Recession, austerity and domestic violence: a case unproven


Note 15/07/13.  In Saturday’s Guardian, Deborah Orr mused on two important questions around domestic violence. The first was the familiar worry as to whether the current economic crisis has sparked an upturn in intimate partner abuse. She hangs her argument around figures from Citizens’ Advice Bureaux showing a large increase in clients requiring help with the problem.

It is very likely that this is a mistake, and falls into the same trap that caught Suzanne Moore last year, discussed below . When a whole bunch of DV services close across the country, it is inevitable that people in need of help will turn to whatever service is left. It is *possible* that the rise in CAB cases is entirely accounted for by that. We would really need to know how many people in total have been turned away from other services (not just Women’s Aid and Refuge, but the entire range of council run-helplines, youth services, community health services etc, all of which will deal with DV, and all of which have been slashed.

There’s another problem with those CAB stats which is that CAB typically see people with a range of complex problems – housing, debt etc. They did not say that the numbers they quoted were people who contacted them about DV as their primary or only problem. As the recession etc gets worse, more ppl will see CAB anyway (it would be interesting to know how much their entire caseload went up over the same period) and then a lot of them, in the course of the interview, will reveal that not only are they facing homelessness, debt collectors etc, but they are also in an abusive relationship.

My hunch is still that we will see a slight rise in DV figures from BCS / CSEW within the next year or two, because these things tend to be cumulative and have a bit of a lag before they start to turn up in the figures. But at the moment the most we can say is that there is no evidence yet of such a rise. That said, we would expect frontline services to be the first to pick up on any such trend.

As a general point, my own best guess is that short term crises and economic stresses can certainly trigger violent incidents – either directly, or by boosting problematic use of alcohol / stimulants etc which has the secondary effect. But that’s just switching the detonator. The bomb has been laid much, much earlier, in a childhood & adolescence of exposure to violent stresses and socialisation. I do genuinely believe that people in general are less violent in all sorts of ways than they were a few decades ago, and so consequently we have far fewer violent personalities around than we did before.

On Deborah’s second point is interesting. She suggest that violence may be getting shifted from outdoors, now a near-panopticon of CCTV, and moving behind closed doors. i’m not convinced of this theory, but it prompts me to suggest that one reason convictions for both domestic abuse and sexual offences have risen sharply, even as survey evidence shows the actual incidence is in decline, may be that more evidence is now collected and stored on mobile phones, whether by victims or perpetrators. The same types of evidence have also occasionally been found to acquit those who have been wrongly accused. The panopticon is not so easily escaped!  


First published November 29th 2012

There is a very real likelihood that economic conditions are combining with devastating cuts to services and legal aid to create heightened risk for victims of domestic violence.  It’s something that’s been worrying me and I suspect everyone else with an interest in the topic for several years now. So I’ve had my eyes open for evidence as to the impacts. The official figures for the year 2011/12 are due in January.

But a couple of weeks ago a few agency-based news sites appeared to be presenting some hard evidence.


The recession is making domestic violence worse, statistics show.

The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) claimed to have found a statistical link between the economic downturn and an increase in domestic violence.

Domestic violence has increased by 17% over the period of the recession.


In 2011, 2,174 assaults were reported each day in England and Wales – or three every two minutes.

The same statistics appeared this morning in Suzanne Moore’s column in the Guardian.

I wasn’t aware of any new releases from the ONS that could have informed these claims, so I did a bit of digging.

A helpful person at NCDV explained that the statistics had not come from them. They had released figures that their own caseload had increased by 19.6% during 2011, which is in its own right a worrying glimpse of the demands now placed on remaining services, but it offers no clue to the overall extent of domestic violence. (Most obviously, when some services are cut back or closed down, those that remain are likely to see a vastly increased demand.  Alternatively, more effective marketing or raised media profile can lead to an increase in calls and referrals for any one charity or service.)

So where does the claim of a 17% rise, equivalent to 2174 cases a day, come from? I searched on the figures and they appear to be drawn from a Daily Mirror report in July 2011, which quoted the precise same statistics in exactly the same terms. That piece was reporting a parliamentary answer given in Hansard the week before. In response to a question from Gloria de Piero MP, minister Lynne Featherstone released the most recent police reported crime figures. They cover four years, 06/07 – 09/10.

