The Perfect Crime


Rape has such a low conviction rate in Australia that it could be thought of, in the words of sexual assault researcher Joanne Spangaro, ‘as the perfect crime.’    

Only 20 per cent of rapes are reported to police, who investigate around 90 per cent of those allegations. A suspect is identified in 65 per cent of the investigated cases, but charges are made against only 20 per cent. Of them, 60 per cent end up in court, where the conviction rate is 35 per cent half that of all other criminal matters. Or to simplify: of the total number of rapes committed, only 1 per cent end in a conviction.

The shockingly low figure seems at odds with community attitudes, which appear to be sympathetic to victims and hostile towards perpetrators of rape. The dissonance is explained, however, by the fact that the majority of sexual assaults committed are often not even recognised as such.

To many people, the word ‘rape’ conjures up a shadowy image of a knife-wielding stranger in the night. Yet attacks by strangers constitute fewer than 30 per cent of all sexual assaults. The other 70 plus per cent are committed by a person the victim knows, often intimately. In addition to the physical and psychological trauma commonly associated with rape, victims of partner and acquaintance rape often suffer devastating grief at the realisation that a person they trusted, and perhaps loved, has hurt them so badly.

Yet, as Spangaro points out, ‘when people hear of a specific incident in which a woman says she was raped, they look at the incident, compare it to their idea of a œreal rape  and, all too often, decide that the woman was not œreally  raped.’ Such attitudes are the key to understanding the staggeringly low rate of sexual assault reportage, prosecution and conviction in our community.

First, many victims of partner rape do not report it because they aren’t aware that forced sex in the context of relationship is a crime. Those who know they’ve been criminally assaulted may not report it because they expect to be disbelieved, shamed or otherwise badly treated. Sadly, this expectation is reasonable; research shows that police, health care providers, counsellors and other support staff often fail to adequately assist women reporting partner rape.

If a case of acquaintance or partner rape does make it to court, societal attitudes are evident in verdicts reached by jurors who are, after all, drawn from society. To make matters worse, there exists even amongst some judges, an assumption that forced intercourse is less traumatic if it occurs in the context of an existing relationship. Indeed, section of the Victorian Sentencing Manual advises that ‘where a husband/wife, de-facto relationship exists, the court may consider the consequences of the rape may be less grave than in the case of a victim raped by a stranger.’

Finally, societal attitudes can actually influence the prevalence of rape, because the majority of sexual assaults currently occur within the context of socially acceptable male aggression and sexual coercion.

From adolescence, boys are taught that sex is something men must procure from, usually unwilling, women. The idea of coercion as foreplay is reinforced by jokes about plying girls with alcohol, stories about ‘accidentally’ running out of petrol while driving a girl home and shared strategising about how to ‘convince’ girls to have sex.

It’s easy to see how the line between convincing and forcing could become blurred for adolescent boys and it does. Boys who would no doubt condemn ‘real rapists’ find it acceptable to, as one survey put it, ‘hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse in instances such as when she gets him sexually excited or changes her mind,’ (a comment agreed to by 54 per cent of teenage respondents).

The belief that forcing sex on a girl is acceptable is reinforced by dominant cultural ideas of masculinity. To be a man is to be physically strong, unconcerned with emotions (thus lacking in empathy for anyone you may hurt) and willing to ‘do what it takes’ to get what you want. Such attitudes help create a culture of acceptance of sexual assault, which is, as the NSW Rape Crisis Centre’s Karen Willis says, ‘often about ownership and the belief that the perpetrator has the right to do as he pleases.’

Although, for most men, the pressure to prove one’s masculinity eases off by their late twenties, the potential influence of peer groups on sexually aggressive behaviour is evident across age groups. Sexual assault researchers have observed that men whose peers ‘legitimise violence against women‘ are more likely to sexually assault their partners.

Criminologist Patricia Easteal argues that ‘one of the only means available to reduce sexual assault and to enhance the probability that its victims will report it to authorities is through knocking down the false images of rape that act to perpetuate it in society.’

Study after study bears this out; societal attitudes towards sexual assault the belief that rape is only committed by deranged strangers, the belief that women are less harmed by partner or acquaintance rape, the belief that sexual coercion and force are sometimes justifiable affect not just rates of reporting, prosecution and conviction, but also the incidence of the crime.

The solution is obvious, though neither simple nor fast: we need to teach young people that it is never okay to satisfy their urges at the expense of someone else’s autonomy. We need to make the thought of coercing someone you know to have sex as abhorrent as the idea of raping a stranger at knifepoint. We need to work towards a society in which forced sex is understood to be wrong regardless of who is doing the forcing and under what circumstances. We need to start now: smashing the myths, talking about the reality of rape.

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