Content Warning: Heavy discussion of sexual assault and court trials surrounding sexual assualt
One in ten. That is the average number of rape cases that make it to trial, according to https://fullfact.org , and that’s just the cases that are reported. Many rape cases go unreported out of fear or simply because too many victims go through the harrowing and often invasive process of a trial only to be left with an unrealistic prospect of conviction.
One such case was the recent trial of 18 year old Steven Shields in Edinburgh. Despite being found guilty of sexually assaulting two girls, aged 15 and 14, and having intercourse with another who was underage, he managed to avoid any jail time. Outcomes like this one are all too common and it is clear to see why many rape cases go unreported, as the process often appears futile.
Shields admitted the charges against him and, breached a court bail order prohibiting him from having unsupervised contact with children under 16. Yet he was only given a community payback order with three years supervision and ordered to carry out 250 hours unpaid work in a year. The presiding judge pointed to Shield’s age at the time of the offences, 16 and 17, and his 8 month period in a youth offenders institute to justify the sentence saying, “That represents a significant punishment for a young person”. However, this sparks the question of whether someone should be treated with more leniency just because they are a few months short of being an adult in the eyes of the law when they commit a crime. The maximum term for the rape of a minor is 20 years, yet Shields manged to avoid time behind bars. For many rape survivors a period of jail time is important for the rapist to be seen to be held accountable for their actions and therefore it is possible that lenient sentences may discourage others from coming forward. In particular, this outcome will come as a huge blow to Shields’ victims, and the rest of the small proportion of rape survivors whose cases make it to trial.
In the age of movements like #MeToo and Times Up, the world has never been more attuned to the importance of listening to victims of sexual assault, yet the Shields case proves we as a society have a long way to go when it comes to justice for victims and survivors. Media reports on high profile rape cases are too often filled with ‘victim blaming’; with ignorant, unhelpful questions like: “What were they wearing?” “Why were they alone at night?” “They were asking for it.” Victims deserve to feel safe and deserve to be listened to, but it is hard for this to happen in a system that too often lets rapists walk free.
The victims of rape have already been through a severe trauma and not getting the outcome they deserve in court is only likely to have a further impact on their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. While prison time is not mandatory for all crimes, in the case of rape it is important for the victims to see that their needs are being taken into account in regard to the possible lifelong traumatic after effects they may face, which is why justice for survivors is so important. In the Shields case, it is hard to see how justice was fully achieved when the only repercussions he faced were community service and a 7 pm curfew.
While there’s no denying that rape cases are complex matters that require a sensitive approach, in order to improve the process it is vital that we try and dispel the negative myths and stereotypes about rape and those who come forward to report it, and most importantly to listen and focus on getting it right for the victims.
Tel (Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline): 08088 01 03 02 (free number) every day, 6pm to midnight
Image: via Wikimedia Commons