06/07                     07/08                     08/09                     09/10
671,374                 674,756                 766,047                 793,526


Although there was a slight rise between the first and second column, and between the third and fourth, the great proportion of the 17% jump happened in one year, between 07/08 and 08/09.

There are several things to note here. The first is that the figures stop in June 2010. So any suggestion that this is new research based on new data is clearly bogus. The second point is that while the global recession began in September 2008, most of the impacts upon the general public did not begin to be felt for months or even years after that. So while it is possible that the rise in domestic violence reports can be attributed to economic conditions, it would seem improbable.

The austerity programme of the current government, of course, did not begin until May 2010, so it has to be entirely irrelevant to these data.

Another point that will be of interest to many of those commenting on Suzanne Moore’s strictly female-focussed piece is that these numbers are total reports, not just women. (Typically police reports are about 10% male victims reporting female abusers.)

It is important to note that according to BCS, which is considered to be a much more reliable (though still far from perfect) guide to the actual incidence of violent crime, there was no rise in self-reported domestic violence in the year to 08/09.  The estimate of physical partner abuse victims (non-sexual) fell from 1,456,000 to 1,137,000 and partner sexual abuse from 541,000 to 466,000. These are big falls, not rises (in keeping with the trend of the past 15 years or so.)

You can always expect some disparity between the BCS trend and the reported crime figures, but the vast disparity in that year suggests to me that whatever was happening, it was unlikely to be a straightforward rise in the number of violent incidents. Could it have been an increased awareness? Was there some very effective public education campaign that year, or a particularly compelling soap storyline? That’s possible. Rather more likely is that there may have been changes in how police recorded their reports. Was there a change in policy as to what kinds of calls would be ‘no-crimed’? Were there any new guidelines introduced for police as to what should be classified as a domestic violence incident? I honestly do not know, but if any readers have theories, I’d be delighted to hear them.

As for the more immediate issue, I believe I can quite confidently state that there is no evidence that there has been a rise in domestic violence as a direct result of the current economic situation and austerity measures. That’s not to say such a rise hasn’t happened, in all honesty I still expect to be confronted with a grim reversal, and we may know much more in January.*

In the meantime I’m not convinced it serves anyone well to propagate outdated and misleading statistical claims.


* UPDATE 15/07/13 – I’m happy to report that January has been and gone, the statistics were released, and they showed yet another slight (though not statistically significant) decline in incidence of DV and no increase in sexual offences.



Criminal justice in a man’s world

Yesterday I was honoured to be speaking at a symposium for Safe Ground, an inspirational charity that works with men in prisons across the UK, especially around issues of fatherhood, engaging them through creative arts, drama, roleplay and more.

The day was exploring how models of masculinity impact upon offending behaviour and desistance.  I listened to and met some amazing people, not least the two young men who performed a remarkable short play “Outside In” that they had written and rehearsed as part of the Only Connect Theatre groups

For reasons best classified under “seemed like a good idea at the time”, myself and Professor Brid Featherstone were gloved up and placed in a boxing ring to debate some key questions over three rounds.

I hope to get some reflections on the day together soon, but for now, here’s a write-up of the notes I made, which I’ve tried to edit into something that bears at least passing resemblance to what I ended up saying.


Round 1 – What is Man’s place in today’s world?

Last year the American author and journalist Hanna Rosin loudly proclaimed the End of Men. Another, Kay Hymowitz wrote of the “child-men” who are refusing to grow up. William Bennett asked Why Men Are In Trouble. Here in London last month, Diane Abbott MP dug up that dependable zombie – the Crisis of Masculinity. At the risk of going out on a limb, I just don’t believe it. There is not crisis of masculinity. There is a crisis of economics, of employment, of industry, of opportunity, education, social welfare and public services and those are hitting some men very hard. But to call that a crisis in masculinity implies that gender identity should be able to absorb those problems, mould itself around the casualty like an airbag in a crash.  I do not doubt it would help many men if they were less weighed down by the plate armour of rigid masculine expectations, but that is not where the problem lies.

