Francis Edge argues that one of the main claims of Reclaim the Night movement, that we live in a rape culture, does not stack up
On Thursday 23rd of February, protesters took to the streets of Manchester to “reclaim the night” in protest against “sexual violence against women, street harassment, rape culture and victim blaming”. All of those causes are absolutely worth fighting.
Any proponent of equality will understand and agree with the sentiments expressed. That is, except for one thing: the idea that we live in a rape culture. The phrase describes a society where rape is omnipresent and sexually normalised. This claim requires inspection.
In January 2014, the subject of rape culture gained international attention when former President Barack Obama remarked: “It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses have been sexually assaulted during their time there.” However, according to a United States Department of Justice study released in December 2014, on average, one in 164 college women aged 18-24 reported experiencing rape or sexual assault (including unwanted touching) between 1995 and 2013. These statistics cast substantial doubt on claims that we live in a rape culture.
The origin of the one-in-five statistic is from a 1985 survey of college campuses conducted by Professor of Psychology Mary Koss. A little over 3,000 women were asked 3 questions to determine how many had experienced rape or attempted rape. 15.4 per cent of these women had been raped and 12.1 per cent had been victims of attempted rape.
The media picked up on this story instantaneously but scholars questioned the results as they represented a severe deviation to previous estimates. It turns out that one of the three questions was: “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” As Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism?, points out, the ambiguity of the phrasing was called into question:
“If your date […] encourages you to drink with him and you accept a drink, have you been administered an intoxicant, and has your judgement been impaired? Certainly, if you pass out and are molested one would call it rape. But if you drink and, while intoxicated, engage in sex that you later come to regret, have you been raped?”
Furthermore, only 25 per cent of the “raped” women described the incident as rape, and 40 per cent chose to have sex with their ‘rapist’ afterwards. Correcting for biased data interpretation, the actual number of victims fell to three to five per cent. Nevertheless, feminist lawyer Catharine Mackinnon famously proclaimed: “By a conservative definition rape happens to almost half of all women at least once in their lives.” Is this viewpoint accurately represented by studies?
If we add the more inclusive definition of rape then we would expect, or have been told so by activists, that there would be a dramatic rise in the number of reported rapes. According the FBI’s legacy definition, there were about 80,000 incidents of rape in the U.S. in 2013. Using the revised definition, which includes drunk sex, the number of rapes increases to approximately 109,000 with a rate of one incident per 2,900 persons, both male and female. Does this support a notion of rape culture?
Furthermore, as well as statistic inaccuracy, there is the pressing issue of victimisation of men. Since the 1970s, one of the most prevalent claims has been that just 2 per cent of rape accusations are false. The main source of this was Against Our Will: Women and Rape, a popular book written by American feminist Susan Brownmiller — a claim for which there is no data available. Though, this didn’t stop it from becoming one of the official slogans amongst feminists.
A more accurate figure is that 41 per cent of accusations are false. This figure comes from a report carried out between 1978 and 1987, in which researchers investigated rape reports in a small metropolitan area with a population of about 70,000 people. The researchers determined that the “false charges were able to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, a means of gaining revenge, and a platform for seeking attention/sympathy”.
If for a moment we assume the accuracy of rape reporting, the women in this town experienced seven actual rapes a year. Based on our previous calculations, this amounts to an exaggerated 0.7 per cent lifetime probability of being raped, or 1.7 per cent, if we assume only 40 per cent of rapes got reported.
Bruce Gross, director of University of South California’s Institute of Psychiatry, Law and Behavioural Science, points out the lack of accountability for making a false rape accusation:
“Essentially, there are no formal negative consequences for the person who files a false report of rape.” Furthermore, “when rape cases go to trial, alleged victims are protected by ‘rape shield statutes’. In brief these statutes are designed to prevent defence attorneys from using the accuser’s sexual history ‘against’ her. At the same time, these rape shield laws may suppress evidence [including] prior false accusations of rape filed by the alleged victim.”
Amongst this, there is a tragic reality for some men. This was exemplified by the case of Jay Cheshire, a 17-year-old boy who, after rape allegations were made against him, was cleared. According to coroner Grahame Short, Jay was a sensitive young man who had “found it difficult to cope with the police investigation.” Allegations made against the 17-year old were withdrawn by the complainant just weeks after being filed, resulting in the investigation being closed — and she was not prosecuted. Yet, two weeks after the teenager was acquitted of the charge, with his adult life still ahead of him, Jay hung himself from a tree in his local park.
Not one second was reclaimed for him.