Tory leader David Cameron last week used the low conviction rate for rape as an excuse to condemn the “moral collapse” of British society. This is the latest way that Cameron has tried to tap into a feeling of social crisis.
The low conviction rate for rape is a problem. Of reported rapes in 2006-7 the conviction rate was just 5.6 percent – a startling figure that itself ought to condemn our criminal justice system.
But the statistics say more about women’s position in society than about an alleged decline in moral standards.
We are facing an ideological backlash in which the right is attempting to roll back the gains that women in Britain have won over the last few decades.
We live in a society where the dominant ideology tells us that women’s oppression no longer exists. Yet rape is itself a product of women’s oppression. The denial of the fact of this oppression leads to a huge problem in understanding rape.
At the same time, the real gains that women have made over the last few decades mean that more women now have the confidence to report rapes that occur within relationships.
But these cases don’t fit the dominant ideology – which tells us that rapes are predominantly carried out by strangers – and are less likely to result in a conviction.
The low conviction rate shows how old ideas about rape have not gone away. In the 1970s and 1980s, women were told that they encouraged rape because of the clothes they wore.
Today women are blamed for drinking and thereby putting themselves in a “vulnerable” position. Our society tells us that it’s the responsibility of the woman to avoid rape. There has been an attack on the idea of date rape – with some saying, “One person’s rape is another person’s bad night.”
Men are still portrayed as being unable to control their “natural urges”.
Meanwhile we are surrounded by sexualised images of women that supposedly reflect our “empowerment”.
Language and behaviour once condemned as sexist are increasingly acceptable. Whereas once stripping was seen as exploitative and degrading, now even prostitution can be portrayed as empowering.
All of this adds up to a misinterpretation of the reality of rape and confusion about why it occurs.
Rape is a product of the way that capitalism distorts our relationships and turns women and sex into commodities to be bought, sold and sometimes stolen.
Popular mythology conjures up the image of a woman being attacked in a dark street by a stranger.
But most women who are raped are attacked by people they know – and often by people in their own family. In home office figures, only 12 percent of rapes are defined as “stranger rapes”.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels identified the family under class society as the key to women’s oppression.
The family as we know it today emerged at the same time as private property and the state.
Before this men and women lived in hunter-gatherer societies where they had equal status. Marx and Engels called this “primitive communism”.
The ideology of the family generally saw women as a form of property and subservient to men.
Engels described women’s resulting reduction in status as “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.
The right likes to focus on individual men as the source of the problem because it distracts us from facing up to the institutional oppression that is part of capitalist society.
The dominant ideology dwells on rape by strangers because acknowledging that women are more likely to face violence within the home would mean challenging a fundamental institution of capitalism.
Instead people like Cameron seek to bolster the ideology of the family, with their talk of tax breaks for married couples and the like.
Over the past two decades reported rapes have been on the increase. Between 2001 and 2005 reported rapes rose by just under 4,000.
But it’s hard to tell if rapes have increased or if reporting has risen. And of course, many rapes still go unreported – an estimated three out of four. This is hardly surprising. According to figures from the home office, over two thirds of reported rapes don’t make it to court.
One quarter of reported rapes were subsequently “no crimed” by the police, with cases where the complainant and suspect knew each other being most likely to be “no crimed”.
Half of all rapes defined as a crime led to no further action by the police.
The low conviction rate needs to be challenged. It sends a message to men that they can get away with rape, and to women that there’s little point reporting it. It is a reflection of the value that our society attaches to women. But we need to recognise that the answer to the problem of rape is not a legal one.
Right wing politicians try and use the issue of rape as a means to attack the “permissive” nature of our society and call for a stronger state to put things right – hence the demand for longer sentences for convicted rapists.
Focusing on longer sentences in a situation where most cases don’t even result in a conviction is unhelpful. It also means avoiding the cause of the problem.
The reasons for rape are embedded in the kind of society we live in. It occurs because women are oppressed – and to end it we need to end that oppression.