Rape victims shouldn’t need anonymity. But they do

written for The Telegraph, 10 February 2014Rape victims shouldn't need anonymity. But they do

Poor, much misunderstood David Starkey. Two days after his Question Time comments on the William Roache rape trial, an old acquaintance emailed me Tim Stanley’s post, complaining that Dr Stanley had failed to notice Dr Starkey’s compassion: the only crime of the older Dr S was to demand anonymity for “the thousands of men falsely charged with rape every year”.

Poor lamb. But, in fact, cases of malicious accusation are rare: out of 16,041 reported rapes between 2011 and 2012, only in 35 cases did the CPS choose to prosecute the person making the accusation. That’s 0.2 per cent of reported rapes. Intriguingly, in most of these cases the person prosecuted was not the alleged victim, but a relative – often a parent. The great majority appear to be relatives complaining about a relationship between an older man and a woman under the age of 21.

Which brings us back to David Starkey and the question of who’s really trying to redefine rape. For Starkey, rape means sex with violence, not sex without consent. Starkey achieved great things in my own field of Tudor history, but he’s no classicist, and for all his familiarity with Henry’s VIII’s sexual etiquette he’s got his Latin wrong. Viewers on Thursday heard him intone: “rape means violence – that is the Latin root”. Ignorance can sound so very authoritative when it uttered in a voice dripping with educated vowels. But the Latin word raptus (from rapio, I seize) means to carry off something that doesn’t belong to you. It’s a Latin legal term, generally used about illegally obtained property – including, of course, women. So it also applies to Paris’ elopement with Helen of Troy, consensual in many versions of the tale, but a crime against her husband.

Now some of us don’t think this is very important – unlike our friends the Saudis, we’ve moved on from an era where rape was primarily a crime against a woman’s male guardian – but if Starkey insists that we re-adopt Roman attitudes to rape, we should cast an eye on what those attitudes were. Next time he’s on Question Time, could Dimbleby  ask for his views on whether torture should still be mandatory for all slaves testifying in the Old Bailey? Perhaps Starkey even has an opinion on the Emperor Theodosius’s edict of death by burning for male prostitutes?

But though Starkey’s wrong about his Latin, plenty of people agree with him that “rape means violence”. So, distasteful as it may be, let’s look at the mechanics of rape.

When men like Starkey talk about “violence”, what they actually mean is “extra violence”. On a basic level, if a 14-stone man wants to pin his body on top of a 10 stone woman that’s violent in itself – it renders her pretty immobile. So what Starkey is really engaging in is the unedifying process of demanding rape victims prove they fought back.

I doubt many of us would agree with Starkey that a woman’s right to justice should be proportional to how many punches she managed to land on her attacker. But his view on anonymity for the accused clearly strikes a chord with many people. It’s true that those accused of rape in court often have their reputations trashed – as do those accused of fraud, theft, and murder. Rape, like fraud, is often a serial crime. And as with fraud, publishing the names of the accused encourages previous victims to come forward, those who’d felt initially that they’d be disbelieved, or themselves blamed for trusting the wrong person.

The anomaly in our justice system isn’t that a person accused of a crime should be named in open court. The anomaly is rather that the alleged victims have their own identities shielded. This isn’t the case for adult victims of any other crime – it classes rape victims with children, those requiring our special protection. In part, this is because those alleging rape are still subject to vicious character assassination in court: notoriously,  Lindsay Armstrong killed herself at the age of 17 after being made to hold up and describe the “provocative” underwear she had been wearing when raped in a park after dark. More recently, Frances Andrade killed herself, after telling her husband, “I can see why nobody comes forward”.

But, if anything, anonymity lowers the stakes for some defence counsels: one once told me, “It won’t hurt her if I call her a slut in court, because no one outside will ever know”. In fact, that anonymity is rapidly evaporating – rape victims have been repeatedly named on Twitter, and as in the Steubenville case in America, claim and counter claim are increasingly laid out online, often with accompanying video “evidence”.

The era of secret justice has long gone, and few will weep for it. Instead, we’re left with a veneer of anonymity for victims, effectively a state acknowledgement that it’s shameful to have been raped. And the problem of different treatment for the accused and the accusing won’t go away: this imbalance is what Starkey exploited when he whipped up resentment of “a large female paw on the scales of justice”, conveniently forgetting that men can be rape victims too. It’s a claim heavily at odds with the fact only 1153 of those 16,041 reported rapes ended in a conviction, thanks often to deliberately obstructive policing.

So when we talk about imbalance, we need to shift the debate away from anonymity for the accused and re-examine why we provide anonymity to victims. And if it’s impossible for a rape victim to give public testimony without being labelled a slut, we need to make social changes, not legal ones.

I’m not calling for alleged victims to be stripped of their anonymity here and now – I’m looking forward to a day when they no longer need it. To return to the Romans, Justinian’s law books tell us of an edict that no man who had been raped should be subject to public shame. In the present day, we might push the boat out and include women, but perhaps Starkey’s right: there is one Roman concept we get behind, after all.