Thursday, 7 February 2008

Rape statistics and the success of feminism

In the course of a, oh God, interminable discussion elsewhere, I ran up against one of the more troubling statistics on violence again, namely that the successful prosecution rate for rape is less than that for other violent crimes, and that this situation simply doesn't seem to go away or even seem to improve.

This is usually framed as reflecting an inherent misogyny in society, showing up in the juries drawn from that society. That it doesn't seem to improve no matter how often the seriousness of rape as a social issue is raised is framed as reflecting an intractable and unyielding misogyny.

A failure of feminism, in other words.

It has struck me in the past that there is something wrong with this. Feminism doesn't feel like a failure to me - society does seem to be moving towards progressive values, feminist values keep getting incorporated (even if imperfectly) into the mainstream, business and government culture, and certainly the seriousness of rape has been raised and continues to be raised in public view. I had considered the nature of rape as making it more problematical for successful prosecution, something that gets shouted down in the heat of the issue, but this has problems too.

In considering the issue recently, it just struck me that the situation could be explained (in large part, if not in whole) by the SUCCESS of feminism. Specifically by the success of raising the issue as something to be taken seriously by the police and prosecuting authorities. These groups would be more vulnerable to political pressure than the general public, not least because they actually have to deal with the victims of the very real problem, and certainly activists have put serious pressure on them, supported by the more moderate feminists and those sympathetic to equal rights.

If feminism has been successful in getting prosecutors to take the issue more seriously, then we would expect more prosecutions for rape as an absolute number and more successful prosecutions for rape as an absolute number. But we'd also expect a skew towards a smaller percentage of successful prosecutions as a proportion as those responsible for deciding whether to prosecute or not decided to proceed with cases which would be considered too weak or too problematical were they for other violent crimes such as assault or homicide.

The figures for absolute numbers of prosecutions can not be shown, for they would be in comparison to a counter-factual (the number should there have had been no such pressure). The figures for successful prosecutions as a ratio are obvious as they can and are compared to other crimes. And this wouldn't disappear if efforts were doubled and redoubled; indeed, that ratio might decrease. In short, we'd see exactly the same effect we see.

The problem here is that on these metrics, there is no way to distinguish between an anti-female bias with juries, the failure of feminism on this issue, and a pro-female bias with prosecutors, the success of feminism.

There may be some effects from this hypothesis that can be observed, but which would be difficult to quantify.

- We would expect to see more contested verdicts, accusations which the activists considered sufficiently proven, but that the jury actually judging the case ruled insufficiently supported.

- We would expect to see more high profile miscarriages of justice that the right and MRA types could seize upon to discredit raising the profile of the problem entirely - cases of false accusation, cases of insufficiently supported prosecutions, cases where the prosecution collapsed violently when challenged. A certain case involving a lacrosse team springs to mind here.

- And we would expect that the radical activists, those motivated most by personal pain and by the belief in an intractable and unyielding misogyny, would see the lack of improvement or even the regression of this statistic as confirming their view of their world. This would lead to further radicalism, to alienation from the more moderate feminist voices who recognise the general progressive shift of society, and to dismissal from those sympathetic to the issue and the neutral who would regard the increasing fervour of the activism as a sign of being unhinged rather than of representing a real picture of the problem.

Whether or not this is happening is left to the opinion of the observer.

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