Rape Juries Could Now Scrutinise Men's Sexual History

Photo: Natalia Mantini
Convictions for rape are notoriously low in the UK – owing to a dearth of evidence (other than 'he said' or 'she said' accounts), a lack of independent witnesses, and a biased focus on the past sexual behaviour of the victim. The situation is so dire that fewer than one in 30 rape victims see their attacker convicted.
You only have to cast your mind back to the Ched Evans retrial, in which the complainant's sexual past was scrutinised in painstaking detail, with Evans eventually acquitted. A former solicitor general said the case set rape trials back by 30 years. Frankly, our criminal justice system is failing rape survivors and has been for a long time.
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But there's a glimmer of hope for those looking to bring their attacker to justice. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, announced this week that the sexual histories of male defendants will now be scrutinised in rape trials, in a bid to increase the conviction rate.
Jurors will hear more about the suspect's behaviour leading up to the incident and gain a more complete picture of their character, meaning that their previous conduct in relationships and any controlling or coercive behaviour towards other women in the past will be taken into account, the Evening Standard reported. Evidence will be drawn from sources including CCTV footage, social media accounts and witness testimonies about the defendant's behaviour in the hours leading up to the rape.
The long overdue move could help to overcome victim-blaming and prejudice against survivors, and will be particularly valuable in cases where drugs are involved or the victim was too drunk to consent to sex and ergo is not believed by the jury, Saunders believes.
"We are looking at how to prosecute certain types of cases, the more difficult ones. They tend to involve drugs or drink and people who know each other," she told the Standard. “Some of it will be if you have already been in a relationship, understanding the dynamics of coercive and controlling behaviour and presenting cases in a way that doesn’t just look at the individual incident.”
In cases involving alcohol and drugs, there will also be a greater focus on whether the defendant targeted the victim. “If it’s about drink and drugs, in some of them there will have been a targeting element, either by buying drinks or standing back until you pick somebody off,” Saunders added.
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Delving into survivors' sexual pasts and previous behaviour with the aim of undermining their credibility has long been a tactic used by those defending alleged rapists. In as many as three in 10 rape trials, women are questioned about their sexual history, according to figures obtained by The Irish Times. In some cases, they're even asked about their birth control methods and whether they own sex toys.
Charities that support rape survivors have welcomed the move, with the Survivors Trust highlighting the fact that victims often feel failed by the criminal justice system when their case results in a not-guilty verdict "despite the fact that the defendant has a history of convictions for similar offences".
Whether or not the change ends up transforming rape trials and upping the conviction rate, at least the spotlight will shift away from victims and onto the person accused of a crime. It's about time.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please contact Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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