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?



13 thoughts on “Violating Vocabulary – The Rhetoric of Rape

  1. “The CPS didn’t and doesn’t give those stereotypes to society. The media does.”

    Really? I think you credit ‘the media’ falsely. In reality, it’s the other way around. The media reflect society’s values.

    • Have to disagree … the media shapes society’s values. It is not until the media expresses outrage that the general person in the street knows there is anything to be outraged about

      • My, but you don’t credit ‘the man in the street’ with much intelligence, do you?

        And you’re forgetting social media – nowadays, often it’s the old media chasing the new media and realising what it is they should be getting excited about … ;)

  2. But if CPS stick to opinion polls from Stern Review, then attitudes will never change…
    Incredibly difficult decision to balance justice, probability of success and range of victim’s needs

  3. CPS take every case as far as they can,it has become almost a “political” crime and they are right to do so. The reality is some (not all, by any means) women don’t tell the truth, perception is that no one would about something so serious but it happens. It is also an”unequal” crime from the start, the victim gets interviewed in a pleasent room with loads of support (rightly) the accused gets banged up and gets none of those comforts, what do you really expect a jury to conclude at a trial?

    By suggesting guilt from the start no one is doing the victims of rape any favours at all and the conviction rate will continue to be as low as it is until a full and sensible debate is had without the “all men are potential rapists” view or copmplete anonymity for both sides until conviction.

    Great piece Milly.

  4. Excellent article. I’m a bit more positive about those statistics though. People being asked those questions are probably being led into a misleading train of thought where they are prompted to equate being raped to having a handbag stolen or having their house broken into. They then make the analogy that if you leave the door unlocked you have to take at least some responsibility, even thogh it does not make the crime ok.

    Now, a more careful analysis would make use realise that being raped isn’t like that – not least because ‘being flirtatious’ or whatever isn’t eqivalent top leaving a door unlocked in any meaningful way. But the questions lead people into that pattern of thinking. The questions also confuse responsibility in the sense of ‘would it still have happened’ with ‘does it excuse the crime’. I would suggest that to break out of this pattern of attitude it would be better to stop putting the question like that in the first place.

  5. The CPS declined to consider pressing charges in my first rape because I was ‘too honest’ and admitted to having taken drugs the night of my rape. I understand I broke the law and this might have made me a less sympathetic witness to a jury and lessened the chance of a conviction. Even in the throes of immense trauma, I knew that risk and I was prepared to take it. I knew they might not proceed.

    What I did not expect and what I will not tolerate or forgive, is the way the CPS spoke to me and about me. They treated me like shit smeared off their shoe. Everything dripped with contempt for me. They lost no opportunity to tar me as deserving of what had happened to me (because they did believe a rape had taken place) and they spoke to me like I was dirt. They were as bad if not worse than the police.

    There’s no need for that. The CPS are there to do a job, not judge the perceived morality of the victim and this is what you seem to miss. I can see the legal reasoning as to why the CPS declined to prosecute in the case the Guardian covered, but I can also imagine the nasty way they did it and how they conveyed that to the victim, because I have (despite helping almost 100 women) never seen the CPS treat them with widespread consideration and manners.

    We give them our blood, sweat and tears, both emotionally and literally on swabs, and they can’t even give us respect. Even the occasional kind brief is dwarfed by the attitudes of those around them, the institutional levels of not caring, the lost evidence, the snide comments, the cancelled appointments, keeping us waiting for hours, the patronising, the judgement, the promised apologies that never materialise, the missing files, the lack of liaison between police and other services, all those things that say ‘we don’t care. You don’t count.’ Twice the CPS dealt with my rape cases. Twice they spelled my name wrong. And not even the same mis-spelling each time.

    The CPS is not setting a good example. It behaves badly and legitimises the media, the police and society doing the same. And insstead of taking suggestions on board, it threatens to arrest victims for ‘perverting the course of justice.’ I trusted the CPS to do the right thing. They destroyed that trust and then justified their bad behaviour anyway they could. And I am not unique here.

  6. Speaking (hopefully, not out of turn) as someone who works in a CPS specialist rape & serious sexual offences unit, I have to say I am staggered by the way Helen says she was treated by CPS staff.
    I have NEVER seen or heard any of the extraordinarily professional men and women that work in my unit, or any of the other units in other counties that I work in tandem with, speak to or treat victims of these awful crimes in such a way as she describes.

    I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the article above. The media (I remember that particular article and was a little surprised to see it in the Guardian) do not seem to give the CPS much of a chance when someone is willing to air their own grievances. I don’t wish to suggest that the events described by many of the victims of these alleged crimes did not occur as described, (I mean, making this kind of stuff up takes a particularly vindictive kind of person, and I believe they are rare) but the decisions made by the CPS are not made easily and a great deal of time is taken before a decision is made either way. The trial process in this country is adversarial and can be gruelling for victims in cases of this nature and juries are curious and unpredictable creatures. This MUST form a part of the decision making process to, if necessary, prevent a victim being put through a hideous ordeal. I wish we could get fairer coverage in the press – we’re not the bad guys here!

    • Pete, I could find you enough women to fill the bottom of a double decker bus who have been as badly treated by the CPS as I was and enough who were treated worse than I was to fill the top deck.

      What I have never met is a woman who says having been through what the police and CPS do that she would do it again if she had to. Doesn’t that tell you something?

      And I’m all too aware that when you mention the fact you had a bad experience with the CPS to them, you get the ‘that must have been a one-off’ ‘I don’t of anyone on my team who would do that’ ‘things are changing’ ‘we’ve learned’ and other cliches and nothing changes. It’s nearly a decade since I dealt with them first and the same crap is happening time and time again to the other women I support.

      None of it can be changed by new rules, only by the CPS and police changing their attitudes and listening to where they are failing. We aren’t telling you this to be nasty. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. We just want to know that if we are raped again, we aren’t walking into that avoidable trauma again to boot. We understand how the legal system works, but we also know rudeness and lack of interest when we see it. And we certainly know when we’re being judged. So please don’t ask for sympathy until you can at least muster some kind of respect and do things like actually tell women the case won’t be proceeding instead of having them hear it third hand or cancel appointments when the person is already there, lose letters, spell names wrong, bring files for another woman with a similar name, mispronounce names when corrected, lose evidence, ask personal questions that aren’t relevant to the case, make personal judgements about their behaviour, fail to issue promised apologies, laugh and joke about the case in earshot of the victim, fail to speak to them after the court case and use legal threats about having them arrested.

      These are all real life examples of how the CPS has failed me and the women I know who have been raped and asked the justice system for help. We all found it hard to believe too. Not because it isn’t true, but because it’s truly shocking.

  7. Helen, I do not doubt that any of the things you say are true, but surely that fact that there now exist specialist units within the CPS shows that we ARE trying to do things properly. I don’t think there is anything anyone could say to you that would make you think better of us or the criminal justice system after your particular experience, but I believe that we are filled with people who ARE trying to get it right as much as possible and that are sympathetic to the plight of victims like yourself.
    I am sorry for your experience of the system (it is a blunt tool) but I hope that we can serve victims ordeals better in the future – even though I suspect that you may not believe that sentiment.

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