Monday, 14 June 2010

How many is this actually helping?

Some more discussion of whether the coalition's proposals on rape defendant anonymity would do anything useful, even if the inevitable negative effects are ignored or disbelieved. (Summary: No)

(and please sign the petition if you haven't got round to it yet)

[trigger warning, especially for some of the links]

Kelly, Lovett and Regan's (PDF) study on attrition includes a section on false allegations. In their sample of 2,643 reported cases, the police had recorded 8% as false allegations. Some of this, however, was found to be due to misclassification - after removing those, and cases where the police had declared the report false due to misconceptions of what a "real" rape victim would do, they estimated that around 67 of the sample were really false allegations. Between these allegations, there were at most1 39 named suspects, 6 of whom were arrested and 2 charged.

The British Crime Survey reports that police recorded 13,133 rapes in the 2008-9 reporting period. Based on the combination of these figures, we'd therefore expect at most (39 / 2,643) * (13,133) false accusations naming a suspect annually, or around 200.

Previously calculated: there are around 210,000 actual rapes each year, or over a thousand times as many. I know it must be unpleasant to be falsely accused of any crime, but this is really not a significant risk. (For comparision, around 200 men might be falsely accused each year, but around 7% of those 210,000 actual rapes have a male victim, or around 15,000 annually. That's quite a difference in both risk and impact even if you only consider men)

Of those 200, how many will be reported on in the press? Looking at Lexis Nexis, I'd estimate2 that around 250-500 rape cases annually will receive some reporting in the press either before the end of the trial or when there is an acquittal. (Many more are reported after conviction, of course) A few of these will be reported on multiple times in multiple press sources if it's a particularly high profile trial, but most will not.

So, that's around 500 of 13,000 receiving some press attention. Of those, virtually all are post-arrest. So, of the 6 people arrested on a false accusation, roughly (200 * 6 / 39) * (500 / 13,000), or 1.18, will be reported on in the press. Actually, the number is likely to be smaller than that, since most of the post-arrest press reports are post-charge, the 500 is the upper estimate, some of these reports involve the rape of children under 16 (which involves different crimes), and so on.

So, the coalition is proposing this anonymity in the press for alleged rapists, to help protect the reputation of one person a year. Now, I'm sure this person is very happy about this, and so would I be if the government introduced legislation for my personal benefit.

(Note that even if we go with the higher 8% figure that the raw police data claims - and Kelly et al. demonstrate fairly convincingly why it's probably not the case - that still only increases the partial protection this change would provide to about 5 people a year) Edit 15 June. Sorry, no it doesn't. There were 39 named suspects, 6 arrested, 2 charged, out of the full sample of 2,643. I was already assuming conservatively that the 3% figure included all of them, so increasing the rate back to 8% doesn't add in any more suspects.

Now, it's not that protecting the reputation of the innocent is a bad thing (just as reducing suicides of suspects - even the guilty ones - is not a bad thing). It's just that this is a stunningly ineffective way of doing it and comes with such massive costs that it's impossible to see it as a net benefit to society unless you value the reputations of a few men above the welfare of tens of thousands of rape victims.

For around two or three people's reputation ([stronger trigger warning] and maybe a fraction of a suicide prevented) each year, the government is willing to harm the cases of thousands of rape victims and provide additional to protection to serial rapists.

False, "false" and the unhelpful law

While I'm on the topic of false allegations, I should bring up a flaw in the current law on rape that means that it's possible for an allegation to be simultaneously true and false depending on exactly what definitions you use.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines a set of offences, including rape, using the following formula (emphasis mine):

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if

(a) he [carries out the act associated with this offence] on another person (B)

(b) B does not consent to the [act], and

(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

(3) Sections 75 and 76 apply to an offence under this section.

So, the colloquial definition of rape, and the one that matters from the victim's point of view, is that (1a) and (1b) both happen. From a legal point of view, however, for there actually to have been a crime committed, (1c) must also be true. Sections 75 and 76 set out some limited situations in which a belief in consent is automatically unreasonable, but not enough.

This law is still an improvement on the previous one, which allowed unreasonable beliefs to also be a defence, but it's still not enough. It's not the wording of the law as such that's wrong, but the context of the culture it exists in.

In a culture that's so saturated with rape myths - that consent is the default state for women, that wearing revealing clothing or flirting are indicators of consent, that consent is not revocable, that consent to one activity implies consent to other activities, and so on - "reasonable" is a really low standard. In a culture based on enthusiastic consent, it would be a perfectly fine standard, since point (2) would be interpreted usefully, but we don't have one of those and so the law needs to be better worded (wording improvements, of course, would not harm the law's effectiveness in a future enthusiastic consent culture)

It's based on what an average person would do in the same circumstances, but we know from surveys (2005, but more recent surveys give similar numbers) that the average person is very likely to have a rape culture-influenced definition of consent.

We have a situation here where the victim can make an allegation that they believe to be perfectly true - and which is, in any sense other than one, true - but is as a matter of legal fact false.

So, perhaps it's this set of people that Cameron is trying to protect - those that had ideas of consent that don't meet any dictionary definitions of the word, or fit with definitions commonly in use every day in non-sexual contexts. Those, in fact, that Lisak and Miller and previous studies identified as the 5-15% of men who are perfectly willing to admit to carrying out activities meeting the legal definition of rape or other serious sexual offences as long as you don't call it that on the survey. The "I'm not a rapist, I just force women into sexual activity against their will" crowd.

Now, obviously if you include those that the false allegation rate will go way up (and indeed the number of "real rapes" identified by the BCS will drop too), but I'd put it to the government that these are not people deserving of special rights beyond those granted to the average criminal suspect.

1 39, 6 and 2 are figures from the full sample of false allegations, whereas 67 is found by scaling up a sub-sample where sufficient data had been recorded by the police. It's likely, therefore, that some of the 39/6/2 were in the "not actually false" part of the sample, but the paper doesn't state this.

2 The Lexis-Nexis search engine really isn't good enough for this. I restricted the search to a particular year (2009), to UK publications reporting on UK events, and to articles categorised as "Sexual Assault" and "Sex Offences", and searched for articles containing "rape" AND ("alleged" OR "allegation" OR "acquittal"). I then visually checked a sample of the result to see how many of the reports were about the same case, or not actually about a specific rape, or post-conviction, to get an estimate of 250 a year. I then doubled this to allow a margin for errors in searching to get 500.