There are numerous discussions over the webosphere at the moment about rape and rape statistics. In the more misogynistic areas, it is suggested that rape can never be proven and that our incredibly low conviction rape, of 5.7%, is all we can expect, as rape is always a he said-she said situation. (Let’s ignore that fact that this is true of most crimes where a victim reports a crime, and the defendant claims not to have done it). So I was quite interested to hear that rape convictions were as high as 33% in the 1970s. Being a historian, I wondered whether the 1970s were an anomaly, or whether it is our current situation that is odd. And handily I had article close by that detailed the rape cases tried at the Old Bailey between 1730 and 1830 (hardly the most enlightened age when it came to women’s rights, I might add). Now, it seems that over the hundred year period, we averaged a conviction rate of 17%, with the conviction rate reaching 38% in some years. More interesting perhaps was the attempted rape conviction rate (say that ten times fast), which averaged a 47% conviction rate across the period, with a high of 83% in the 1760s.*
Now there are good reasons why attempted rape was easier to prove than rape in this period. To prove rape, you needed evidence that a penis fully entered the vagina (and at certain points in history that ejaculation occurred). And as the death penalty was imposed for full rape, but not always for attempted rape, juries were always a bit queasier about finding guilt (seriously by the way- the death penalty was known to make juries cautious, especially for crimes they personally condoned or for situations they could imagine themselves in). But, it is interesting, once cases came down to attempted rape, which perhaps more closely followed the ‘he said, she said’ type situation (that are claimed to happen today- let’s ignore that most cases that are taken to court usually have additional evidence –both then and now), that the juries took the women’s side almost half the time!
So the question really is why we (juries) are so willing to give men the benefit of the doubt today, when we haven’t been so forgiving in the past?
*Antony Simpson, ‘Vulnerability and the age of female consent: legal innovation and its effect on prosecutions for rape in eighteenth-century London’, in G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds, Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, (Manchester, Manchester U.P., 1987), pp. 181-205.