Joan McAlpine: Reasons to believe rape is becoming mainstream

Many younger people will not have heard of the notorious "Glasgow rape case". The title at first seems disturbing, as though this was the only woman violated in the city. For months, indeed years, in the 1980s, it made the front pages of newspapers and even resulted in the resignation of Nicholas Fairbairn as solicitor general.

The brutal gang rape and degradation of "Carol X" on waste ground in the city's east end became infamous when the Crown chose to drop the case against her attackers.

Prosecutors claimed she was too traumatised to give evidence without harming her own health, so decided not to proceed, even though members of the gang had confessed. Eventually justice was done by means of a private prosecution - only the third in Scottish legal history at that time.

People asked whether moral judgments had been made about the character of Carol, a prostitute. She had been butchered during the assault and was lucky to be alive - how could such a heinous crime result in the men walking free?

Whatever the reasons for the Crown's decision, the perception was of a women denied justice. Fairbairn had to resign because he gave details of the Crown decision to a journalist, which is not allowed. But his subsequent comments about women and rape - he used the term tauntresses - suggested that reform of establishment attitudes as well as procedures was long overdue.

The Carol X case coincided with the birth of the Rape Crisis Movement. Feminists began questioning how police and prosecutors dealt with victims.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the sordid story was how the media, led by tabloid newspapers, took Carol's side and relentlessly campaigned on her behalf - it was a turning point in attitudes to sexual assault that led directly to the zero tolerance campaigns of today.

The Glasgow Rape Case resulted in decades of improvements designed to prevent women becoming victims twice over, or have their reputations on trial if they made a complaint. Strathclyde Police were at the forefront of reforms in the UK and their approach was used as a model by other forces.

How sad that three decades on it is Strathclyde Police who are having to take another initiative against rape - with the setting up of a special investigations unit after a spate of attacks in Glasgow city centre.

The attacks are all stranger rape or gang rape, as though nothing had changed since Carol X. Several have happened in the lanes that run between the main streets, areas that are dark, rubbish-strewn and easy places to conceal crime.

Many people will be reassured that the police are taking the problem seriously by setting up the unit.Yet at the same time we are told that stranger rape remains rare, that these attacks are unconnected and women should not panic unduly.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the recent rapes is that they take place at a time when we as a society are supposed to be less tolerant of any form of sexual crime. Western countries, including Scotland, have sought to address sexual violence by broadening its definition.

Campaigners succeeded long ago in convincing authorities that a woman is more likely to be attacked by someone she knows - a husband, boyfriend, date or neighbour.

A 1985 study carried out across 32 American colleges by the researcher Mary P Koss found that one in four women had sex against their will, 84 per cent of them knew their attacker and 57 per cent had happened on a date.

Most of the reforms into how we report, investigate and prosecute rape these last three decades have taken such attitudes on board. Elish Angiolini, the departing Lord Advocate, put considerable energy into reform of the law - it remains to be seen whether this is enough to improve Scotland's low conviction rate.

In 1980, for example, 145 rapes were reported in Scotland, and 34 resulted in conviction, a rate of 23 per cent. By 2009, 821 rapes were reported, of which 25 resulted in conviction - a rate of about 3 per cent.

The explanation is that women are more likely to report rapes by people they know, but it is more difficult to prove that they withheld consent - whereas back in 1980 most would have been straightforward cases where considerable force was used.

It is quite correct that Ms Angiolini and others have focused attention on all the circumstances in which rape takes place - including within a marriage. But do the recent attacks in Glasgow require a different approach again? We need to know if stranger rapes are increasing, or whether this is just an impression given by the media linking particular incidents.

What is particularly concerning is that a tolerance of rape as recreation is entrenched in the attitudes of certain, marginalised groups of men - and some who are not so marginalised.

History demonstrates that when sexual aggression is established as the norm, otherwise normal men become monsters. Think of the way the Red Army, and indeed American GIs beasted their way through Germany at the end of the Second World War, think of Darfur, Congo and Bosnia. Rape is not a crime of passion, it is one of violence used to establish dominance.

Perhaps we should also consider whether more general disrespect towards women facilitates the spread of a rape culture. A BBC3 documentary earlier this year followed British stag parties to eastern Europe, where the highlight of the trip is a visit to a brothel where the very young girls have often been trafficked.Add to that violent pornography, lap dancing bars and a culture that treats sex as a commodity and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that rape, far from being the crime of the deranged, is going mainstream.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP list candidate for the south of Scotland in May's Scottish Parliament elections

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