The problem with rape isn't false accusations

Joan Smith (edited@dinarickman
Sunday 22 March 2015 08:00

There is a problem with rape in this country; it just isn’t the one we keep being told about. The vast majority of people who commit serious sexual offences are never even questioned but what we hear about repeatedly is a handful of well-known men who have been wrongly accused of rape.

If you listen to quite a few politicians and much of the press, you might think it’s a much more pressing problem than getting justice for the huge number of women and girls who currently have no hope of ever seeing their attackers brought to justice.

You might even believe that most men live in terror of malicious accusation, and that it’s got worse since the setting up of Operation Yewtree (otherwise known as a “witch-hunt” of elderly celebrities) following the exposure of Jimmy Savile. This is all nonsense, of course, but it surfaced again last week when a committee of MPs recommended that suspects should be entitled to anonymity, even in rape cases, until they are charged.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he had been persuaded of the need for change by hearing from the DJ Paul Gambaccini, who described his “12 months of trauma” on police bail before he was told he would face no charges in relation to allegations of historical sex offences. Vaz accused the police of using a “flypaper” technique of leaking details of an arrest in the hope that other victims would come forward, a practice that he denounced as causing “irreparable reputational damage”.

I don’t doubt that it’s unpleasant to be wrongly accused of rape but such events are rare; a landmark report published by the Crown Prosecution Service two years ago was clear on this point, dismissing myths about high levels of false accusation. I’m not convinced it’s worse than being accused of murder or terrorist offences and I’m offended by the notion that “reputational damage” deserves more concern than the plight of women who have been brutally attacked. Sympathy for a handful of men certainly shouldn’t tip the balance in a way that threatens to make getting convictions in rape cases even harder than it already is.

Publicity is vital for one, very straightforward, reason. Many victims don’t understand that rape is a serial crime; they think they’re the only one who’s been targeted by their attacker. If a woman fears it will be her word against his, she’s less likely to come forward and subject herself to the ordeal of a rape trial; it’s a very different matter when she discovers that the man has been arrested and she is not the only victim.

More: It sounds ridiculous when we treat other crimes the way we treat rape