This week The Children’s Society report finds that thousands of sex crimes against 16 and 17 year old girls in England and Wales were unreported last year. With only 1 in 4 cases against children leading to a conviction and a 5.3% conviction rate for rape in the UK, girls, understandably have little faith in the criminal justice system. Girls do not report because of fear of reliving their trauma, the culture of shame, going to court, being judged, fearing the perpetrator and not being believed. But BBCThree’s Sex on Trial clearly demonstrated other deep-rooted factors at play.
Uncertainty about what constitutes rape, sexual exploitation, a crime and consent coupled with a culture of victim blaming is behind the staggering extent of underreporting. The programme showed just how skewed sympathy is towards the perpetrator, with many participants more concerned for the rapist’s self-inflicted ‘ruined’ life (there was a great faith in British justice from participants) than for the female victim. Rape myths are flourishing as participants seemed to expect the victim to fight off the rapist, blaming her for having a previous relationship with him. The Children’s Society report finds that not wanting the perpetrator punished is another reason for non-reporting and this down-playing of rape and excusing of rapists was all too apparent in Sex on Trial. Disturbingly, many female participants disclosed their own unreported experiences of sexual violence on the programme, which gave minimal air-time to the impact of rape. The formal complaint made to BBCThree by campaigning organisation Everyday Victim Blaming is an insight into the rape myths that feed into underreporting and the shamefully low conviction rate.
While society and the law must address why girls’ are not reporting, the question we must ask is what the hell is going on with boys and men? Where does this sense of entitlement to girls and women’s bodies come from? UK Feminista, an organisation that supports people to campaign for a world in which women and men are equal, are developing a project called Schools Against Sexism. This includes workshops with pupils, including giving them the tools to campaign themselves, and training and resources for teachers and parents. The project includes supporting schools to implement a whole school approach to tackling violence against girls including sexual bullying, harassment, relationship abuse, sexting and pornography. This work adds to the End Violence Against Women Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign and the amazing work in schools from charity, Tender.
UK Feminista’s Sophie Bennett says. ‘Demand for workshops and teacher training has been huge. The teachers we meet tell us they are desperate for support to challenge sexism in the classroom. Time and time again, girls and boys tell us they feel pressure to look, think and behave according to harmful gender stereotypes. School is a key site where sexism is experienced and sexist attitudes develop, but it’s also a key site for change.’ The organisation is also building a body of research on the state of sexism in schools. A conversation with a male teacher and consultant living on my street this morning gives a glimpse into how bad it is. He tells me that boys routinely call girls ‘bitch’ and ‘gash’, he recalls a male pupil simulating sex behind a female teacher as she bent over, and of cases of unpunished sexual assault and alleged rape. Then he tells me about catching a twelve year old watching bestiality porn. ‘Do you see a lot of porn on boys’ mobiles in the playground?’ I asked. ‘Of course.’ he replied. ‘They are swamped by it.’ And as Sophie Bennett of UK Feminista says, ‘Porn eroticises non-consent.’
Last month, the Women’s Equality Party launched their first policies and pledged to make age-appropriate Relationships Education – including on sexual consent – compulsory. WEP say, ‘It is reckless and cruel to continue to ask our children to navigate the complexities of sexting, revenge porn and sexual consent with so little support.’ The WEP want to see schools addressing entrenched ideas about gender, help boys and girls challenge what they see in the media, teach mutual respect in relationships and show boys as well as girls that caring for others does not make you weak. Of the 85,000 girls and women raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted each year, only 15% report it to the police. A quarter of these reports are not even recorded as crimes. Unreported crimes of sexual violence means unpunished perpetrators, free to rape again. And they will. We need to talk about rape.