10 December 2005

Crime: Why rape is different

In the previous post on rape, I reasoned on a basis that rape is like other crimes. "in general, the biggest cost of crime is the cost of avoiding it." There are reasons, however, why rape is often different from other crimes, even other very serious crimes.
First, many cases of rape are actually very difficult to prove. Other types of serious crime against the person are much easier to prove - at least much easier to prove that a crime has taken place. If one person kicks another's teeth in, there is a very strong presumption that a crime of assault has taken place. If one person has another's wallet, again, it is not very likely that it was given voluntarily. If two people have sex, however, there is no automatic assumption that rape has occurred. One can - at the cost of considerable further indignity to the victim - prove that sex occurred, but not that it was non-consensual.
This is reflected in the part of the Amnesty survey that I didn't previously discuss - the perceived incidence of rape. Many victims do not report the crime to the police because they know it cannot be proved, or do not want to go through what would be necessary to prove it. Among those that do report the crime, only a few percent actually result in convictions. Again, many victims choose not to endure the trial process.
The second distinctive feature of the common sort of rape (which is what I am discussing) is that it is invariably a crime committed by men against women, so its treatement is affected by - and affects - the status of men and women in society.
Quick aside: The Disillusioned Kid in a comment below draws distinction between "stranger rape" and "aquaintance rape". I would deal with three categories: Abusive domestic situations, aquaintance rape, and stranger rape. The stranger kind, which as the Kid points out is relatively rare, is more like other crimes of violence - consent is less likely to be an issue, and detection is mainly a matter of identifying the perpetrator. The Amnesty survey, seems to me mainly to apply to aquaintance rape - the friend or acquaintance who "goes too far" with a woman who has been "asking for it" by comporting herself provocatively.
This is where the two features come together. When women had distinctly inferior status in society, the kinds of behaviour discussed in the survey - essentially those of a woman enjoying her freedom and expressing her sexuality while not under the direct "protection" of a man - were considered inappropriate and reprehensible in their own right. This was a piece of the general subjection of women, but had the side effect of protecting them from that kind of rape. (Before getting nostalgic, it is worth reflecting that it gave no protection against domestic abuse, which was perhaps even more prevalent than it is now).
This is what makes the issue politically sensitive: advice about avoiding dangerous "aquaintance rape" situations sounds exactly like asking women to resume their traditional, socially inferior, position. The motives of the "advisor" can be ambiguous. An understandable response to such advice is that the "solution" to violence against women ought not to be one that itself represses women - if anyone's behaviour is to be restricted, it should be men's.
Not that the present situation is all good for men, either. In the traditional, patriarchal social order, while "respectable" women had no sexual freedom, respectable men (meaning those with a reputation to protect) did not associate freely with women either. This protected men from false accusations of rape. Because just as rape is difficult to prove, it is also difficult to disprove. A man who meets a woman in private is risking his reputation - he can be accused of rape for reasons of spite or blackmail. Quoting this home office paper:
"Nine percent of cases [of reported rape] were designated false, with a high proportion of those involving 16 to 25 year olds. However, closer analysis of this category applying Home Office counting rules reduces this to three percent. Even the higher figure is considerably lower than the extent of false reporting estimated by police officers interviewed in this study".
The whole old-fashioned customs of slow courtship can be seen as a mechanism from protecting women from unprovable rapes, and men from un-disprovable false accusations. It can also, of course, be seen as the rituals of a society not at ease with sex, and again as the result of seeing women at least in part as being the property of men. Return to the past is not an option. But wishing away problems that are eternal does not help either. The idea that we should only have intimate contact with a person if we have already publicly demonstrated a close association with them seems to me neither repressed nor sexist - it is a costly restriction on our freedom that protects us from some dangers, in the same way as not leaving the house unlocked for the electrician is.

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