Alarming misconceptions of rape and consent persist, survey finds

Alarming misconceptions of rape and consent persist, survey finds
  • New survey finds that false perceptions of rape persist in society
  • 49% of respondents are unsure what consent means
  • People aged 18 – 24 showed the greatest level of misunderstanding of rape and consent 

False perceptions of rape and a culture of disbelieving victims persist in society, particularly among young people aged 18 to 24. This is the conclusion of a new report by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the public agency responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in England and Wales. 

The CPS commissioned charity Equality Now to conduct a survey among more than 3,000 people in an attempt to understand the public’s understanding of rape and sexual offences. The respondents were shown a number of common statements on rape and consent and asked to pick where their view was between 0 and 10 – with zero being based on false assumptions and the other end of the scale representing the true message.

The largest study of its kind in five years, the results showed that in many cases people over the age of 65 were far better informed on what constitutes rape and consent, compared to people aged 18 to 24 who showed the greatest level of misunderstanding. 

Overall, most respondents correctly identified these statements: 

  • 74% of respondents said that it can still be rape if a victim doesn’t resist or fight back 
  • 67% said that victims may not immediately report to the police 
  • 70% understood that being in a relationship or marriage does not mean consent to sex can be assumed 

But few people correctly identified these statements: 

  • Only 39% were aware that most victims know their rapist
  • 26% knew that victims might not always seem distressed when talking about what happened to them 
  • Only 36% correctly identified that women rarely make up rape allegations 
  • 49% were unsure or did not know what consent means

When it came to the responses of 18 – 24-year-olds: 

  • Only 40% think that even if no physical force is involved a person might not be free and able to consent to sex (compared to 74% of people aged 65 and over)
  • 43% said that victims may not immediately report to the police 
  • 42% understood that being in a relationship or marriage does not mean consent to sex can be assumed (compared to 87% of people over 65)
  • 46% said that if a man has been drinking or taking drugs, he is still responsible if he rapes someone

Surprisingly, young people were also far less likely to understand that if a person says online that they want to meet up and have sex, that doesn’t mean they can’t change their mind when they meet, with just 28% saying this was the case. Overall across all age groups, 54% said that a person can change their mind about sex after initially arranging to have sex online. 

Huge barriers remain for rape victims seeking justice

The latest CPS data shows significant barriers to justice forcing victims to withdraw from prosecutions. In 2023, of 67,938 rape offences recorded by the police, 3,521 charges were brought to the CPS – just 5% of total offences, with the caveat that this doesn’t account for the number of rapes that are never reported. 

Under the Victims’ Right to Review scheme, 18% of decisions not to charge a suspect were later found to be incorrect. Rape prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen by 70% since 2018. Between 2020-21, only 1.3% of cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged. 

Writing for NADJA in 2022, Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape said: “While calling for victims to come forward, implying that it is we who are holding back justice, [the police] have responded to the avalanche of reports by discrediting the victims and closing cases. Rape has been practically decriminalised.” 

While only a third of the survey respondents said that women rarely lie about rape allegations, the CPS’ own data shows that just 3 – 4% of rape allegations are false

Why do false perceptions of rape still exist? 

The legal definition of rape is different around the world. As an example, European Union states are currently embroiled in a battle to agree on a unified definition, with Italy and France still requiring the victim to prove they were subjected to physical violence or threats.  

If legal frameworks don’t recognise that factors like fear, shock and intoxication hinder a person’s ability to run, fight off their attacker, or give consent, this puts the responsibility of the assault on the victim, perpetuating the culture of disbelieving women. It also contributes to excessive requests for private victim data in rape investigations, creating an intrusive, traumatic process that causes victims to withdraw their cases. 

The research recognised the responsibility should be on men not to rape, however only the focus group with women aged 35-65 agreed victims should not have to modify their behaviour to avoid rape.

Only 31% of survey respondents knew that men who rape often plan and use strategies to do so; by picking a woman they think won’t be believed, encouraging her to be sexual online, to drink, or finding ways to get her alone, like insisting on taking her home after a night out.

The false assumptions among younger generations are particularly troubling. Reasons for this include the rise of online misogyny, exposure to violent pornography and a lack of sex education. 

Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), commented on the report’s findings: “The blurring of our online and offline lives has not only created new forms of sexual violence but new ways to blame victims based on our behaviours online. It is clear that the rapid, unchecked spread of online misogyny is also driving sympathy for perpetrators and misconceptions about sexual violence among young people. This work is an encouraging start to addressing these harmful attitudes.

“If we are to see perpetrators brought to justice and prevent women and girls from becoming victims in the first place, tackling online misogyny and investing in high quality relationships and sex education has never been more urgent.”

Leila Hawkins

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