Violating Vocabulary – The Rhetoric of Rape

The whole issue of rape is emotive. The way that rape is reported in the press often plays to those emotions. I cannot recall one piece that I have ever read in the mainstream media which is factual, unemotional and legally accurate. Instead, there are screaming headlines, myths perpetuated and information that is at best legally misleading, certainly on an omission basis.

Trying to have sensible discourse about rape is, to be as neutral as possible, difficult. Everyone has a preferred statistic, an anecdote about the way a victim was treated by the Criminal Justice System (CJS) and perpetuation of myths is rampant.

Language and rhetoric shape views and opinions. Shaping views and opinions around rape is vital if we are to move forward, in terms of victims reporting the crime to the police, and in terms of successful prosecutions.

It appears widely accepted that rape is an under-reported crime for many reasons, one being the beliefs of how a rape victim is treated by the CJS. There is still debate surrounding the success or otherwise of prosecutions – on an overview of the conviction rates on prosecution, they would appear to be largely in line with conviction rates for other crimes.

However, this post is not to debate whether there is actually a problem with victims reporting rape to the police, or about conviction rates. This post is about how the mainstream media reports rape cases, and how those reports could affect victims and juries, and feed the myths surrounding this crime.

Earlier this month, The Guardian posted this article. I read it at the time, and watched it fly around Twitter. However, contrary to the popular view of the piece, I consider it to be one of the most negligent pieces of writing I have come across in some time.

Emotively entitled ‘How my rapist walked free’, it recounts the story of a victim who clearly feels she was let down by the Crown Prosecution Service, who refused to prosecute her case. She states:

…for me the villains of the story are the CPS… They said “there was not a realistic prospect of conviction” as the jury wouldn’t believe me. Why wasn’t I given the opportunity to explain my actions, and convince them that I was raped?

Why indeed? The reason why the CPS took the decision is best summed up by her:

They kept asking me if I had had sexual relations with anyone else there. Over the eight-month period and innumerable questions, I withheld one fragment of information from the police. A piece of information that had no bearing on the rape, or my rapist. I had been told I had gone into my bedroom earlier that evening with a different man, whom I had been kissing. I was so scared I would be judged because of this as promiscuous and unreliable. Of course, in this day and age promiscuity should have absolutely no impact on the perception of rape, but we all know it does. I didn’t remember the incident, it wasn’t my testimony, so I convinced myself I didn’t need to tell them. Why should it matter? How was something I had done of my own volition relevant to my being raped? But the stifling level of scrutiny I was under made me feel sure it would matter, so I said nothing.

A month later, I got the call. They knew I had lied, which made me an “unreliable witness”. The CPS had decided not to prosecute. They said “there was not a realistic prospect of conviction” as the jury wouldn’t believe me.

The CPS know juries. They know defendant lawyers. And they know rape. Sadly, the victim put her credibility in question. And in cases which come down to who a jury believes, it would be beyond cruel to put a complainant through a case where her credibility is in question.

What she says about why she lied is the crux of this piece. She says:

I made a rash decision under pressure because of the stereotypes forced upon women ingrained in our legal system. A decision framed from a society obsessed with blaming women for making themselves “vulnerable” to rape, rather than targeting the rapists. One wrong decision led to a rapist walking free. I cannot forgive the CPS for this.

The CPS didn’t and doesn’t give those stereotypes to society. The media does. The Guardian could have taken this woman’s story, and asked why she should feel this way, why she should feel compelled to lie, and started challenging the very stereotypes the mainstream media created. Instead, The Guardian elected to feed the myths – the ‘you won’t be believed’ myth; the ‘system is against rape victims’ myth; the ‘virgin’ myth.

The damage the media does in its chosen rhetoric and creating stereotypes isn’t contained to victims themselves. The image below is from The Stern Review. Any one of the respondents to any one of those surveys could end up on a jury, making a decision about whether a person has been raped. That is why the CPS didn’t prosecute in this case. Perhaps it is time to start minding our language?