Feminism and Facts

Content note – contains discussion of sexual violence and low rape conviction rape.
Trigger Warning for rape.

What is the legal definition of rape in the UK? In all the conversations I’ve had about rape, responsibility and consent, I’d never thought about what is actually being contested when an allegation of rape makes it to court. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, this is the definition of rape:


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

(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b)B does not consent to the penetration, 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.

This is readily available online, as all UK legislation is at www.legislation.gov.uk. Knowing this will change the way I approach those conversations in future. When faced with someone who thinks that if a woman is drunk or has initiated sexual contact then she has consented, I can point out that the law says you can’t assume consent; you have to take active steps to confirm it. I’m not saying that this definition of rape is perfect, or that someone couldn’t interpret “reasonable belief” of consent badly. However, knowing this and being able to use it puts me in a stronger position when arguing against misogynists. It’s not my word against theirs; it’s the word of the law against theirs.

The statistic everyone knows about rape is that the conviction rate for rape in the UK is 6%. What does that mean? It means 6% of all rapes that are reported end up with a conviction. The trouble with this statistic is that no other crime conviction rate is measured in this way. If we use the normal method of calculating conviction rates, then this figure becomes 58%, as 58% of cases of rape that come to court result in a conviction. The ‘conviction rate’ for rape is known as the attrition rate elsewhere; if we compare attrition rates for rape to other crimes like murder, the figure is still much lower. 6% is still an issue. There is also the question of why so few reported rapes actually make it to court, and rape victims can still be treated terribly by the court system.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with that 6% figure – I think it is useful to know. I have a problem with the fact it is often used badly. A lot of articles quoting 6% give the impression that this is the conviction rate for cases that come to court. So people think that 6% of court cases relating to rape end in a conviction. It is compared to conviction rates for murder or GBH when the two rates are completely different. This is factually inaccurate, and factual inaccuracies cause harm. A woman who knows about that 6% rate, but believes it to mean that 6% of court cases end in a guilty verdict, may well not want to bring her case to court if she thinks there is such a slim chance of the person who raped her being held to account. That 58% figure, on the other hand, might encourage the same woman to make sure her case does come to court.

This misuse or misunderstanding of figures is doesn’t just lead to confusion; it skews the way people perceive feminism and its purpose. A problem I face a lot when discussing feminism is that people think it is simply my perception that women are systematically oppressed. That’s what I think, and they think that men and women are treated equally by society – it’s just a difference of opinion. Even if I, for example, point out the existence of the gender pay gap, they still think there must be some other explanation; something that I am not taking into account, given my feminist bias. But if I say that the gap between the full time, median hourly wage for women and men in the UK is 14.9%, and that this information is available from the Office of National Statistics, then they take a lot more notice. It’s a fact, and you can’t deny it. Suddenly, they are asking why that is true, not whether I am making things up.

We live in an age of information. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. We have more information readily available to us than anyone else has before. So why do so few people seem to take advantage of that? Most articles and blogs I read about feminism seem to be entirely based on opinion or personal experience. This has its place, of course, but if we are trying to change how women are treated on a national and global scale, we have to think much bigger. I also don’t intend to do a disservice to those people who do their research and have the knowledge to back up what they say. I just think we need to show the world more that we know what we are talking about. More and more women are waking up to the fact that being a feminist does not mean hating men. We need to take that newfound support and channel it. We need to educate ourselves and other people. All it takes is a few minutes of Googling. You might be surprised at what you find.


  1. Ray Filar

    As I understand it, the reason that the rape conviction rate is measured differently to conviction rates for other crimes is because no other crime faces the same problems of systematic disbelief and victim blaming. I understand the argument that there should be a greater focus on the 58% figure (it was the Stern report that first made that claim, I think) in order to encourage survivors to come forward, but the fact remains that if you are raped and you go to the police, there is a less than 6% chance that the perpetrator will be convicted for rape. Its a slightly higher stat taking into account convictions for lesser crimes, but still only about 13%. You can’t “make sure” your case goes to court, that is decided for you. In the mean time you are subjected to blame, shame, and having to repeat a narrative about a personal experience of traumatic crime. Which will later be held against you if you deviate from it, if you remember things differently, if you remember something new – despite the fact that all evidence shows that memories of trauma are subject to change (which in no way diminishes the credibility of survivors). The police are just as notorious as the jury-comprising public for victim blaming, falsifying reports/evidence, and essentially reflecting all the mythologies about rape that circulate.

    As for the stuff about the use of facts, I’ve often found it helpful to be able to cite figures, but there’s also lots of interesting feminist writing on rewriting male-centric traditions of dependency on quantitative research – challenging positivism, and so on. Sandra Harding is good on this, if you haven’t already read her.

  2. slangsdale

    Thankyou for the recommendation of Sandra Harding Ray, I also often find myself relying on facts and do question this regularly because it isn’t coherent with my political decision to always believe women. Will look her up!

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