There is of course not one masculinity, but many. The masculinity that really does rule the world is stronger than ever.  It is seldom mentioned that even now, boys in the top social and educational quartile are doing better than ever. They’re actually moving further ahead of girls on the top courses, getting even more of the top jobs, walking out of university into higher salaries and higher status. They are the men who will go on to fill the boardrooms and the cabinet in ten years’ time.

Boys and men are not being pushed down so much as being polarised, more than ever, into winners and losers and it begins to happen when they are still only teenagers.  In the bottom quartile, opportunities for secure employment and financial independence have all but vanished, removing even the option of life as traditional husband, father, breadwinner and provider. Domestically, young working class and minority ethnic men have lost an empire and not yet found a role. There is something grotesque about blaming young men for their failure to step up to the plate when the plate has been snatched from under their feet.

Having said all that, it is hugely to credit of young men today that for the most part they are not reacting by turning to crime, violence, ASB, drugs etc etc. By all measures, all those phenomena remain on the decline. The fastest growing section of the prison population is the over-60s, not the under 20s. Somehow, somewhere, we are doing something right.


ROUND 2 Do men need male role models?

If the language of the End of Men and the Crisis of Masculinity is unhelpful, there was a report recently from the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, no less, which talked of a Tsunami of Family Breakdown, claiming that whole neighbourhoods in our cities have  become“man deserts.” At first I thought they said “man desserts” and was picturing giant oceans of rhubarb crumble and custard. In all honesty, that would have been slightly more credible. They were actually suggesting that due to lone motherhood and the lack of male teachers, boys in poor areas could grow up with no male role models at all. It was nonsense, of course. There are plenty of men about, even in the most deprived neighbourhoods, but who are they? What do they do?

If we assume that children learn, at least in part, from observing, imitating and emulating those they see around them – and we assume that children adopt gendered behaviour in this way, then we are right to be concerned about what examples of manliness our boys see around them as they grow. I live and work, and raise my two sons in the inner city area of Manchester with a notorious history of gang and gun crime, drug problems and high crime.

Let me reassure any Daily Mail readers in the room – OK, let me reassure any hypothetical Daily Mail readers in the room, that both me and my boys see plenty positive examples of manhood. I see fathers collecting kids from school, playing with them in the park. I see men running the martial arts classes, the boxing clubs, the football clubs, the youth clubs. Our culture and media seem to revel in portrayals of masculinity that are violent, anti-social and destructive. It worries me that the likes of Diane Abbott, despite her  good intentions, actively contributes to this  impression that men are a negative force in society, while ignoring the other side of the coin – the many men who do amazing things both within the family and within the community.

I cannot stress enough the valuable role played by such men, in demonstrating that masculinity can mean caring, compassion, altruism, concern for others.  And I cannot stress enough how worried I am that the cuts to local authority budgets are devastating these opportunities. Whither the Big Society? Iain Duncan Smith and his pals might be worried about the lack of good role models for our young men. So am I. But only one of us has the power to do something about that.


ROUND 3 – The Criminal Justice System

About two weeks ago, in Salisbury, Kent, a police sergeant was convicted of assault against a 14 year old boy in his custody. Sergeant Steven Rea grabbed the lad by the throat as he was sitting down and physically lifted him up to his feet. As he was assaulting him he yelled in his face:  What is wrong with you? You do the thieving, you stand up and be a man.”

So much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and youth justice system can be seen in that little exchange. There is of course the sheer brutality and illegal abuse of power, but what struck me is the demand of masculinity – it is manly to take a beating, and alongside that an implication that committing a crime  – a petty act of shoplifting, as it happened – was an act of masculine maturity rather than juvenile inadequacy and a warning sign of a young life already gone badly awry.

It is six years since the Corston report urged a gender sensitive approach to the needs of women offenders. In that time there has been a tangible shift across the political spectrum in how we consider the humanity and effectiveness of the system’s approach to women offenders. The challenge is to apply that same correct logic to male offenders too. In March, Justice minister Helen Grant called for more widespread and effective use of community sentencing for women offenders. I don’t disagree with any of this. I just don’t understand why the debate is restricted to women. Two-thirds of male prisoners have a reading age of 11 or less. More than 70% of have at least two diagnosed mental health conditions, 10% experienced psychotic hallucinations in the preceding year. 28% were homeless or in insecure accommodation immediately before custody.

