Critically assess the changing role and status of female victims of sexual offences and how they are perceived and treated within the Criminal Justice System.
This essay will be in two parts: the first will consider sexual offences and how women are affected by them; the second will look at how the criminal justice system has changed and altered to reflect changed realities and perceptions. However, we first need to define our terms. In this essay when we speak of 'women victims' we will mean adult females. The reason for this is that sexual violence to female children has significant differences (although also many similarities) from offences against adult women, and it would be difficult to cover these issues adequately in the word length available. As there is an identifiable problem with the statistics and definitions of these crimes, we will discuss rape proportionately more then other crimes when giving examples because there is more literature on this subject than the broader term, 'sexual offences'; however, the theories concerning sexual offences and rape tend to coincide. We will use the term criminal justice system broadly, meaning not just the police and courts but also organizations supported by the government, such as Victims Support. We will see that although the causes of this crime are still far from determined, the criminal justice system is endeavouring to respond to what has become known.
I would like to begin with some statistics concerning sexual offences before going on to consider the theories behind them. Rape and sexual offences are difficult to record and research due to a number of factors. The first concerns definition; what constitutes a sexual crime has altered over time due to changing perceptions and a need to have sufficient data to reform and create policy to deal with the effects of this crime. In the past, rape in marriage was not considered possible as the marriage contract was deemed as providing consent; however, the subject of 'consent' now being necessary for all sexual transactions, regardless of the relation of the victim to the offender, means that these rapes are no longer excluded fro the figures. This has made a considerable difference; in the 2000-2001 British Crime Survey, 45% of the rapes were reported was being carried out by a woman's current partner (Findings, 159, p3). This is also true in Australia where 33% of sexual assaults were carried out by a family member (White, 2005, p62). The definition of rape has also changed; in the past rape was defined as the penetration of the vagina by a penis, however, this has now changed to include penetration of any orifice with any object (SOA, 2003). This inevitably increases the number of cases that qualify as rape.
A further problem is the under-reporting of these crimes. Only 20% of rapes were reported to the police in 1999 (7,707 cases), yet the British Crime Survey of 2000-2001 recorded 61,000 victims (Findings, 159, p4). It has been suggested that some women are embarrassed or afraid to report these crimes; it is also clear that some women do not believe there is any point as they do not believe their complaint will be taken seriously, this is particularly true of prostitutes who are raped. The difficulty of the court procedure is considered a factor that intimidates women; the very low rate of conviction in cases that make it to court is also significant. In 2003 there was only a 5% conviction rate in rape trials (Observer, 2005). These factors must be born in mind when drawing conclusions on this subject using statistics.
There has been a difference over time in the levels of sexual offences recorded. In government statistics, we see that in 1898 official figures recorded that 236 offences of rape and 798 offences of indecent assault had been brought to the courts. In 2003 there were 12,354 cases of rape and 26,709 cases of indecent assault recorded in England and Wales (RCS). These figures show an alarming in rise in such crimes in the last century. Some of the rises in these figures are due to the increasing size of the population. There have also been a number of changes in the way crime has been recorded, which has made a difference to the statistics. However, despite this there has clearly been a steep rise in this type of crime.
It is also clear from the statistics that not all women are universally at risk form these offences. Younger women seem to be more at risk than older women. Women in the 16-24 age group reported the highest numbers of rapes. It is possible that this is accurate due to this age group being the most socially active, which could place them at higher risk because of their increased level of contact with men and the circumstances under which they meet them; alcohol consumption of both genders makes the committing of sexual offences more likely, also young men of this age group are the largest perpetrators of crime and this is the group of men women in this age group are most likely to socialize with (Findings, 159, p1). However, it should be born in mind that it is also possible that this age group is most likely to report crime, unhindered by beliefs and prejudices gained from life-experiences.
