the woman consented, or whether Evans believed that she had. There is no way that who she slept with before or after could affect the issue of consent at the time.
Thirdly, the judge gave the jury a ‘route to a verdict’ which included her opinion that, ‘drunken consent is still consent’. A Crown Prosecution Service guide states that prosecutors should focus on what a suspect has done to seek consent and the extent to which a victim is capable of giving consent. It is reported that Evans did not say a word to the woman before, during or after the incident, so one obvious way of obtaining consent was ignored. He did not ask her.
We have a very serious problem with rape in this country. We have one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe, with something like 100,000 rapes every year and only 1,070 convictions, according to the Ministry of Justice. This is despite the fact that 85% of women know their attacker. The same report suggests that women do not report rapes or drop out of legal proceedings because they feel embarrassed, or fear that they will be blamed.
While recorded rapes have doubled in the last four years, the percentage resulting in a conviction has fallen. The police are often resistant to pursuing rape cases. Figures from 2014 revealed that 1,500 rape allegations had simply been filed as ‘no crimes’. A strong media focus on the very low number of false rape accusations creates a climate in which victims are systematically suspected of lying. Rape within marriage was only recognised in 1991 and many still see so-called ‘date rape’ as a lesser crime. Attitudes that blame women for being drunk, flirtatious or dressed in a certain way persist in our society.
The issue of rape cannot be separated from a society that commodifies women and sexuality, and demeans both men and women. We have to challenge the sexist attitudes of the media and the courts toward rape cases. There are many willing to campaign to defend women’s right to choose whom they sleep with and to defend rape victims’ anonymity and right to be believed. We must also raise the possibility of genuinely free and equal sexual relationships, free from the alienation and oppression bred by the system we live in.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.