Here we see the gender-specific issues affecting men across society – educational underachievement, neglect of mental health, economic and social isolation, homelessness, addiction – brutally concentrated at the sharpest end of the system. If I could leave this debate today with one plea in your ears, it is this: we need a Corston Report for men and we need it urgently.



Malestrom pt 2: When anger is justified

In her 1970 book Sexual Politics, widely considered a cornerstone of radical feminism, Kate Millett wrote:

Excepting a social license to physical abuse among certain class and ethnic groups, force is diffuse and generalized in most contemporary patriarchies. Significantly, force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence. Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialization. Before assault she is almost universally defenceless both by her physical and emotional training. Needless to say, this has the most far-reaching effects on the social and psychological behaviour of both sexes.

Like most early feminists, Millett was not a social scientist, a psychologist or a criminologist. She was a literary theorist and sculptor. [She was also a relatively privileged, middle-class white woman, as reflected in the astonishingly frank othering of working classes and people of colour in the first few words of that extract, but I’ll skip over that here]. Millett genuinely believed that women were entirely incapable of inflicting physical violence.

There was no evidence for her assertion, but to be fair there were no evidence to the contrary either, at the time. As John O’Brien pointed out in a 1971 paper, the academic Journal of Marriage and the Family ran for 30 years, between 1939 and 1969, before they published a single title mentioning the word ‘violence.’  It wasn’t just that social scientists didn’t know the extent of violence in the family, they didn’t even think it possible to find out.

Around the same time as Millett’s book was helping to spark feminist activism, a small group of feminist social scientists were beginning the process of developing tools to objectively measure the extent and nature of violence in the family home. Suzanne Steinmentz, Murray Straus and Richard Gelles spent the first half of the seventies piloting and testing survey methods which would eventually become known as the Conflict Tactics Scale. When the results started coming through, they surprised everyone – not least the authors. It appeared that there were previously unimagined levels of violent conflict in a high proportion of US homes and, most remarkably, a significant proportion of it was being committed and instigated by women. Steinmetz coined the (then laughable) phrase “battered husband.” They concluded that much family violence was a consequence not of patriarchy, but of the interpersonal stress created by the systems of the family unit.

There was a theoretical response from pro-feminist writers, notably from Dobash & Dobash (1979) arguing that violence against women is different in extent, cause, effect and societal function to violence against men. It is important to note that many feminist objections to Straus, Steinmetz et al have come from a place of good faith and sincere interpretation of the evidence. Other academic responses, both at the time and ever since, have been anything but honest and ethical.

All of this is well trodden ground, but I revisit it here to make the point that in this debate, those who have argued for the significance of female perpetration are often portrayed as proponents of a whacky theory that flies in the face of the evidence. The truth is the exact opposite. Straus, Steinmetz and Gelles were producing evidence that flew in the face of a whacky theory – that the male alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence.

Away from the journals, the attacks on the academics were less subtle. Feminist activists embarked on a campaign of harassment against the pioneers of family conflict theory. Steinmetz was subject to a lobbying campaign to have her tenure and research funding removed. Hate mail and death threats culminated in a hoax bomb threat being called in to her daughter’s wedding. Murray Straus had his lectures and meetings disrupted, and he was falsely accused of beating his wife and sexually exploiting his students by the chairperson of the Canadian Commission on Violence Against Women, no less.

If the atmosphere was hostile within academia, on the frontline of activism and service delivery things were little better.  I’ve often had feminists say to me that feminism is not hostile to male victims, that if men wanted to set up services for abused men, there would be no complaints. This claim is simply untrue. Many efforts to acknowledge and address female on male violence, even just to provide support to victims, has been actively opposed and disrupted by feminist activists.

For many years there were systematic attempts to all but deny the existence of male victims. In 1999, Julie Bindel wrote “there are a few cases each year of women battering their partners.” The BCS estimate for male victims that year was 253,000. Worse still, victims, either individually or collectively, have been widely smeared as probable abusers themselves, under the assumption that any attack against them was an act of self-defence. The defamation has even stretched to murder victims.

