Rape is not prohibited by the law, it is regulated

Richard Garside
Friday, 17 July 2020

Earlier this week, the Victims' Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC decried the “catastrophic” decline in prosecutions for rape.

“We are witnessing”, she wrote, “the decriminalisation of rape. In some cases, we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account”.

Dame Vera spoke about the challenge of addressing another form of, disproportionately male, violence – domestic violence – at one of our recent webinars on criminal justice under coronavirus. You can watch her presentation here.

Like domestic violence, rape and other sexual assaults have long been seen as under-policed and under-prosecuted. But what does the appropriate level of policing, prosecution and punishment look like? Can, indeed, the law be relied on to deliver justice in the case of such crimes?

Over thirty years ago, the feminist legal scholar and activist Catharine MacKinnon argued that the law defines rape from the male standpoint. As a result, she argued, it is virtually unenforceable. “From women's point of view,” she wrote, “rape is not prohibited; it is regulated”.

During our webinar Vera Baird argued that enforcement alone will never address the tsunami of male violence towards women. Broader social changes are needed. We explored what such changes might be needed a few years ago in our 'Justice Matters for Women' programme. You can access some of the main content from this programme here.

As people across the world continue to process the shocking killing by the police of George Floyd in broad daylight on an American street, it is important also to remember those who have been killed at the hands of state behind closed doors. As one of our trustees, Becky Shepherd, points out in this article, children in prison, “live and die off-camera, largely invisible to the public eye”.