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Blog | 24 November 2020

Thirty Facts for Thirty Years

As we celebrate 30 years of service, we look back at where we've come from.

[TW: discussion of sexual violence, including descriptions of certain forms of sexual violence]

On November 25th we will be marking our 30th anniversary as an organisation, alongside celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Action Against Gender Based Violence. It’s a busy day!

Nowadays, looking at the news, it is easy to forget the sheer distance we have come in recent years – in both the law’s classification and approach to sexual assault, as well as societal expectations and stereotypes.

Anniversaries warrant the opportunity to look at how far we have come, take stock, before catching our breath and cracking on. Below are some examples of the journey. Grab a cup of tea and a slice of 30th birthday cake and join us as we learn about 30 ways that our social and legal understandings of sexual violence have changed over the years:

  1. The term rape originates from the Latin rapere, “to snatch, to grab, to carry off”. By the 14th century the term came to mean “to seize and take away by force”. In Roman law, the carrying off of a woman by force, with or without intercourse, constituted “raptus”. Of course, our modern understanding of the term rape is very different.
  2. In the past rape was considered a wrong against the survivor’s husband, father or brother. The law wanted to protect the husband’s interests in ensuring a legitimate family line. The crime was bound up in the notion that if you “stole the virginity of a woman” you had ruined her honour, and the woman’s marriageability would be affected.
  3. Originally rape was a capital crime in England, meaning it was punishable by death. This was abolished in 1841.
  4. In 1976, anonymity was granted to complainants (survivors), making it a criminal offense to publish their identity or any information that might lead to them being identified. The 1976 Act also provided the same anonymity to defendants in rape cases, but this was later repealed by the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
  5. It was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made illegal, finally rejecting the view that once married the wife gave irrevocable consent to sexual relations at any time during their marriage. That’s four years after Survivors’ Network was founded!
  6. The law on sexual offences was transformed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That Act changed the previous law set out in the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which had been described by the government as ‘archaic, incoherent and discriminatory’.
  7. The 2003 Act states that “a person consents if he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”. Ironically, the law uses male pronouns as a default throughout despite the fact that many survivors are female.
  8. Male survivors of rape only became recognised in law in 1994, but the 2003 legislation made survivors of rape gender neutral.
  9. The legal language and understanding of rape is very reductive, only seeing “penetration with a penis” as rape. This doesn’t take into consideration the different ways people can experience being forced to engage in sexual intercourse – which would instead be regarded legally as sexual assault, or causing another person to perform a sexual act without consent.
  10. Under the law, Sexual Assault by Penetration must be sexual. This works to protect medical professionals who may need to insert medical instruments without having the opportunity to get the patient’s consent.
  11. Every year, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men (aged 16 – 59) experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales; that’s roughly 11 of the most serious sexual offences every hour. Only 15% of those who experience sexual violence report to the police.
  12. There used to be a rule under common law that a boy under the age of 14 couldn’t commit a rape. In a move to protect child victims, particularly in cases of intrafamilial abuse, this has since been reduced to the age of ten – the age of criminal responsibility.
  13. The law works to recognise and respect the sexual autonomy of adults with a learning disability but also provide a framework that protects them from abuse. Sadly, due to societal attitudes and lack of resources, when Brook Surveyed those delivering sex education to young people with a learning disability, 80% said they struggle to find accessible resources that meet the needs of those they work with. In 2016, there had been 4,748 reports of sexual abuse against adults with disabilities within the last two years.
  14. The Anti- Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 makes forcing someone to marry a criminal offence. In 2019, The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support in 1,355 cases relating to a possible forced marriage. Fewer than a fifth of these cases were raised by victims self-reporting, reflecting the hidden nature of forced marriage. This could possibly be due to fear of reprisals from their family if they come forward, or lack of information and safe support available to them.
  15. Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence.
  16. The aftermath of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement going viral has seen the number of alleged rapes reported to and recorded by the police more than double since 2013-14, from 20,751 then to 58,657 in 2018-19.
  17. Despite this, the conviction rate for rape is the lowest it has ever been: in 2019-20, 1,439 suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged were convicted of rape or another crime – half the number three years ago.
  18. In fact, authorities have been accused of “decriminalising” rape after official statistics showed that the proportion of reported rapes prosecuted in England and Wales has fallen to 1.4 per cent. That means survivors currently have a 1 in 70 chance of their case being charged.
  19. Revenge porn has only been a sexual offence since 2015 and carries a sentence of up to two years imprisonment. The law criminalised the distribution of private explicit images without the consent of the person depicted – commonly done maliciously to shame ex-partners. One step forward and two steps back, though, as it is rarely prosecuted. The text of the law arguably misclassifies the crime as a communications offence rather than a sex crime which strips anonymity from revenge porn survivors, making them reluctant to cooperate with police.
