Trigger warning/content note: detailed discussion of rape and sexual violence.
What are we saying when we talk about “violence against women”? Well, one thing we’re not saying, because we’re not actually talking about it, is male violence against women.
The biblical story of Potiphar’s wife established the myth of the vengeance of “a woman scorned” and the damage she could do to a virtuous man in rigidly patriarchal culture. The spectre of false accusation was presented as being as bad, if not worse than, rape. That tradition continued into the middle ages and beyond.
The following is a twelfth century description of how to legally appeal the crime of rape:
“She must go at once when the deed is newly done with hue and cry… and show the injury and the blood and the clothing stained with blood..”
This demand for immediate reporting “to avoid malicious prosecution” was maintained for some centuries and has surfaced again in recent discussions of high profile offences in the recent past, for example in the cases of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall.
No allowance was made for the need of a victim to recover sufficiently to prepare to endure a trial.
If the accused maintained his innocence, the victim had to be examined to establish if she had been “defiled”. These requirements were because the crime was not against the victim, but against the property of her male guardian — that property being the guaranteed paternity of inheriting sons.
Therefore, injuries were expected to be sustained by the victim in defence of her “virtue” since her welfare was of minimal concern.
Rape victims were categorised according to their value in providing heirs. Thus, virgins commanded a higher value than prostitutes. Penalties for rape varied accordingly.
This created the unusual situation where the moral worth of the victim is subject to as much investigation as the behaviour of the accused.
Only in the last century did the concept of consent introduce the idea that women had some right to choose who they had sex with and when. In English and Welsh law, marital rape was legal until 1991 — before then, wives were believed to be in a condition of permanent consent.
Given this bleak and disturbingly recent history, it’s really not surprising that so many people believe so many myths about rape. Many people believe it is just common sense for women to “be careful” about what we wear, what we drink, how we get home and who we go home with. You wouldn’t leave your car unlocked, after all!
You might imagine that the men who do it are violent psychopaths with recognisable characteristics who stalk dimly lit parks and dark alleys to leap out on lone women, brandishing knives.
Or, they are men that prey on the unwary: those who drink too much while wearing too little; those who don’t take reasonable precautions; those who leave their drink unattended and don’t take taxis.
Or they are men in relationships with psychologically damaged women who have a history of “seeking out” abuse.
In fact, one in four women is subject to domestic violence, and similar numbers to sexual assault. Those figures are accepted by organisations from Rape Crisis through Citizen’s Advice Bureaux to the Crown Prosecution Service.
These figures reveal the unpalatable truth that male violence against women forms an integral part of relationships between men and women.
The Director of Public Prosecutions acknowledges that false reports are extremely rare, estimated at about 2%.
They also recognise the exceptionally low rates of rape survivors reporting.
Only about 15% of rapes are reported and a woman suffers an average of 28 incidents of domestic violence before she contacts the police — if she’s lucky enough to live that long. Men murder two women a week.
You might be surprised at the research that has been done on men who disclose they have had or tried to have sex without consent — so long as nobody uses the “R” word.
In “Meet the Predators”, the writer uses two large-sample surveys of undetected rapists. One is “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller (published in Violence and Victims, Vol 17, No. 1, 2002). The other is “Reports of Rape Re-perpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel” by Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al., (published in Violence and Victims, Vol, 24, No. 2, 2009).’
That research reaches some surprising conclusions.
Between 6–8.5% of men admitted rape, with an average of six incidents each. Repeat offenders often also admitted domestic violence and child abuse.
30% used force or threats; 7% attacked strangers. The majority preferred to rape intoxicated acquaintances. None used force to rape strangers. The cherished myth of the psychotic knife-wielding stranger evaporates.
So why are do so few women report assaults?
It is often said that it’s just one person’s word against the other’s, a choice of he-said, she-said. That isn’t an accurate depiction. Most people who decide not to report do so because they fear they will not be believed.
As soon as a woman reports. her body becomes a crime scene and a source of forensic evidence. So the things many of us would do — washing clothes, bedding and hair; having a bath; getting counselling — are considered to contaminate potential evidence.
If the case is one of the 50% considered likely to result in conviction and therefore get to court, the woman will become a witness — whom the defence is obliged to show is unreliable. Meanwhile, the (alleged) attacker is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
If he is innocent, what does that make her? This has recently been highlighted in cases of gangs grooming teenage girls where defence barristers for each defendant took turns to accuse the girls of lying.
The case of Julian Assange provided an opportunity for some horrendous rape denial and apologism: for example the idea that consent to any sexual activity provides a season ticket for future “insertions”. Likewise, the women in the case are doubted because of their behaviour before and after the alleged rape.
We can’t leave this subject without mentioning male victims. Recent emphasis on spurious claims of some kind of equivalence are misleading and most unhelpful. The vast majority of both domestic and sexual violence is carried out by men on women.
Three quarters of incidents of women attacking men are in retaliation or self defence. The latest CPS figures show that over 90% of convictions for domestic violence were men. Unsurprisingly, sexual offences show the same pattern. About 6% of men and 44% of women victims of homicide were killed by their partners, and most of those partners — of men or women — were men.
Male violence against women is ultimately based on a culture that valorises male aggression and validates women’s primary role in unpaid, isolated domestic care. Until that system is replaced by an egalitarian division of labour, the tension and conflict it creates will find expression in violent oppression.