Is the Media Stopping Rape Victims Coming Forward?

Widespread and unjustified scepticism about rape claims could make victims fearful of reporting such a serious crime.

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02 December 2014, 11:00am

Eleanor de Freitas, 22, committed suicide after being accused of making up a rape allegation 

​It's tough being a man. The traditional manly jobs have gone, you can't give female colleagues a friendly slap on the arse in the morning and there's the ever-present risk of some woman accusing you of rape. Luckily, the Crown Prosecution Service have a habit of striking down with great vengeance and furious anger upon those women alleged to have misled the police about sexual assault. It's good to know that the CPS have got men's backs in these PC-gone-mad times.

Or have they? The charity ​Women Against Rape are ​campaigning in the House of Commons today, highlighting the plight of ​over a hundred women who've been prosecuted for false rape allegations in the last five years. In their view, too many of these cases are prosecuted, too vigorously, and with too high a penalty. Their expert, Arkansas Law Professor Lisa Avalos, told The Guardian, "In the course of my research I have not found any country that pursues these cases against women rape complainants in the way the UK does." 

Worse still, they believe that in several cases women were pressured by police to withdraw their allegations, and then prosecuted.

It's worth putting this in perspective, though – we're talking about 20 prosecutions from something like 15,000 annual reports. The CPS themselves have been active in trying to ​dispel myths around "crying rape". Their ​research, looking at crimes between January 2011 and May 2012, found 5,651 prosecutions for rape versus 35 for false allegations of rape. For domestic violence there were 111,891 prosecutions, against just six for false allegations.

WAR's campaign is well intentioned and highlights a genuine problem, but it's probably a bit unfair on the CPS. Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was right when he said last year that, "Where false allegations of rape and domestic violence do occur, they are serious – reputations can be ruined and lives can be devastated as a result." It's quite right that people falsely accused of a crime can expect to get justice. What WAR have highlighted, though, is just how wildly out-of-proportion public debate about "crying rape" is.

It's impossible to give exact figures because many cases aren't reported, and many of those that are remain unresolved, but here are the rough stats. For every 100 incidents of rape that get reported, perhaps  ​two or three are false accusations with perhaps another ​600 going unreported

We can quibble over the exact numbers but that works out at a couple of false reports for every several hundred genuine incidents – or, to put it another way, a woman is a few hundred times more likely to not report a genuine rape than to make a false allegation. Even if you remove gender from the equation, and look at this from a purely what-about-the-men perspective, with ​9,000 men raped in the UK annually, we're more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.

It's amazing how much hand-wringing is devoted to something so rare that it's practically irrelevant to any serious discussion of sexual assault. That's not to say that individual cases aren't serious, but they're serious in the way the plague is serious – shit if you get it, but not top priority for the NHS.

Men are more likely to be raped than falsely accused of rape

The problem here is that widespread and unjustified scepticism about rape claims is making victims far less likely to come forward. Keir Starmer QC highlighted the  ​Jimmy Savile scandal as one example of police being overly cautious in these cases, and as Yewtree and related investigations into abuse have played out in the media over the last three years, middle-aged men with newspaper columns have been lining up to splutter about witch hunts.

My favourite example of the genre came from Spiked! editor Mick Hume, who was ​terrible concerned in January 2013 when Max Clifford was arrested as part of the ongoing Yewtree investigation – or "witch hunt", in Hume's words. The author saw Clifford's arrest as a sinister development in which prominent critics of Yewtree were being silenced. Sixteen months later, Clifford ​was convicted of, among other things, rubbing the pubic mound of a 12-year-old girl then making her masturbate him, stopping only when his daughter returned to the Jacuzzi they were sharing. 

As I  ​wrote back then, what makes this scepticism easier is the media's habit of talking in euphemisms or vague legal terms like "grooming", "abuse" or "molestation". Accurate, sure, but they don't really capture the horror of what happens. Historian Mary Beard was spot on when she ​complained about the media's prudishness last year, talking to the New York Times about abuse she suffered online. "You never know what it's like, because no mainstream paper will print it," she said. "Nobody on the radio will let you say it, and so it came to look as if I was worried that they said I hadn't done my hair."

Pretty much the same applies to sexual assault cases, and that makes it easy for people to minimise what really happens, to pretend that what people like Savile or Clifford did was little more than an unwanted slap on the arse. To claim, even, that the victims themselves  ​are somehow guilty of getting raped.

All of this contributes to a situation where most rape is unreported, and where ​we have literally no idea how many of Britain's kids are being abused. That's a far, far bigger problem today than a few dozen false rape allegations. 

​@mjrobbins

More from Martin Robbins on VICE: 

​Are You an Introvert, an Extrovert or Just a Rude Prick?

​MyNHS, the Government's New Healthcare Website, Is Potentially Classist 

​American College Kids Behead People, Too