There are other factors highlighted by the British Crime Survey concerning these crimes. Income levels of women also play a factor in who is at greatest risk from this form of violence. Women from households with incomes of less than £10,000 a year were more at risk than women from households with income of more than £20,000 a year (Findings, 159, p3). It is also significant where women are assaulted. Most reported rapes take place in a domestic dwelling, either that of the victim or the offender - 55% of rapes were committed in the victim's own home and 20% in the home of the offender (Findings, 159, p4). These factors are significant because it highlights the fact that most sexual offences are committed by men women know; only 8% of reported rapes in the 2001 Crime Survey was carried out by strangers (Findings, 159, p1).
We have set out above the sexual offences we are going to consider in this essay and looked at some of the statistics on the subject; therefore, in this section we will look at the criminological theories concerning these offences. There has been much written about the crimes of sexual violence and how they relate to women. Lynne Segal, writing in 1990, looks back at some of the arguments made by early feminists regarding women as victims of sexual violence. She states her belief that thinking on this subject was heavily influenced by a book published in 1975, by Susan Brownmiller, called Against Our Will (Segal, 2003, p211). This book was an analysis of male power, which placed rape and male violence at the front of feminist issues (Segal, 2003, p211). Segal claims, 'it is startling to realise that rape and men's violence towards women became a serious social and political issue only through feminist attention to them' (Segal, 2003, p211). She credits Brownmiller for the questioning of what became known as the 'myths of rape', which has revolutionised the study and treatment of this crime (Segal, 2003, p212). The myths she refers to are the myth that rape is a rare event and the myth that men have a desire to protect women from violence. Certainly statistics bear out this latter myth; statistically sexual offenders are almost entirely male, with only around 2% of offenders being women (Jones, 2001, p444); this is also seen in other countries, in Australia the figure is 7% (White, 2005, p61). We have already considered the statistics of this crime and know that the first myth is indeed a myth, below we will consider whether or not biology is a factor in this statistic; we will also consider the second myth, that of men's attitudes towards women being benevolent and consider the validity of the argument that it is not.
The arguments about male sexual violence being a result of their biology are vigorously disputed. It has been suggested that one reason men are more sexually violent is because they have an uncontrollable sex-drive (Jones, 2006, p445). Jones points out that although the male hormone testosterone is responsible for sexual arousal, it is not responsible for the 'quality or nature of sexual arousal' (Jones, 2006, p445). Generally, aggression in any form is considered to be a result of social context rather than anything physiological (White, 2005, p63). Evolutionary biologists have suggested that men's propensity to sexual aggression could be explained as the need and desire to procreate, in order to ensure the continuance of his genes; however, there is a flaw in this argument, as many sexual offences are carried out on those too old or too young to procreate; this also would not account for rape with an inanimate object or the rape of men Croall, 1998, p209).
Feminist's object to the use of these physical arguments, claiming they absolve men from the responsibility of their actions. Hazell Croall points to studies in the USA that suggest men rapists do consider rape to be their way of claiming dominance (Croall, 1998, p210). However, this is likely to be an oversimplification of a complex problem. The feminists of the 1970s and 80s saw rape and other sexual offences as the result of 'patriarchy'; a belief in men's right to lead and control that can be traced throughout history. They argued that it is in men's interest to keep women in a state of fear and that rape is one way of achieving that end. As we have argued earlier, it is claimed that the primary force for sex is not desire for the act itself but a demonstration of the ability to dominate.
When looking at crime statistics we observed that the prevalence of crimes of sexual violence towards women has increased substantially over the last 150 years. As we have seen, Feminists have suggested that rape was used in a patriarchal society to subjugate women; yet this does not appear to be substantiated by history. Roy Porter undertook a study of women's writings, which includes diaries and letters from seventeenth-century England; in these texts he discovered very little mention of rape or sexual assault, despite the fact that they were clearly happy to write at length on other issues that affected them or made them anxious. Porter concluded that rape was not the 'principle agent' used in men's subordination of women in a pre-industrial society (Segal, 2003, p214).
