The unconventional set of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidelines aiming to tackle myths about rape so more victims can come forward and be heard are so good, they shouldn’t just be read by lawyers working on rape cases, they should be read by everyone.
It’s the first time in eight years that the government has updated this area of the law and it’s a timely move for the CPS, which has been heavily criticised in the past for not doing enough to help rape victims. The guide includes 39 myths that cover everything from misconceptions about rape-related injuries to why prosecutors shouldn’t assume inconsistent accounts of rape mean an alleged victim is lying.
The document also exposes myths about child rape, and it is this development that will be welcomed by the survivors and victims of non-recent child sexual abuse I’ve worked with for more than 10 years through my child welfare project Researching Reform.
While exploring these cases to try to uncover the truth about what happened in children’s care homes, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about rape, many of which involved assaults carried out by individuals in positions of power. The myth-busting section mentions the word “power” no less than 15 times, and explains that rapists commit rape as part of their need for “power, dominance, and control.” That ability to dominate is much easier in the context of vulnerable children.
In one children’s home, I researched called Kendall House, children had been routinely raped by care home staff over a 30-year period, and in an independent review of the home in 2017 chaired by professor and NHS Trust chair Dr Sue Proctor, she said the review was “the most troubling thing she had ever worked on.” Proctor had also chaired an investigation into former TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who was found to have raped children as young as eight.
Teresa Cooper, who suffered years of abuse at Kendall House and went on to gather key evidence which brought the scandal to light, told me she was routinely drugged before members of staff raped her. The girls in the home had tried to report some of the abuse, but the care home manager told staff they could not go to the police.
The guide also focuses heavily on the issue of consent, and how that interconnects with concepts like power when looking at child grooming. Myth seven in the guide exposes the falsehood that child victims of rape who then engage in sexual activity with the same perpetrator as an adult, automatically give their consent. Child sexual exploitation scandals like those in Rotherham and Rochdale have likely informed this section, which also explains that years of grooming and abuse in childhood can often lead to passive submission to the perpetrator in adulthood.
These subtle patterns, so often missed in the justice system, are now being shared nationwide thanks to the guidance, but more still needs to be done. Today, at least 45 per cent of all rape prosecutions are for offences against children, with most convictions resulting in suspended sentences, rather than time served in jail.
Although data produced by the CPS suggests that convictions for child sexual abuse (CSA) have gone up since 2008, conclusive data on rape cases have been muddied by the revelation in November 2019 that the CPS had issued targets for convictions which campaigners said led to prosecutors dropping weaker cases.
This policy would have badly affected survivors of non-recent child sexual abuse hoping to hold their perpetrators to account. Adult survivors of child sex abuse often struggle to find evidence of their assaults which may have taken place more than thirty years ago, making it almost impossible to bring a case the CPS might consider. For survivors like Teresa Cooper, the hunt for evidence can take decades. Continuously blocked by Kendall House’s management team, it took Cooper thirty years, and a legal battle, to get her personal files.
If the CPS is serious about bringing sexual violence offenders to justice, then its five-year strategy to do just that must include a focus on the fact that most victims of CSA never come forward, as well as offering effective ways for victims of child sexual abuse to gather the evidence they need.
The new guidelines from the CPS may not be a cure-all on their own, but they offer powerful insights and should make a real difference to child victims of rape, as long as everyone, including Britain’s family court judges, reads them.
Natasha Phillips is a journalist and founder of Researching Reform
If you have been affected by rape or sexual abuse, you can contact Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999 or visit rapecrisis.org.uk