No ifs, no buts – having sex without consent is rape

Share this article

Society's attitudes to this heinous crime need to change, and the prosecution service is doing its bit, says ELISH ANGIOLINI

IMAGINE a female friend or colleague saying, "I'll wear trousers when I go out, so that I am not raped," or, "I won't laugh and joke with my work colleague in case he rapes me".

These may seem ludicrous propositions. Most of us would be surprised if anyone thought that way. Yet these views may seem to be logical in the face of some societal attitudes, with research showing that 32 per cent of people think a woman is partly responsible for being raped if she was behaving flirtatiously.

The same research shows 27 per cent of people believe a woman is partly responsible for being raped if she was drunk at the time of the attack. And 26 per cent consider a woman is partly responsible if she was wearing "revealing" clothing.

Can more than one in four people really think a woman is to blame for being raped in these circumstances; that she is "asking for it"? These attitudes insult and degrade both men and women in a civilised society.

I welcome the new Rape Crisis Scotland campaign, "This is not an invitation to rape me", which is supported by the Scottish Government. The campaign features a range of images, which are designed to challenge society's tendency to blame the victim in such circumstances, and these will be seen in locations across Scotland in the next few weeks.

Such attitudes – which are out of step with the law in this area – need to be challenged. It is clear that for as long as we blame the victim for the assault to which she was subjected, we minimise or deny the responsibility of the perpetrator.

The law in Scotland is quite clear that sexual intercourse without consent is rape. That remains the law, no matter what clothing is or is not worn, regardless of whether or not alcohol has been consumed, or whether or not there was earlier consensual flirtation.

However, for as long as such attitudes tend to apportion blame to the victim, this will be a factor in a woman's decision about whether to report a rape, and in how she feels about giving her evidence in court. Victims should not feel inhibited in giving full and frank evidence – or be dissuaded from reporting the crime at all – for fear of judgment being passed on their clothing or their behaviour.

As Scotland's chief prosecutor, I would urge any victim of rape to have the confidence to report that crime to the police – and to give a full and frank account of exactly what happened. The police, and prosecutors, are interested only in gathering evidence that can be presented before a court of law. Even if there are those in society who may tend to attach blame in the circumstances which I have described, the law does not.

Rape is one of the worst crimes we face as a society; that is why, along with murder, it is only ever prosecuted in the High Court, before a jury.

The general nature of rape as a crime is subject to some inaccurate presumptions. Many people imagine rape consists only of a woman being dragged violently down a dark alleyway, with a knife held to her throat, by a man who is a stranger to her. That kind of attack does happen; thankfully, very rarely. Prosecutors much more frequently see rape cases that take the form of an attack by an acquaintance, a colleague, or a partner; where the attack has taken place in the context of a social situation, or in the victim's own home.

Victims and prosecutors know that some jury members may hold views about the way in which a victim has behaved before, during or after an attack. Many people expect that a woman will be in floods of tears immediately after the attack, and that she will be visibly distressed when giving her evidence in court.

Of course, the truth is that many women will suppress the trauma they feel and will give what may seem like an emotionless account of what has happened to them. Some jury members may also find it difficult to reconcile the evidence that is being presented in court, the nature of the attack and the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, with their own ideas about what constitutes the crime of rape.

As prosecutors, we need to anticipate the likely doubts that may exist for the jury in each case, and ensure we present a full and compelling prosecution case. That will include exploring, before any trial, areas of weakness or discrepancy that may exist in the case.

No police officer or prosecutor who has investigated or prosecuted a sexual-offence case will need to be convinced of the significant and enduring impact, both physical and psychological, that sexual offending has on those who experience it. Reporting the crime, and giving evidence in court, will inevitably be traumatic. We need to do what we can to minimise that.

Scotland's prosecution service is now in the final stages of implementing 50 recommendations for change, made following a major review of the investigation and prosecution of rape and other sexual offences, which I instructed as Solicitor General. We now take an increasingly specialised approach to the investigation and prosecution of rape; we have dedicated sexual crime units; we work more closely with the police in supervising and directing the gathering of evidence, and we deliver intensive, specialist training for our staff working in this sensitive and difficult area.

This work is designed to ensure the investigation and prosecution is as good as it can be.

However, there is also work to be done in our wider community, and I commend Rape Crisis Scotland for their thought-provoking campaign.

For our part within the prosecution service, we stand ready to challenge stereotypes and myths about the circumstances in which abuse is perpetrated. We will continue to challenge societal attitudes which are out of step with the law.

&#149 Elish Angiolini, QC, is the Lord Advocate.

Back to the top of the page