Barbara Lindemann, looking at records from eighteenth-century Massachusetts, comes to similar conclusions. She discovered that only one rape per decade was recorded before 1729 and remained low throughout the rest of the century, averaging two a year (Segal, 2003, p214). Lindemann took into consideration factors such as the possibility of underreported rape and problems of definition; she also suggested that rape between a man and his servant would not necessarily be considered rape at this time, even by the woman victim; they would be considered the expression of authority, over which married women and servants did not have legal redress - they were a form of property (Segal, 2003, p214). However, even taking into account these factors, Lindemann still concludes that levels of rape were low. She states,
The conclusion is inescapable that the number of rape prosecutions was so much smaller in eighteenth-century Massachusetts than it is today because many fewer rapes were committed in proportion to the population (Segal, 2003, p215).
It is also important to consider whether statistics for rape are the same in other countries, in order to test this thesis that sexual offences are biological or learned. If they were purely biological then we would expect uniform rates for this crime across cultural boundaries, but this is not the case. In societies like West Sumatra, where women are respected and accorded a level of importance in their community, there are far fewer incidences of reported sexual offences (Segal, 2003, p214).
Another problem with the idea of sexual offences being caused by biology or learned behavior is that it does not account for the emergence of sexual offences perpetrated between lesbian couples. Barbara Hart, in her study about violence in lesbian relationships, records that the violence follows the same patterns as male domestic violence, which suggests that gender is not the main cause of sexual and domestic violence. Anne Campbell agrees with her, from her studies of young girls, she concludes that increasingly they act in the same aggressive manner as men. She suggests that feminists became blind to their idea of women being victims of men, rather than people being victims of an economic system; she explains, 'without more radical change in the status quo, we shall succeed only in liberating women into poverty, alienation, despair and crime - along with the men who are already there.' (Segal, 2003, p219).
In light of the constant change in peoples perception of the level and causes of sexual offences against women there have been considerable changes made in the law and in the way women victims are treated by the police and the court system. In this section we will first consider changes in the law, we will then look at the way these offences are treated by the police and other agencies funded by the states in order to help the victim on her way through the criminal justice system.
A major change in recent years has been in two major pieces of legislation: the Sexual Offences Act (SOA) of 2003 and the Domestic and Violent Crime Act (DVCA) of 2004. The SOA was intended to provide a great deal of clarification to a number of issues. One of these issues was the definition of various crimes; another was the recognition of the significance of gender and age to these issues. The DVCA also clarifies many issues, such as the definition of sexual abuse in the home as being not just physical but also mental and psychological.
The SOA is also important in that it classifies offences by gender and age, which ensures that all categories of sexual crime are covered and legislated for. We mentioned in the introduction that in this essay we would be considering sexual offences against women, not children as there are differences between the offences in each group. This difference has been recognized in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which requires the recording of rape and other sexual offences to be separated out into bands defined by gender and age (SOA, 2003). There are further issues that need clarification, such as a more exact understanding of the situation of consent while intoxicated, but it has gone a long way to ensuring this precision.
The better understanding of women as victims of sexual crime has also led to a radical change in how they are treated when they report the crime to the police. In the past the police were considered to be unsympathetic to women reporting these crimes; however, great strides have been made to alter this situation. Thought has been given to who takes the first information from a victim, and care is taken to try and provide a woman officer for this task. If the victim agrees to evidence being taken from their bodies, this can now frequently be done in special units prepared to give as much comfort to the victim as possible under the circumstances. This is increasingly done in partnership with other bodies, such as the health service; these sexual assault referral centers can act more holistically in order to help the victim recover psychologically, as well as physically.
Once a case goes to court there are also a number of bodies that are funded to offer support. One of these is Victim Support, which has campaigned for many years to raise funding to assist all victims of crime during the court process. Many of these bodies are now funded with government money, as their value has been perceived. If the victim has cause to be fearful of going to court then protection can now be arranged, as their fears are now taken seriously. Once an offender has been convicted, sentenced and served his time, the probation service is obliged to inform the victim of her attackers release, if she has so requested. Victims of sexual violence are also eligible for criminal compensation.
It is clear that there has been an enormous change in the way sexual crimes are perceived in our society. Although, the debate continues as to why the statistics should be rising to such height it is clear that much has been done, in light of past research results to make the criminal justice system consider carefully its procedures and responses to these crimes. It is to be hoped that the government will continue to respond with change as these crimes become better understood.
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