Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Rape Stats.

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.


polly styrene said...

The reason given for the difference in conviction rates (and I have absolutely no idea if this is true or not) is that the 'nature' of rape cases being tried is different. IE most rape cases tried in the past were 'stranger rapes'.Whereas now more 'acquaintance rapes' are reported, where there is no 'corroborating evidence' such as other injuries. Make of that what you will. I'm a bit sceptical, but I'm like that.

Quotation marks used intentionally.

polly styrene said...

But this report - which looked at the low rate of rape convictions contains some clues...

Feminist Avatar said...

Thanks for the report- it's actually quite scary. The major problem in low conviction rate is a scepticism towards victim's claims at all stages of the process.

I don't know about the 1970s, but in the study I cite for the 18th century, the major group of complainents were servants raped by employers or other members of the household. So, from that point of view, getting a rape conviction should have been harder, rather than easier (what with class discrimination, issues of consent etc).


Anna Clark who is a feminist historian has written a book entitled Women's Silence Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770-1845. Ms. Clark analyses how rape was defined and prosecuted by the male-dominant legal system. With regards as to why the number of attempted rapes were more likely to result in male rapists being convicted, Clarke shows the convictions were about property rights rather than male sexual assault on females.

On pages 47-48 Ms. Clarke discusses how it was easier for a woman to have a man convicted to death for stealing her bundle which was commonly worth a few shillings rather than the man attempting to succeeding in raping her. Clarke shows that often in the 18th Century male rapists were not only intent on stealing a working class woman's 'bundle' which commonly contained their worldly goods but also raping the woman as well. In other words the crime of stealing a woman's 'bundle' was more likely to succeed in the man being convicted than if he raped her.

Ms. Clarke convincingly shows how misogynstic attitudes towards women who charge men with rape have changed very little and how historically it was presumed men had the right to use sexual coercion or physical violence because women supposedly 'innately wanted to be taken by force.'

Feminist Avatar said...

There is a lot of work on the relationship between rape and property, especially because women whose property values (as people who could be 'sold' into marriage) were high (ie they were middle class or above) had better chances of getting convictions. There is evidence that women who had men to speak for them and to how their rape ahd wronged him (as the property owner) were also more successful at getting their rapists convicted. Plus for a long time, the law on rape pretty much saw rape as a property crime against men, rather than a crime against the person (woman) (this changes before (or perhaps early in) the 18th cent, but the ideas are still highly influential throughout this period).

So from that point of view, it is not surprising that women whose rapes were also related to theft were more sympathetic to juries. It is also much easier to get a conviction if there is supporting evidence, which the stolen good would have provided for those women.

But, Simpson's work was seeing convictions amongst women who being raped by employers and a whole variety of different scenarios and still getting much greater conviction rates than currently. I would also imagine that there is a fair amount of robbery/rape today (I can think of at least two examples off the top of my head). There may of course be differences in success rates between different courts and regions (I don't have my Clark handy to see what court she uses for her evidence.)

But, while I absolutely agree with Clark's that attitudes haven't changed much (or if aything have perhaps improved), it doesn't necessarily explain why we have lower conviction rates today. I guess we would need to see whether the number of robbery/rapes are substantially different over the period and how they are affecting the overall conviction rates across the period.

Nesa Simon David said...

"Understanding rape statistics"

The video has some clues as to why rape convictions are so low

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