I’ve long abandoned arguing about the exact proportions and numbers of male and female victims or the nonsensical concept of symmetry. My own broad position is that there is no such thing as domestic violence – there is a range of abusive and violent behaviours that can happen for different reasons and with different consequences, and contradictory findings are largely explained by differing definitions. Whether you agree, it is a fair and important ongoing debate. But what is now beyond any reasonable debate is that male victims are not uncommon and that at least some of them are suffering, at risk of serious harm, and in need of support and assistance. Kate Millett’s assertion that women are incapable of violence has been proved grotesquely wrong.

This series is about widespread male anger towards feminism online. The politics of domestic violence are a vivid illustration that sometimes anger is justified. It is a topic about which I am passionate, and have become downright irate at times. It is also an example of where anger can be effective.

It’s rarely admitted by anyone, but the past few years have seen a significant shift in policy, media narratives and public attitudes. The 2010 Equality Act made it increasingly difficult for service providers to deny help on the basis of gender. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act clarified that it could apply to men too. Last year, Respect – the organisation which accredits and supervises intervention programmes in the UK – published information aimed at female perpetrators for the first time. The issue has even crossed the ultimate threshold of “issue politics” – becoming a long-running (and generally well-handled) plot on Coronation Street.

From my own experience, five or more years ago it would prove almost impossible to persuade an editor to run a piece addressing male victimisation. Now they occasionally approach me first. Even Julie Bindel has toned down her rhetoric considerably. Yes there is a long way to go. Resources for male victims in most places are woefully inadequate (as they often are for female victims, it must be said.) Judicial and arrest policies not only create injustices such as male victims being arrested, but may also endanger women (especially those who are not white and middle class) by prescribing solutions that match the ideology, not their circumstances. (Linda G. Mills is brilliant on this point.)

What has brought on these changes? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is that the radical feminist case has simply collapsed under weight of evidence of male victimisation and violence in gay and lesbian relationships. The second is that the counter-arguments, for so long sidelined and dismissed, could be easily and widely disseminated online. (Witness the comment thread on the Libby Brooks piece linked above for an example)

In the long term, anger is usually only as effective as it is just, and on this topic feminist ideology, as applied in policy, has been demonstrably unjust. Men’s anger has won the day. This does not, of course, mean that all expressions of anger are justified. My contempt for the feminists who have actively obstructed efforts to help men is matched by my contempt for those men who seek to actively undermine women’s services with sneering, paranoid references to a ‘domestic violence industry’, or violently misogynistic reactions to any perceived provovation. Two wrongs do not make a right.  My own experience has also been that it has been much harder to raise these issues and champion the cause precisely because of the hateful behaviour of some of those who would appear to argue from my side.

The ultimate goal for us all, I hope, is to build policies and social values that provide protection for victims, or better, prevent them becoming victims in the first place. Anger is an energy. Use it well.

How not to write about false rape allegations

Over the past few days, two different male writers on my radar have run against the rocks on the issue of false allegations.

The first was “Prisoner Ben” Gunn. I really value this blogger. He brings an irreverent and sharp mind to issues of criminology and penal policy, informed by extensive study and 32 years of imprisonment, from the age of 14 until last year. He was nominated for an Orwell Prize while blogging from behind bars, and has continued since his release. That gives him a rare and valuable perspective. He campaigns and writes, often brilliantly, about issues of judicial reform and miscarriages of justice. More power to his elbow.

Last week Ben Gunn took issue with the Twitter hashtag #ibelieveher, which sprang into life in response to the grotesque shaming, blaming and online outing of the victim of convicted rapist and footballer Ched Evans. As he later wrote on his blog:

It began when I saw a campaign headed “I believe her”, propagating the view that all rape victims should be believed. I assumed even the dimmest or most ideological could glimpse the flaw in that idea – sometimes an accusation is false. To simply “believe” is to throw out the justice process, essentially renders the trial process pointless. Thought everyone would appreciate my concern…. Well. They didn’t.

