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It takes a village to protect a rapist

There’s a saying that’s generally cited as being an old African proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child”.


It means that everyone in that child’s community has a positive part to play in its rearing; caring, teaching, nurturing, nourishing, healing, and overall being a positive influence. And it makes sense. A society or community that values a child is a positive thing. It’s an example of a diverse range of people across society with a single aim - creating a safe space for that child to live and grow and thrive.


So, why have I appropriated it for this blog? Because the analogy has not been lost on me over the years that I have worked in the field of sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation. Indeed, over recent weeks as reports of the ring of protection that encircles and enables those men who abuse come more and more to light, I have felt that it does take a village to protect a rapist.


The horrific abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard rightly drew fury from women across the UK and demands for women’s safety to be taken seriously. But it isn’t taken seriously. Questions about the violence and abuses perpetrated upon women and girls are often met by ‘whataboutery’ and victim blaming attitudes. In fact, if it wasn’t for the work of Karen Ingala Smith with the ‘Counting Dead Women’ project and Jess Phillips MP reading the women’s names aloud in Parliament every 25th November, we would probably never hear those women’s names spoken or even know that they had existed or had been brutally murdered.


Viewing our society as the ‘village’ gives us the chance to explore how rape, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, and femicide is defined, not in law but through the eyes of our society from a macro level to the attitudes and beliefs of the individual. It gives us the chance to explore how these crimes, for they are crimes, are brought to notice of the rest of the villagers if only a very small number of that community have control of the lines of communication.


The murder of women by men, and most commonly by men they know, is so normalised in our society that it hardly makes the news. The system that is dominated by men’s needs and issues contrives to highlight those issues that are predominantly theirs. The under-reporting of sexual offences, the low numbers that make it into the justice process and the resulting number of convictions tell a very frightening story. This isn’t failing at one point on the journey from abuse to conviction; it’s failing on every step of that journey.


If we consider that historically, rape was a crime against the man who ‘owned’ the woman we see that the injustice was not because of the violation of the woman but because the man’s property had been reduced in value. She became a commodity either valuable because of her virginity, or worthless because of the shame she had brought to her ‘owner’. In her 1975 book ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape’, Susan Brownmiller lays out the origins of the rape laws in society. She writes;


“The ancient patriarchs who came together to write their early covenants had used the rape of women to forge their own male power – how could they see rape as a crime of a man against a woman? Women were wholly owned subsidiaries and not independent beings. Rape could not be envisioned as a matter of female consent or refusal; nor could a definition acceptable to males be based on a male-female understanding of a female’s right to her bodily integrity. Rape entered the law through the back door, as it were, as a property crime of man against man. Woman, of course, was viewed as the property.”


Rape was also sanctioned as a weapon of war, used in conflict to punish, and destabilise communities, and to bond groups of men together (particularly those who had been conscripted or forced to fight). The aim was not only to violate the women but to render the community’s women valueless. Although recognised as a war crime in the 4th Geneva Convention Article 27, rape, torture, sexual abuse, prostitution, sexual slavery, forced impregnation and forced abortion all still take place across the world. The elders of the village may make the laws, but the villagers often do not choose to obey.


In fact, the village has built a value system that allows them to choose to believe the responsibility for being ‘safe’ resides not with those potential perpetrators, but with the victims themselves. Women are often scrutinised and if found wanting, the village will close ranks with the perpetrators and protect them because the women did not obey the rules.


Women and girls who have been raped are still routinely questioned about their behaviour in a way that the rapist never is. And the press still routinely headline news of rape as ‘Sex romps’ or ‘Drunken gang bang’ contributing hugely to the myth of ‘it was just something that got a bit out of hand’ or ‘she was willing at the time but regretted it later’. So, at that macro level, the village still nurses those beliefs that women and girls cannot quite be trusted if they say they have been raped.


If society holds firm to these beliefs and we are all members of that society – police, lawyers, judges, jurors, service providers, public – how can we expect any measure of fairness and justice for women? The initial procedures in the immediate aftermath of a rape that is reported to police are invasive, humiliating, exhausting and often adversarial.


It was widely reported that Wayne Couzens was known among his colleagues as ‘the rapist’. He had been reported to police for indecent exposure and though those reports were logged, investigations had not been allocated so he remained at work. No one is nicknamed ‘the rapist’ without a reason, yet with that, and evidence of indecent exposure on two occasions (including CCTV evidence) as well as a horrific murder charge against him, it was stated by Lord Justice Fulford in his summing up at Couzens’ trial that his (Couzens’) colleagues had ‘spoken supportively’ of him.


The villagers close ranks.


A woman’s behaviour is commonly the foundation of the questioning by investigators, and it is unusual for questioning to be fully trauma informed and sympathetic to the woman as the main witness to a crime. Alcohol is too often used to blame the woman for the rape and abuse perpetrated against her, and to excuse the behaviour of the rapist. The law makers and law keepers in our village roll out those outdated values and attitudes and hold the woman’s story up for scrutiny against them.


It is no surprise then to find that attrition rates are high as women just want to leave the whole process behind them. In my own work over the years, women repeatedly told support staff that they did not report to police or feared reporting because they thought they would not be believed, even when they had significant injuries.


