Rape, it would seem, has become a "political football": so says Vera Baird, the solicitor general. She was referring to David Cameron's recent speech, in which he said that his party was committed to challenging the appallingly low conviction rate.
Baird, who is due to announce reforms to the laws surrounding rape, understands the issue. Ten years ago, I coordinated a scheme in West Yorkshire in conjunction with the CPS, to deliver specialist training to prosecutors in all aspects of sexual assault. Baird, who was at that time a practicing criminal barrister, delivered sessions during the course. She spoke of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding rape, such as there being a typical victim and perpetrator, and also about the ways in which women are blamed for "bringing it on themselves" if they had any physical contact with her rapist before the attack.
Baird went down extremely well with the prosecutors. She told them that in order to secure more convictions, they had to be at least as well equipped with all the facts of the case, and of the research around rape, as the defence. Baird certainly cares about rape and its consequences.
Now here is the problem. The government can try all the tweaking of laws possible, and go out on a limb to introduce measures that may dispel myths held by judge and jury, and it might help a bit. It can clarify, and re-clarify the issues of consent, and attempt to stop the introduction of the previous sexual history of complainants. Such measures, however, will only be successful if rigorously applied by the judge, and adhered to by the jury.
In 2003, I was part of a research team at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, looking at the effectiveness of the restrictions in allowing previous sexual history as part of the defence in rape trials. Much of the time, the defence snuck such evidence in without the prosecution or judge even noticing, or applied to have it heard and succeeded.
During breaks in the trial, I heard both prosecution and defence lawyers joke with each other about the complainant, her evidence, and in one instance, her underwear (which was being displayed as an exhibit). Outside of the court, during one case involving a 15-year-old complainant and an adult man, so-called specially trained police officers were having a laugh about the sexual positions described by the defendant during his evidence, all within earshot of the complainant's family. Like all the other cases I observed, the defendant was acquitted.
Time after time, I observed, both in CPS case files and in court, the police did not gather evidence at the scene, the CPS were reluctant to proceed to trial because the complainant had some sort of relationship with the defendant, and judges did not ensure the law was properly applied.
There is no doubt that reports in the press about so-called false allegations of rape have increased dramatically, to the point where much of the general public believes that most women "make it up".
There is little point in telling juries at rape trials about the psychological impact of rape, as Baird may well propose, if the jury does not consider any act to be "real rape" unless a man jumps out and grabs a virgin nun and ravishes her in the bushes, while holding a knife to her throat and wearing a black mask. Any reform to the current law will fail unless the government runs a massive awareness campaign, along the same lines of those to deter drink driving and smoking. If it were to do that, and educate the public about the realities of rape, by the time they sit on rape trials as jurors, people might just understand that all rape is "real rape". Baird, as I said earlier, cares about rape. If she could persuade the Treasury to spend some serous money on public education, we would undoubtedly see a significant rise in the numbers of men committing this hideous crime convicted.