  20. A BBC investigation found universities received more than 700 allegations of sexual misconduct during the 2018 academic year. According to the National Union of Students, 68% of women have been the victim of sexual harassment on campus. Government guidelines advise universities not to conduct their own investigations into complaints of sexual assault but to refer them to police to deal with. However, many universities do not follow this advice so the way each University deals with a student report is different and punishments for sexual misconduct have ranged from expulsion to bans from university bars. Others were told to write letters of apology to victims, or to pay fines – sometimes only if they got into trouble again.
  21. In 2019, a man was convicted of raping a sex worker by removing his condom during “consensual” sexual intercourse. The removal of a condom during sex has colloquially been referred to as “stealthing” and forms one of the behaviours that have been identified by the CPS as an example of a “conditional consent” case.
  22. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of the labia and/or clitoris for non-medical reasons. It’s also known as female circumcision or cutting. The government has significantly strengthened the law to protect victims, including introducing FGM protection orders, a new offence for failing to protect a child from FGM, and statutory guidance to help professionals understand the risk factors. It is estimated over 5,000 girls are victim annually, but sadly the money allocated to help stamp out FGM in the UK has fallen from £2,718,000 in 2016, shortly after Theresa May outlined her ambition as Prime Minister to stop the practice, to £432,000 in 2020.
  23. In July of this year, the government published a new clause to the Domestic Abuse Bill removing the so-called ‘rough sex/50 Shades Defence’ to murder. The amendment rules out that a victim may have consented to ‘serious harm for sexual gratification’, a defence that has been used by 60 defendants since 1972. Campaigners argued that its use has also increased tenfold in the last 20 years.
  24. As the law currently stands under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, defence lawyers have been banned from questioning the sexual behaviour or history of alleged victims in court. This, however, comes with exceptions, including if a defendant raises that not hearing the evidence will undermine their Article 6 rights to a fair trial. In 309 rape trials analysed in a Crown Prosecution Audit, 13% of cases had applications made asking the court to hear past sexual history evidence despite the 1999 Act’s prohibition, and 8% were successful. This means almost 1 in every 10 cases sees past sexual history evidence successfully introduced into a trial.
  25. Honour killings are murders in which predominantly women are killed for behaviour deemed to have brought shame on the family. There are approximately 12 -15 reported honour killings per year in the United Kingdom. In Italy, a law allowing for murder justified by ‘honour’ remained part of the penal code right up to 1980 when it was removed from the statute books due to feminist campaigning.
  26. The spectre of false allegation continues to dog the reporting of sexual violence. There remains a public impression that false allegations are common and that innocent people suffer as the result of being wrongfully accused. That said, research for the Home Office suggests that only 4% of cases of sexual violence reported to the UK police are found or suspected to be false. An in-depth Channel 4 investigation in 2018 found that the average adult man in England and Wales has a 0.0002 per cent chance of being falsely accused of rape in a year – in fact, a man in the UK is 230 times more likely to be raped himself than be falsely accused of rape.
  27. Research commissioned by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found that racist stereotypes may be stopping black and ethnic minority victims of child sexual abuse receiving help. The report warned that racist misconceptions held by schools and police about black and ethnic minority communities resulted in the institutions taking no action, or not recognising abuse occurring.
  28. This shameful legal response means survivors of colour are significantly less likely to report their experiences to the police than their white counterparts. This disparity has impacted how survivors react after their assaults. Experiences with racism, and fear of racism from the police, often deters people from seeking help, and many have had similar experiences with services such as the NHS. Survivors have highlighted the importance of having counsellors of the same ethnicity as them, a provision that is often not available.
  29. In Sussex referrals to the police have doubled in the last four years, with Sussex Police currently receiving approximately five reports of rape per day.
  30. On a slightly brighter note, in March of this year, a historic decision was reached in the Court of Appeal, granting a full judicial review of the CPS’ rape charging policy and practice. Brought by a small women’s charity and funded by hundreds of small donations, the review will hear evidence of the “damaging and secretive change” in CPS policy and practice on charging decisions in rape cases before the court.

As you can see, we have made some significant leaps in terms of our legal understanding of consent and sexual violence – but we still have a very long way to go. Survivors are still reluctant to report their experiences, and the social conception of “false allegations” being common, though easily disproven, remains widely held. With a shockingly low prosecution rate, and legal definitions that still leave some survivors behind, we still have a lot of work to do in the criminal justice system – and beyond.

We hope you will join us in doing that work. We believe survivors, and we believe that survivors deserve to be supported and heard. We work to change the culture, locally and nationally. We have worked to help thousands of survivors in the last thirty years, through all of the changes in law and society, and we want to be here for the survivors of the next thirty.

You can support us by donating here, and by sharing our birthday content this week.

You can find out more about what we do as an organisation here on our website, and by following us on Instagram and Facebook.

Until all survivors are believed, supported and can find the healing that they deserve – we will be here.

If you would like to support Survivors' Network for our next thirty years, you can donate to our Birthday appeal here.