I understand what he was driving at, but also understand why others didn’t see it that way. What Ben misses, I think, is that the single biggest obstacle to justice and personal recovery for rape victims is excessive disbelief. It is disbelief that sees too many reported rapes being “no-crimed” by police or inadequately investigated. It is disbelief that sees rape victims being branded liars or sluts by internet vigilantes, and it is the fear of disbelief that deters many victims from reporting the crime in the first place. If we genuinely want rapists to be convicted for their crimes, saying “I believe her” (or for that matter “I believe him” in around 10% of reported rapes) has to be the default starting position for police, media reporters and social media commentators alike.

This does not imply that belief trumps evidence. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we “throw out the judicial process.” Nobody is suggesting police, prosecutors and juries abandon the collection and analysis of evidence and testimony, or the requirement that someone be proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. The moral payback, I believe, is that when allegations have been properly investigated and there is no proof that an individual is guilty of the offence, that person is held unequivocally to be innocent, without a stain on (usually) his character.

It is blunt truth that in the real world many rapes happen without witnesses or physical evidence of non-consent. Many rapes will always go unpunished. Many others will be lost in a mist of uncertainty, with insufficient evidence of guilt or innocence to proceed. Then in a small proportion of cases, there is actual evidence of fabrication and falsehood by the alleged victim, sufficient to warrant prosecution for perverting the course of justice or just wasting police time. This leads us to this week’s second unhelpful contribution to the debate.

The Daily Mail’s resident men’s issues correspondent, Peter Lloyd, is angry. He’s angry that false accuser Lindsey Attridge was spared a jail sentence after fabricating allegations against two men. He’s also angry that feminists and women’s charities aren’t stepping up to loudly condemn false accusers for their wicked deeds and for undermining the credibility of rape victims.

There is a lot in the article I’m unhappy with, but first let me deal with an absolute travesty of a claim. I’d like to think it is down to careless wording rather than either ignorance or mendacity,  but on an issue of such importance and sensitivity, there is no excuse even for that. Let me quote the paragraph in full:

In 2010, an official enquiry report led by Baroness Stern – a prison reform campaigner – ordered [Harriet] Harman to stop misleading the public about rape statistics. For years she’d been pumping misinformation that only six per cent of rapists are brought to justice, when the reality is actually very different.

Actually, the rate is more like two in three – a figure which is much higher than comparable numbers for other violent crimes. Yet still we are told that only 4 per cent of rape attacks go to court.

For anyone unfamiliar with the statistics, there are several different figures at play. Stern rebuked Harman for not distinguishing between the conviction rate for rape (the proportion of cases heard in court resulting in guilty verdicts – about 60%) with the attrition rate (the proportions of reported rapes which withstand the full process of report, investigation and prosecution to result in a guilty verdict – about 6% in Harman’s day, slightly higher now.) Both statistics are meaningful and useful, although Stern was right to demand that they be used with clarity and accuracy. Neither tells us what proportion of rapists are brought to justice.

We know that the vast majority of rapes are not reported and so the vast majority of rapists will never even face the possibility of prosecution. The British Crime Survey gives an approximate estimate of 85,000 rapes happening last year. There were around 2,400 guilty verdicts, or roughly one conviction for every 35 rapes that occur, one conviction for every 14 rapes reported to police, and three convictions for every five cases brought to court. All of those statistics are true and compatible. To suggest that two thirds of rapists are “brought to justice” is dangerously misleading and frighteningly ignorant. For good measure, it also implies that the 40% of defendants cleared in court are unconvicted rapists, a disturbing assertion.

If what Peter Lloyd said was bad enough, perhaps worse is what he didn’t say. At no point did he reveal to readers that the five cases he found of convicted false accusers walking free from court are atypical. Many women convicted of making false allegations are jailed, often for long terms – his paper takes great delight in reporting them every couple of weeks. Nor does he provide any context as to the prevalence of false allegations in comparison to prevalence of rapes.

It is genuinely impossible for anyone to say for sure how many false allegations occur. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is not even consensus on what we actually mean by a false allegation. We do know that in 17 months, the CPS considered only 132 cases for prosecution, which equates to about 0.6% of reports. These could be considered a bare minimum. There must be more allegations which are false but not provably so. About the only thing we can say with certainty about false allegations is that they do sometimes occur. Anything more specific than that is a statement of faith, not evidence.

