A recent comment made by a Manchester crown court judge has brought the "victim-blaming" culture surrounding rape and sexual assault to the forefront this month. Lindsey Kushner, the judge in question, claimed that perpetrators of sexual assault and violence "gravitated towards girls who had been drinking." Kushner made these comments following her final trial, feeling compelled to speak out before she embarked upon retirement.
I think it is only right to acknowledge the platform of authority and experience with which judges’ like Kushner express their views. It is also pertinent and indeed necessary to hear the opinions of rape and sexual assault victims themselves. Indeed, Megan Clark, the victim of the rape case which Kushner presided over, spoke out in defence of the comments made by the judge claiming that “she was absolutely right in what she said, but it was taken out of context”. Clark, who saw her attacker jailed for six years in March 2017, went on to say Kushner “simply said ‘be careful’ basically, which is smart advice”.
Hearing the voices of rape victims is absolutely vital in understanding the psychological impact of such sexual violence, and showing deference to the considerable knowledge of our court officials is important in dealing with sex related crimes. However, I do feel that judge Kushner’s comments have once again placed the spotlight exactly where it does not belong. Once more we find ourselves focusing on how a victim might prevent themselves from being sexually assaulted rather than acknowledging the hard evidence surrounding rape and sexual assault.
The truth is that approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year which is approximately 11 rapes an hour. In Scotland, just fewer than 1,700 rapes were reported to the police in 2015-2016. According to Rape Crisis England and Wales, approximately 90% of those who are raped know their perpetrator and similar statistics were published by Rape Crisis Scotland with 83% of those who had experienced serious sexual assault from the age of 16 also claiming they knew the offender in some way. Clearly no one is advocating that people abandon all thought of personal safety and security; however it seems expedient to remind people that rape is not a reasoned response to the sight of bare flesh. It is a depraved violent act which seeks to enforce power and control over a helpless victim. The majority of rapes do not occur outside, in the dark, early hours of the morning nor are the majority carried out by strangers. The unpalatable and scary truth is that rape can and often does happen in our homes, in our workplaces and in locations where people generally feel safe.
I’m sure that this is something that judge Kushner already knows and as a judge I’m sure she has spent the large part of her career imprisoning those who execute such heinous acts. Likewise, it is important to listen to the comments of actual rape victims like Megan Clark who did not feel affronted by Kushner’s comments and stated that she had interpreted them in a “positive way”. Yet when we look at conviction rates for rape we find that only 5.7% of cases end in conviction. This is of course ignoring the number of cases which fail to even make it to court in the first place; around only 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it.
Therefore, although Kushner’s comments clearly derive from a place of concern for victims of sexual assault and a wish to prevent such trauma befalling even more men and women, we are still in 2017 failing to create an atmosphere in which victims feel they will be believed. Many victims feel shame and guilt which is clearly reflected in the low levels of reporting for sexually based assault. As such, comments which seem to place a level of responsibility in the hands of the victim to prevent a crime driven by the physiological disturbance of the perpetrator are not likely to nurture a culture in which victims feel blameless and believed. We must all protect and safeguard ourselves where we can, but we must also recognise that for the majority of victims such precautions simply do not apply.