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More to do to tackle rape misconceptions and lack of understanding of consent, CPS survey finds

|News, Sexual offences

More still needs to be done to tackle common false beliefs about rape and understanding of consent, especially among young people, according to the largest survey of its kind in five years.

The CPS commissioned charity Equally Ours to carry out analysis of the public understanding of rape and serious sexual offences, and the law on consent, reflecting the changing nature of sexual behaviours.

This research allows us to have recent evidence on how the public view rape and serious sexual offences to further inform our effective handling and prosecution of these cases.

Overall, a survey of more than 3,000 UK adults - the largest on this topic in five years - found that while the public’s accurate understanding of rape has grown over the past 20 years, there are still significant false beliefs, misunderstandings, lack of knowledge, and underlying misconceptions.

It also revealed misconceptions about rape have moved into the digital age with a focus on the behaviour of victims online.

Most people correctly identified:

  • It can still be rape if a victim doesn’t resist or fight back (74% got this right)
  • Victims may not immediately report to the police (67% got this right)
  • Being in a relationship or marriage does not mean consent to sex can be assumed (70% got this right)
  • If a man has been drinking or taking drugs, he is still responsible if he rapes someone (71% got this right).

But many misconceptions about rape still exist:

  • Few accurately identified most rapists know their victim (39% got this right)
  • Fewer knew victims will not always seem distressed when talking about what happened to them (only 26% got this right)
  • And even fewer still recognised few offenders use physical violence (17% got this right)
  • Only a third of respondents correctly identified women rarely make up rape allegations (36% got this right) 
    There was a significant lack of understanding around what is meant by reasonable belief of consent by the 
  • suspect, with 49% of people saying they were unsure or did not know what it meant.

And the response of 18-24-year-olds in upholding views based on false assumptions and misconceptions was particularly striking:

  • Only half recognised that it can still be rape if a victim doesn’t resist or fight back (53% got this right)
  • Less than half recognised victims may not immediately report to the police (43% got this right)
  • Less than half recognised that being in a relationship or marriage does not mean consent to sex can be assumed (42% got this right, compared to 87% of people aged 65 and above)
  • Less than half recognised that if a man has been drinking or taking drugs, he is still responsible if he rapes someone (46% got this right)
  • Young people were also far less likely to understand that if a person says online they want to meet up and have sex, that doesn’t mean they have to have sex when they meet (28% of 18-24-year-olds got this right, compared to 54% of people overall)
  • Overall, two thirds (62%) of respondents recognised that even if no physical force is involved a person might not be free and able to consent to sex; but this dropped to 40% when young people were asked, compared with 74% of over 65s.

Baljit Ubhey, CPS Director of Strategy and Policy, whose team commissioned the research, said: “This survey, the largest of its kind for many years, shows that while public understanding of rape has grown over the last 20 years, there is still more to do as a society to dispel prevalent false beliefs about this offending.

“Our specialist prosecutors know more than most that rape, and its impact on victims, can be commonly misunderstood. It is crucial we stay up to date with any evolving misconceptions in the modern digital age so we can provide accurate information and address any harmful assumptions head on as we make our decisions and contextualise these behaviours for a jury.

“We are determined to ensure justice for as many victims of this life-changing crime as possible. These findings will be used to update our training and guidance for prosecutors and advocates, so they are armed with the tools they need to build robust cases focusing on the actions of the suspect, not a victim’s credibility.”

Other findings:

The research, which also involved focus groups of different age groups, recognised the responsibility should be on men not to rape, which was mirrored in the survey. However, only the focus group with women aged 35-65 agreed victims should not have to modify their behaviour to avoid rape.

Some of the focus groups had a set idea about who could be a rapist, not realising rapists come from all walks of life – they can be someone’s friend, neighbour, brother, father, son, or partner.

In the survey only 31 per cent knew that men who rape often plan and use strategies to rape, for example, by picking a woman they think won’t be believed, encouraging her to be sexual online, or to drink, or finding ways to get her by herself, like insisting on taking her home after a night out.

Two thirds (63%) recognised that men often lie about whether they have committed rape.

Drink spiking in bars and nightclubs as a means to rape also emerged in the survey as a modern version of aggravated stranger rape.

The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Newlove, said: “This powerful report echoes what survivors tell me: that harmful ‘myths’ and misconceptions persist in our justice system, with serious consequences for survivors and justice.

“These assumptions also play a part in contributing to excessive and unjustified requests for private victim data in rape investigations.

“Yet as this important research underscores, these misconceptions are not set in stone; they can be dismantled over time, and that requires government and justice agencies, like the CPS, to lead the way.

“Victims deserve a system that respects and upholds their rights – and challenges harmful stereotypes.”

Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said: “We welcome this significant piece of research on understanding and addressing rape misconceptions, which form a huge barrier to justice for survivors.

“While it is encouraging to see some progress in the public’s understanding of consent and the reality of rape, it’s hugely concerning to see how attitudes towards women’s credibility remain deeply rooted across society, with so few correctly identifying that women rarely make up rape allegations.

“We’re particularly worried to see such a stark regression in attitudes among young people compared to older generations.

“The blurring of our online and offline lives has not only created new forms of sexual violence but new ways to blame victims based on our behaviours online. It is clear that the rapid, unchecked spread of online misogyny is also driving sympathy for perpetrators and misconceptions about sexual violence among young people. This work is an encouraging start to addressing these harmful attitudes.”

Notes to editors

  • The CPS commissioned Equally Ours to undertake research into the public understanding of rape and serious sexual offences with a focus on current public assumptions and misconceptions, and effective communication about rape, with a focus on reframing rape narratives. The full reports are available upon request.
  • Field research was conducted by Survation to explore current public views through public focus groups and a survey of 3,066 UK adults, the largest survey on this topic in five years.
  • Equally Ours is a UK equality and human rights charity specialising in equality and strategic communications. The research included a literature review, discourse analysis, stakeholder roundtables, focus groups and the largest rape survey in five years.
  • For the survey: A total of 3,066 respondents were shown 24 attitudinal and knowledge-based statements, and asked to pick where their view was between 0 and 10. One end was based on the false assumptions and misconception and the other end based on the truthful accurate message.
  • The CPS commissioned this work as we acknowledge rape misconceptions and assumptions can be a key barrier to justice, at all stages of RASSO cases, and the CPS rape strategy commits to tackling those misconceptions and assumptions.
  • This research is to ensure a move away from the RASSO assumptions and misconceptions, about both suspects and victims, and instead reflect a suspect-centric approach, also recognising the complexity of victim responses.
  • Our RASSO prosecution guidance was initially written with the help of victim support groups and already includes 40 common harmful assumptions, their implications, and how prosecutors can address them. We will be updating our guidance to reflect the outcome of the research.
  • Clear, up-to-date guidance is crucial to helping our specialist prosecutors make fair and effective decisions and ensuring justice is delivered in every case for victims and alleged perpetrators.
  • We will also update our training for prosecutors and advocates on how to challenge assumptions and misconceptions.

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