However by the same system we can note that if the Daily Mail recorded and reported proven, convicted rapes with the same zeal and efficiency they afford to false accusers, they would report 200 new cases every month, that’s seven pages of their paper every single day of the year. Peter Lloyd’s article was especially problematic in the context of his paper, which pursues an editorial policy that creates a vastly skewed impression of the prevalence of known cases of false rape allegations in comparison to actual rapes, and therefore greatly inflates public perception of the likelihood that a rape allegation might be false, and the risk to (primarily) men of being the victim of a false allegation.

I’ll confess that it does frustrate me that many commentators and rape campaigners seem to refuse to engage with the existence of false allegations or suggest that they are so rare they are not worth considering. The possibility that an allegation may be false is a hugely important factor in the prosecution equation and can’t be ignored as an inconvenience. I also wish some feminists would refrain from suggesting that being falsely accused is no big deal, when it is often devastating for those affected. Making a malicious false allegation is a horrible crime, and no one should be reluctant to say so. This debate desperately requires nuance and balance, but is often marked by factional polarisation.

To return to our starting point, rape victims require belief. That belief is certainly undermined by proven cases of false allegations, but it is also undermined by heavily skewed public impressions of the extent and nature of the problem. To complain about the former while actively contributing to the latter would seem to be disingenuous to say the least.

What could really be done to reduce rape

If the prime aim of the interviews and comments provided by Nick Ross this weekend was to publicise his new book, it is safe to say mission accomplished.

Ross is the veteran presenter of BBC’s Crimewatch series, and now the author of a new book simply called ‘Crime.’ His comments on rape prevention were highlighted by the Mail on Sunday which, he insists, grossly misrepresented and hyped his views. It seems to me that selling serialisation and interview rights to the Mail and then complaining about being misrepresented is a bit like inviting a viper up your trouser leg then complaining about being bitten. Predictably, his comments have invoked a storm of criticism and controversy.

Plenty of other commentators have already pointed out why comparing sexual integrity to theft of valuables is misguided, unhelpful and offensive. Others have talked about victim-blaming and the myths that significant numbers of rapes can be avoided by women adapting their social and sexual habits, clothing or other behaviours. I fully endorse those critiques.

But to Ross’s credit, he makes at least one important and under-appreciated point. He is quite right to observe that many victims of rape do not think of what happened to them as rape. This is something well known to researchers and academics, and is the main reason why crime surveys (such as BCS/CSEW) do not ask respondents ‘have you been raped?’ but something like ‘have you been forced to have sex when you did not want to?’ The latter question reaps vastly higher positive responses than the former. Whether this is accounted for by ignorance of the letter of the law, psychological defence mechanisms or the fuzzy boundaries between coercion and compulsion is hard to say.

What Ross misses is that the exact same applies to rapists. One conclusion that can be drawn from the work of David Lisak and others who have replicated his work is that when men are asked whether they have forced someone to have sex or other sexual contact against their will, disturbingly high numbers will say yes (between about 5% and 15% in different samples). When asked explicitly whether they have raped or assaulted someone, far fewer will admit it.

It may be that many rape victims do not describe the experience as rape because they simply do not understand what constitutes rape in law. It may also be a cognitive defence mechanism – that it is easier to cope with and heal from the trauma of the attack if one doesn’t consider it as a rape. I would suggest the exact same thing applies to rapists.

One of the important insights contained in Nicholas Groth’s classic typology of sexual offenders is that power rapists – the most common variety – often delude themselves into believing the victim wants what is happening to (usually) her and will come to enjoy it at the time or afterwards. Power rapists may want to buy the victim a drink or a gift after the attack or make conciliatory approaches (sometimes in the form of a half-hearted apology) the next day. In other words, such attackers do not want to think of themselves as rapists.

Last July a thread on Reddit invited users to confess if they had ever raped someone. The results were startling and controversial. One striking feature of the contributions was that many of those who admitted attacks described themselves as having been racked by indecision, doubt and uncertainty.

What this tells us, I think, is that rapists often do not think of themselves as rapists. Just like Nick Ross, and perhaps like many victims, they imagine a rapist to be the man in the bushes with a ski mask, not someone like them, not a (seemingly) ordinary guy who has a few drinks too many and refuses to take no for an answer.

