The Sunday Times

Sunday July 4 1999

The rape reform that makes all men guilty

by Melaine Phillips

Rape is the most serious of all crimes after murder. Yet now, it seems, the offence is not so serious if you're raped by someone you know. The government has floated the idea of creating a new offence of "date rape", with lower penalties than for raping a stranger.

What absurdity is this? Rape means forcing someone to have intercourse without consent. Either this is a crime of exceptional gravity, or it is not. It can't become less serious if you're raped after a night out rather than jumped on in an alley.

The change has been suggested simply to increase the number of rape convictions, which has fallen while reports of date rape have risen. Charges of rape by strangers, meanwhile, have dropped. Indeed, this seems to be why there are fewer convictions. Claims of date rape raise vexing questions about whether the woman was giving her consent. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that police don't press charges or that juries are reluctant to convict.

It's quite extraordinary to say that because not enough men are being convicted, the law must change. It implies a certainty that these date rapes have all actually happened. On what evidence? Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Or are women always to be believed, simply because they are women? Clearly the government thinks so - it says date rape is now "the fastest growing crime against women".

So are we to assume there's been an inexplicable leap in the numbers of men raping their girlfriends on a date? Or that hitherto reticent victims have suddenly become "empowered" to come forward? There's surely a more likely explanation: the increasing sexual availability of women has torn up the rules of sexual etiquette.

A report last year by the Zero Tolerance Charitable Trust into young people's sexual attitudes revealed huge confusion about the ambiguous new codes governing sexual behaviour. Yet even these young people appeared to be rather clearer than the Home Office about responsibility. Girls as well as boys thought a man wasn't guilty of rape if the woman tried to draw the line after "leading him on". Almost 75% of those surveyed agreed with the statement "Women cry rape the next day when really they have just had second thoughts". With sexual behaviour now so free, it would seem foolish to try to sort out such ambiguous situations in court.

The government appears to be about to succumb to the same madness that has infected America, the country that gave us the doctrine that "all men are rapists". There, date rape would appear to have reached epidemic proportions. Men on university campuses, in particular, live under a permanent cloud of gender inquisition if they go out with a girl for a meal. In fact, American academics report pressure to inflate the figures by expanding the definition of rape to include, for example, "intercourse without mutual desire".

Instead of running screaming from this nonsense, the Home Office is thinking of "having another look at consent in rape cases". What this seems to mean is that an accused man would have to prove he thought the woman was consenting to sex. This would reverse the burden of proof and thus contravene the most fundamental tenet of criminal law: that a person is innocent until proved guilty.

That rule, it would appear, now applies to women but not to men. The review of rape law was announced at last week's launch of the Women's Unit initiative against domestic violence. A more startling example of a deliberate rigging of the facts on domestic violence would be hard to imagine. The basic premise was that men are the main perpetrators. This is simply not true. The unit trotted out once again the claim that one in four women becomes the victim of domestic violence. Yet this statistic derives from dubious research drawn from unrepresentative samples of women. There is overwhelming evidence that women initiate domestic violence at least as much as men. The Home Office itself has published research showing that 4.2% of men and 4.2% of women said they had been assaulted by their current or former spouse or lover. Shouldn't the government be launching a drive against all violence, committed against men as well as women?

Open season appears to have been declared now on men. It was surely no coincidence that the day after the government told us men were violent beasts, it announced ways of being even tougher against feckless ex-husbands through reform of the Child Support Act. Yet it failed to address the dreadful injustice of this legislation, which treats all absent fathers as feckless even though some may be the blameless victims of destructive behaviour by women.

Of course some men are irresponsible, and should be pursued; of course men should pay for their children's upkeep if they have broken up their families. Most divorces, however, are initiated by women. Many divorced fathers have their homes and children taken away from them and are all but de-stroyed. They are then clobbered by the Child Support Agency, which treats them as if they are the guilty party. In future they may even be sent to prison.

The assumptions behind many of the proposed changes to the act are hostile to men. They reduce fathers even more than before to walking wallets, and deepen the injustices against them. Even if a father shares childcare equally with his ex-wife, he will have to pay the mother for the child's upkeep. Moreover, the mother's income won't henceforth be taken into account. So even if she's gone off with a man earning £100,000 a year, scooping up the family home and the children en route, her ex-husband will have to pay her - thus supporting behaviour he may even believe is damaging his children.

At the same time, he may be deprived of all contact with his children by courts which stack the cards against him. The lord chancellor's advisory board on family law has said that if wives allege domestic violence against their former husbands, the courts should stop them seeing their children. It is not uncommon, though, for women to make entirely spurious charges of violence against their ex-husbands just to prevent them from having access to their children. Lawyers say the courts are overwhelmingly disposed to believe them, even when there isn't a shred of evidence.

The amount of violence in marriage is small (most violence takes place between cohabitants or lovers). When violence does occur it is balanced between the sexes, so the courts should act on the presumption that violence by a husband is unlikely and give him the benefit of the doubt. If family lawyers are so worried about children they might more usefully draw the attention of courts to the fact that most physical abuse of children is perpetrated by women.

Fat chance. We all know, do we not, that men are basically rapists and wife batterers and faithless creeps, while women can do no wrong. The government and legal establishment are telling us so. A whole women's unit has been set up to prove it. Lots of women's organisations are busy collecting government money to provide the unit with bent "facts".

What have all these people got against men?

melaniephillips@msn.com

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.