Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including rape, which some readers might find upsetting
In 2010 Joanne*, now 31, was sexually assaulted by someone she knew. She had just finished her final exams at university and it happened at a blowout party in a field in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of Oxford. There were multiple witnesses – her friends, his friends – but she never reported it.
Today, she reflects on her decision. "I couldn’t face the scrutiny," she says. "I didn’t want to be judged for drinking, for doing drugs, for wearing a see-through dress to the party... Those are all the things that would have been brought up and, then, after going through the whole process maybe he would have got away with it anyway."
Since 2010, you could argue that things have got worse for victims and survivors. Earlier this year, Victim Support expressed concern after it emerged that those who had reported a rape were being asked to hand their phones over to police, giving them access to emails, messages and photographs. There have already been calls for this to be scrapped.
If the latest statistics are anything to go by, Joanne’s concerns are as relevant now as they ever were.
Last week, new Home Office data analysed by The Guardian revealed that just 1.5% of all (886) rape cases reported to the police in the year 2018-19 led to charge or summons. For context, that’s only one in 65. In the year 2015-16, 14% of (4,908) cases reported resulted in a charge or summons.
Then came the London Rape Review, a report from Claire Waxman, the capital’s Victims’ Commissioner, which found that only 3% of rape allegations looked at in 2016 resulted in a conviction.
In 2018-19, just 1.5% of all (886) rape cases reported to the police led to charge or summons.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2018, 700,000 people aged 16 to 59 were victims of a sexual assault. The majority of them were female (560,000) with women being nearly four times as likely as men to have experienced a sexual assault in the last year.
Women are nearly four times as likely as men to have experienced a sexual assault in the last year.
But as the ONS notes, the reality is that the vast majority of these cases do not come to the attention of police, let alone result in a conviction for the perpetrator.
This is something Alice*, now 34, knows firsthand. Three years ago, she was on a night out with friends when she met a guy who, as she puts it, was "the fittest man in the room".
She left her friends to head to a party with him; that's the last thing she remembers before "coming to while being strangled". She fled his house, hazy and believing she had been drugged and on getting home, noticed in the shower that she was covered in bruises.
"I don't remember anything after leaving my friends," she says, "but I was so badly bitten on my nipple that it was almost torn. That’s when I became a bit hysterical because I realised I had definitely not consented to that. I know myself and I know I wouldn’t have consented to or enjoyed that."
Alice did report her rape to the police, who she says were supportive. However, they were unable to find the man who had attacked her. "I feel really let down by the police because I don’t feel like they looked for him properly. They didn’t check CCTV footage, for instance. They didn't ask me or my friends to contribute to a drawing or anything like that which could identify him. So, there was literally nobody they could charge with a crime."
Experts are concerned as so many rape prosecutions collapse and many say there is a very real danger that this is sending all the wrong messages, both to those who have been assaulted and those who have committed a crime.
Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at End Violence Against Women (EVAW) told Refinery29 that "all considered, what we are seeing is in effect the decriminalisation of rape."
EVAW say they were "so horrified" that they have written to Boris Johnson asking for him to intervene and "be forensic in asking justice system leaders" to report directly to him "on how and why the prosecution figures have fallen off a cliff."
As Rebecca sees it, "a whole host of issues across the criminal justice system mean that survivors of rape struggle to access specialist support and regularly have their phones downloaded and medical records obtained as part of the case."
"This requires urgent action, and leadership at the highest level," she adds. "How can women feel safe and equal in a society which so blatantly rejects access to justice in rape cases?"
Alice says that she would still encourage anyone who is attacked to report it, despite the fact that they were never able to find the perpetrator in her case.
"If it happened to me again, knowing what I know about DNA I would go the the police. I wish I had known that I shouldn't shower, I didn't know that. But now at least his DNA is on file so, if he attacks anyone else, they will get a match," she says.
"To be honest," she adds, "the biggest struggle for me was, What if they find him, what if I have to go to court, how will I prove I didn’t give consent if I snogged him? That's what was going through my mind. I was worried about them looking into my past because I’m promiscuous and I knew I would be judged. I didn't want to be victim blamed because I went on a night out. I think the police need better resources to investigate rapes and I think we need a complete culture change in terms of how we talk to and about survivors."
Joanne, meanwhile, finds the latest statistics difficult to bear. "I’ve been very hard on myself about not reporting," she says. "I feel like a bad feminist, it’s something I’m ashamed of. Last year, when the #whyididntreport went viral, I felt a bit less alone but I was also just completely overwhelmed by how many women have been keeping this trauma to themselves."
"But when you look at how rare it is for a rape accusation to turn into a charge, let alone a conviction, is it any wonder?" she adds. "It’s just so deeply, deeply sad. It makes me think of younger women, I think of all the women who, like me, went through something and decided not to pursue any action."
In a recent essay, Rebecca Solnit wrote that "in patriarchy, no one can hear you scream." There appears to be a huge imbalance between the number of women who say they've been assaulted, the number who feel they can report it and, then, the number of reports which end in a charge. Almost two years on from #MeToo, a year after #whyididntreport, something is clearly very wrong.
A Home Office spokesperson told Refinery29: "We welcome the fact that more victims are having greater confidence to come forward and report these horrendous crimes. However, we are concerned by reductions in charges and prosecutions for crimes such as rape and serious sexual offences.
"We are conducting an end-to-end review of rape cases to establish why this has happened, and identify any issues within the criminal justice system that have contributed to the fall in volumes. This will help us identify where issues exist so we can take steps to improve our response."
*Names have been changed to protect identities
The advice from the Met Police is to always report it if you have been the victim of rape or sexual assault, and there are many different ways you can do that.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.