Between 70-90% rapes thought to go unreported …and 94% of reported cases don’t end in a conviction

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Researchers from the University of Surrey have revealed that commonly-held attitudes towards rape are stopping women reporting incidents of sexual assault and stopping attackers from being convicted.

Fear of not being believed, not wanting to get their attacker - who is often known to them - into trouble and a sense that they could or should have avoided the assault mean only a fraction of rape cases are being reported. Of those reported, 50-66% are dropped by police, and of the remaining cases that go on to be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service, 33-50% are discontinued.

About 14,000 cases were reported last year to police, but academics suggest there to be seven times as many unreported cases. Professor Jennifer Brown and Dr Miranda Horvath from the University of Surrey’s Department of Psychology have been examining the shocking statistics through funding made available by the British Psychological Society. They assembled a group of international academics to review current research findings relating to the problem of ‘attrition’ – when victims are reluctant to report rape in the first instance, police choose not to pursue cases, prosecutors drop referred cased before trial, and jurors prefer to acquit than find defendants guilty.

The group found that there was a vicious cycle of public attitudes towards rape which ultimately led to these low levels of conviction. For the vast majority, the ‘stranger in the bushes with a knife’ story is the only one that constitutes ‘real rape’. When discussing or considering incidents that don’t conform to the stereotype, people often blame the victim – for example presuming that women provoke rape through their appearance, implying that they exaggerate assault behaviour, exonerating perpetrators by agreeing that once a man is aroused he is unable to rationally control his actions, and suggest that only women who frequent bars or get drunk - get raped.

The group are now keen to advocate more public education about the realities of rape, which often vary dramatically from the media-driven image of the unknown attacker in a dark alley. Dr Miranda Horvath said:

“What people do not realise is that more often than not the victim knows their attacker and the assault takes place without visible injury. If people were aware of facts like these more victims may report their assault and juries may be less likely to acquit defendants in court, and as a result more criminals would be convicted.”

The persistence of inaccurate stereotypes about rape mean victims are reluctant to come forward, and also that police and prosecutors anticipate the jury’s reluctance to convict when they decide which allegation to pursue . The researchers found that on the rare occasions that victims do report their assaults, it is primarily driven by the fear of other women suffering at the hands of their attacker.

Efforts have been made to improve the investigation of rape cases - with all 43 UK police forces currently being asked to draw up sexual violence action plans, being allocated ‘rape champions’ to oversee their roll out, and the setting up of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) in each police force by 2011. There is nevertheless still a huge reluctance among victims to come forward, and for jurors to convict.

The collection of research papers have been edited by the lead researchers into a book, called Rape: Challenging Contemporary Thinking.

Media Enquiries

Peter La, Press Office at the University of Surrey, Tel: +44 (0)1483 689191, or Email

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