The New Victims’ Code Is Promising – But It’s Still Not Enough

On April 1st, the Ministry of Justice announced the enforcement of its new ‘Victims’ Code’. The code arrives at a time when discussions about women’s safety are at an all-time high, following the tragic murder of Sarah Everard back in March. The code’s introduction is the work of the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, as part of her goal to modify the justice system so that it actually holds perpetrators to account. It’s an undeniable sign of progress for victims and survivors of sexual violence, abuse, and rape; marking an attempt to restore flailing faith in the justice system at a crucial time. In the interest of clarity, it should go without saying that when I speak of victims and survivors, I refer to all genders, it does, however, remain the case that women are the ones most at risk and men are overwhelmingly the preparators of such crimes.

The 2020 report from The Crown Prosecution Service revealed that while cases of rape have seen an increase over the last five years, the number of convictions has seen a fall. In the year ending March 2020, 58,856 cases were reported to the police, whereas the number of cases resulting in prosecution totaled a mere 2,102. Even then, these numbers only reflect the instances of cases that have been reported. With such low rates of conviction, it’s not hard to fathom why a large percentage of survivors choose not to pursue justice.     

“By focusing only on the aftermath of sexual violence and rape, it ensures the onus is always put on the victims to seek justice. Consequently, the actual root of the problem, namely rape culture, is overlooked.”

Until now, the justice system’s support of sexual assault victims and abusers has been almost non-existent, and as Dame Vera warned, put the UK on the brink of witnessing “the de-criminalisation of rape”. It’s for this reason that the code is a ‘victory’ in the fight for victims and survivors, as it outlines a variety of new rules for the justice system, some of which include: the ability to request the gender of your police interviewer in cases of rape and sexual violence and the opportunity to pre-record cross-examinations, to avoid the potential distress of testifying in a courtroom.  

However, whilst these new developments are undoubtedly promising, it also highlights the government’s inaction elsewhere in the fight for women’s safety. By focusing only on the aftermath of sexual violence and rape, it ensures the onus is always put on the victims to seek justice. Consequently, the actual root of the problem, namely rape culture, is overlooked. 

Throughout my life, I’ve had multiple conversations with men about rape culture, often resulting in their denial of its existence. However, I believe (and hope) that this denial derives from a misunderstanding of what rape culture actually means. Rather than understanding it as a culture that fails to condemn the more minute manifestations of behaviours that endanger women, it’s misconstrued as a culture that shows an outspoken advocacy of rape.  Rape culture is a global problem, and whilst the extent of its visibility varies, the question of its existence is undeniable. It’s in the countries where FGM is still practiced; it’s in the 12 million girls who become child brides every year; it’s in the countries where marital rape is still legal; it’s in our language; it’s on our campuses; it’s in our schools; it’s in the people who refuse to believe survivors; it infiltrates the nooks and crannies of various spaces and institutions – even the ones that are supposed to protect us. 

In an interview for The Guardian about the recent ‘Everyone’s Invited’ scandal, lawyer Louise Whitfields discusses how institutions have failed young people who have suffered sexual assault, noting how “too often schools decide not to deal with it at all, and say it is a police matter”. The dismissive attitude often adopted by schools reinforces the modern-day presence of rape culture, too often they choose to protect their reputation over student support. If rape culture was simply an outspoken advocacy of rape, then the number of cases wouldn’t be so high, and perpetrators and rapists would be caught and convicted with greater ease. In reality, it’s the small, subtle manifestations of rape culture that are the most dangerous – the minuteness of their form enables society to deny its very existence. 

So, all of this begs the question, where is the work being done to stop it? The government hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of rape culture, let alone unveiled plans to stop its propagation. If weeds start growing in your garden you don’t just chop off their heads, you pull out their roots to stop them growing back. 

The 2018 study carried out by EVAW highlights that a considerable portion of the British population’s understanding of consent is, at best, confused. One of the most troubling findings revealed that a third of Brits thought “it isn’t usually rape if a woman is pressured into sex but there’s no physical violence”. If there’s one thing to take away from such a disturbing figure, it’s that education on consent in the UK isn’t good enough. As emphasised by organisers of The School of Sex Ed in an article for The Conversation, “Instead of just condemning internet porn, young people need education about sexual consent online and offline from an early age”.

Dismantling rape culture is integral in the fight to lessening the prevalence of rape in society. The ‘Victims’ code’ deals with part of the problem, and in doing so highlights the complexity of the bigger picture. Yes, the justice system absolutely needs this reform, but the government should also be confronting the reason why the ‘Victims’ code’ is necessary in the first place. Women already do everything in their power to protect themselves, it’s time the government steps in to help protect them too. 

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