It is troubling enough that such a small proportion of reported rapes make it to court, worse still that so few victims come forward in the first place. But most disturbing of all is the reason why so many people keep their suffering to themselves: because they do not think they will be believed. That rape is still a dirty secret, hedged about with so much blame and shame that victims feel they cannot come forward, is testament to how far we still have to go.
There are, of course, great legal difficulties in rape trials. Sexual assault is one of the few crimes where proof lies not in the physical facts of the matter, but in the subjective intentions of those involved. One person’s word against another’s, with no corroborating witnesses, is highly problematic for a legal system predicated on the concepts of innocent until proven guilty and proof beyond reasonable doubt.
This is no call for the wholesale abandonment of basic tenets of justice. But simply to shrug our collective shoulders, blame intractable issues of principle, and thereby leave a swathe of victims of violent assault with insufficient legal protection cannot be acceptable in what purports to be a civilised society.
The latest statistics make gruelling reading. More than a third of British women have been subjected to some kind of sexual assault, and one in 10 has been raped, according to the Mumsnet social networking site. Barely a third of victims go to the police, and another third tell no one at all, not even close friends.
In fairness, there has been significant progress in terms of institutional procedures. In many areas of the country, for example, there are now specially trained police officers and court prosecutors for cases of sexual assault. But uneven regional conviction rates only underline the extent to which such practices remain an optional extra rather than standard.
Equally, although victims no longer face the prospect of being cross-questioned by their attacker in court, pursuing a case to trial remains a horrifying ordeal. As a witness for the prosecution, the victim has no legal support, and faces intensely personal questioning from defence lawyers, often while face-to-face with their rapist for the first time since the assault. Even within the framework of innocent until proven guilty, there is more that can be done to ease the burden on victims, not least allowing them legal representation in court.
But the shortcomings of our institutions are merely part and parcel of a wider cultural understanding of rape that still militates against justice. It is that culture that must change if victims are to be encouraged to speak up. Comments from the Justice Secretary last year that appeared to imply that some rapes are more “serious” than others have hardly helped, adding to the persistent fallacy – often stoked by the media – that a person being either drunk or dressed in a certain way must take some responsibility for the actions of their attacker.
Part of the problem is the myth that rape is primarily a threat on the streets at night. Far from it. In fact, rape rarely occurs in the proverbial dark alley. The truth is both more banal, and more appalling: two-thirds of victims know their attacker, and assaults commonly take place in the home of either the victim or the rapist. Perpetrators rely on shame to keep their crime secret. Too often they are proved right. And if the conspiracy of silence is a problem for women who are raped, it is even worse for men.
Mumsnet is, therefore, to be applauded for its efforts to create a climate where victims feel they can come forward. The current Survivors UK ad campaign encouraging male victims to seek help is also welcome. But each is just one small step. Rape is one of the more appalling things that one human being can do to another, and yet there is no other crime about which our society is so ambivalent. That must change.