by Carol Sarler
Men are getting away with sexual assault as our laws ignore obvious differences in severity
Richard Dawkins has enjoyed a glorious week. First, he said the unsayable by suggesting that not all rape is equally bad: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse.” Next, he pre-empted naysayers with the insult: “If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” Then, all he had to do was sit back and wait for the headlines, the fury and the outrage that, predictably speedily, followed. The professionally provocative professor must have thought he’d died and gone to the heaven in which he does not believe.
It is a pity, however, that the pantomime has succeeded in obscuring the fact that what Dawkins had to say was true. He affected surprise at the “absolutist terms” used by his opponents, even though these noisy voices have dominated the rape debate for decades. The childlike simplicity of “no means no” has sought, successfully, to equate the stranger-in-the-bushes-wielding-knife sexual attack with an unpleasant breakdown of communication between two equally inebriated adults, even though — and I write as a survivor of both — they are so obviously different.
The stranger case involves premeditation, arming oneself and clarity of thought at the moment of attack; none of those applies to the social occasion gone so hideously askew, and if there really are people who refuse to differentiate between the two, we can but pray they never sit in judgment on a killing.
The greater pity, though, is that it is exactly the same voices who refuse to accept any kind of gradation in rape who also most loudly bemoan the rape conviction rate — currently about 6 per cent of incidents reported — without seeing that this small figure is, to a very great extent, a consequence of their vocal presence and their lobbying.
It is not 6 per cent because 94 per cent of the accused men walk free from a court; it is 6 per cent because most cases never get to court in the first place. Our strangers-in-bushes, once arrested, do get tried and convicted as they always have — more easily now than ever, courtesy of advances in forensic evidence, including the potential to match DNA.
These days, however, most incidents fall into the category of what Dawkins called “date rape”; an event where there are no witnesses and where forensic investigation is unnecessary because the fact that intercourse took place is rarely denied. The issue is simply one of consent — he-said-she-said. The Crown Prosecution Service is less concerned about whether an arresting officer — or even the CPS itself — believes a woman than about whether a jury will believe her. Time and again it is forced to conclude that a jury will not.