It is vital that everyone understands that, in most respects, rapists are just like any other guy. It is equally important to understand that raping is not normal behaviour. By the best estimates, at least 90% of men will never rape anyone. Other men in the same situation would not do the same thing, because other men are not rapists. People who force sex upon others are statistical, psychological and moral aberrations.

This is why I, as a man, fully support feminist efforts to replace rape avoidance campaigns with genuine rape prevention campaigns. That means reducing the desire, the willingness, the motivation to commit rape in the first place. There are very good reasons to believe campaigns with slogans like “don’t be that guy” as opposed to “don’t be that girl” could be highly effective in reducing rape and sexual assault, because there are very good reasons to believe that many sexual offenders really don’t want to be “that guy.” They don’t want to think of themselves as abusers, don’t want to think of themselves as rapists. They are actively looking for loopholes which allow them to think that it wasn’t entirely their fault, the victim takes a share of responsibility, or that anyone would do the same in the circumstances. This is why even well-intended advice to women on their supposed responsibility to avoid being raped can actively contribute to the problem.

More importantly, I think, sex education (both at school and in the broader cultural conversation) needs vastly stronger emphases on the meaning, nature and importance of enthusiastic consent. This would also help to address the issue of forced penetration assaults by women on men, particularly within relationships, which is being increasingly recognised as a real and serious issue.

Slut-shaming, which attempts to stifle women’s expressions of their sexual desires and encourages them to play coy or hard-to-get, needs to be banished once and for all. There is perhaps no more dangerous cultural meme than the idea that “no means maybe and maybe means yes.”   

Realistically, there will always be sociopaths, sadists, damaged and damaging individuals for whom no amount of education or awareness will help. There will always be rape, just as there will always be assaults and murders. However changing appreciation of consent, improved awareness and a change in culture has already produced significant reductions in the incidence of rape. Those who said, 40 years ago, that rape was a fact of human nature and nothing could be done to change that, have been proven utterly wrong. I see no reason to believe that we couldn’t improve things much further still.

Terror and the Unknown Soldier

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ”
– Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

In the afternoon light of a busy London street, two young men smash their car directly into the fragile flesh of a third; jump out, and hack his broken body into pieces.  Hands red with blood and heavy with weapons, they linger over their victim, awaiting reaction.

Women of unimaginable courage impose themselves between killers and killed, preventing further desecration of a lifeless corpse, which lies in a T-shirt proclaiming “Help For Heroes.”

All around camera phones are held in shaking hands, freezing the scene as jpeg, liquidising it as mpeg. Exclusive interviews granted to random lenses, a garbled manifesto of anger, hate, despair and confusion.

A cub-scout leader engages the assassins with Akela’s calm authority, trying to persuade them to lay down the blades and the gun, avert further violence. “My mum is a mutherfuckin badass.”

Sirens, helicopter, state-sanctioned bullets, more blood.

“Mate ive seen alot of shit im my time but that has to rank sumwhere in the top 3. I couldnt believe my eyes. That was some movie shit”  

A million tweets and updates hail down with ostentatious bravado.

Around 6pm a source close to government issues the official kite-mark of a capital T. This was not an act of criminality and hate, not a moment of horror but an act of Terror. Gloves off.

Fascists gather to gleefully parade their anger and display their drunken might. Black and brown neighbours shelter at home, fearful of violent reprisals from those who declare their opposition to Terror with a strictly capital T. Brave defenders of decent Christian values mask themselves behind matching EDL-branded balaclavas and hurl bricks at the police.

Hot from the presses, the papers prepare to grace the breakfast tables of the nation. From the front page of the world’s leading liberal voice stares the eyes of a killer, black-clad, black-skinned, red-handed, his words afforded banner status: “You people will never be safe.” An act of terror with a strictly lower-case t.

Meanwhile a young man about whom we know nearly nothing lies dead, unseen, unnamed, all but forgotten; no different to the countless bodies from either side littering the landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq. But unlike them, he is a casualty not of war, not of hate, not of anger, not of madness, not of religion, not of politics. He is a casualty of spectacle.



About 12 hours after I posted this blog, the victim of the Woolwich attack was named as Drummer Lee Rigby, from Crumpsall, Manchester, aged 25, and father to a two year old son named Jack.