There is still a huge stigma attached to rape and sexual assault with survivors expected to lay bare their pain and trauma in order to somehow attain credibility, to be believed and to avoid being blamed. Outdated stereotypes of womanhood and female sexuality are still trotted out when rape is discussed. The ‘Madonna’ figure, undeserving of abuse, a wife, a mother or perhaps a grandmother, a respectable woman who was completely blameless lives at one end of the spectrum while the ‘Whore’ figure, often young, socialising, ‘asking for it’ with inappropriate clothing, alcohol, partying, previous consenting sexual activity, perhaps involved in prostitution, and deserving of everything she got.


The individuals in our village carry these stereotypes around, ready to be brought out when we read news reports of the latest sexual offences. The individuals in our village will ask questions like, ‘what was she doing out at that time of night?’ or ‘you’d think everybody would know not to leave your drink unattended when you’re in a club’. The dominant story here is that safety is our responsibility; it is our job to police the behaviour of men in order to protect ourselves from rape. And if we are raped, we did not do that job well enough.


In the aftermath of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, the BBC reported that the chief executive of BT had come up with an idea for a new app ‘888 Walk Me Home’ that would track journeys and trigger an alert if the person logged on failed to return home on time. It was in every sense an idea dreamed up by a man who had not one idea of the reality of violence against women and girls and who hadn’t bothered to actually ask any of them if the whole thing made the least bit of sense. And of course, it was supported by the Home Secretary (who was more than happy to be seen to be doing something). Oh, and it had a £50 million price tag on it. One woman who was asked for a comment stated, “By the time I dial 888 that I am being threatened, I’m dead.”


But should this app see the light of day, and it may, it will provide yet another layer of victim blaming and questioning our inability to anticipate or manage men’s violence. Questions will be asked, ‘Why didn’t you have the 888 app?’ or ‘You had the 888 app but you didn’t switch it on.’ But the ‘888 Walk Me Home’ isn’t much good if you are already home with your rapist, or he’s your work colleague, friend, neighbour, relative. If we go down the well worn ‘stranger danger’ road, then we ignore the statistics that tell us that 90% plus rapes are committed by someone that we know. And if the stranger/monster isn’t responsible, who is? How can we believe that it could be an ordinary guy that we are friends with, work with, have known for years and wouldn’t hurt a fly? This guy could be one of us. Surely not.


At every level of our village there is sympathy for the perpetrator. The exception to this may be if the victim is very young – a small child, very old, infirm, disabled or in the ‘Madonna’ category – though this is not automatically the case. Legislators rightly categorise rape as a serious crime and theoretically it carries a life sentence but in practice, sentences are relatively low. So, juries are often reluctant to convict, even when faced with the most bizarre defence arguments; and of course, defence is always consent, the ‘rough sex’ defence commonly used to explain injuries such as bruising, cuts, strangulation etc. And we have seen a frightening increase in the reports of a number of ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defences for the murder of women.


There is a reluctance to convict even in the presence of significant evidence. Jurors understand rape is a serious crime and have been known to say, ‘this will ruin his life’, or to clutch at the knowledge of the perpetrator’s wife and children and the impact it will have on them. The unspoken assumption that the survivor will ‘get over it’ minimises the impact it has on her life in the short, and long term.


Again, the focus from our villagers is often fixed on balancing the behaviour of the woman against the potential of the perpetrator. A case in point was the widely reported rape of a young woman by Brock Turner in the USA in 2015. Headlines focused solely on Turner’s athletic record, his potential to become an Olympic swimmer. The woman’s trauma became invisible but her drinking, and the fact that she was very drunk and passed out when he raped her, were widely recorded.


Often, our villagers don’t know that rape is very, very unlikely to be an ‘entry crime’. The rapist is likely to have a history of sexual harassment, perhaps sexual coercion, sexist and misogynist behaviour. A case in point was Couzens’ indecent exposure which is unlikely to have been the first sexual crime that he had committed.


In the aftermath of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa’s murders, the same soundbites are regurgitated by our villagers at every level, that ‘lessons have been learned’ or in the case of Couzens, that he was a ‘bad apple’ (though that doesn’t explain the 750 cases of sexual assault reported against UK police officers in the past five years). We are given a list of ways to protect ourselves, told that we should arm ourselves with more knowledge (of the law), make sure we don’t walk alone at night, get the right Walk Me Home app and all the other mind numbing ‘advice’ we have absorbed over our lifetimes.


Since Sarah Everard was murdered, a further 80 women in England and Wales have been murdered by men, most commonly by men they know. We don’t need this advice because as women we are hard wired to feel fear, to have our senses on alert wherever we go. We have a built in app for that and it didn’t cost £50 million.


The village has to stop protecting the rapists and address the problem. And that is male violence against women. This is the pandemic that nobody talks about.


1 IR: International, Economic, and Human Security in a Changing World - James M. Scott, Ralph G. Carter, A. Cooper Drury - Google Books

2 Concern grows over ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defence in courts | Crime | The Guardian

3 In 2008 a radio DJ reported that Wayne Couzens had exposed himself to her was she walked passed an alleyway but claimed MET officers laughed at her when she reported it

4 At least 750 sexual misconduct claims against UK police officers in five years | Police | The Guardian

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