The writer Susan Brownmiller helped organize the speakout, and says she found it astonishing. She went on to speak at the New York Radical Feminist Conference on Rape in April 1971, and then to write the groundbreaking book Against Our Will. When it was published in the mid-1970s, “it was reviewed in the Sunday Times,” she says, “and the reviewer said: ‘This is a book by an American journalist about an American crime.’”
This outlook was echoed by other British critics.
One of the first Rape Crisis centers opened in Washington in July 1972. Liz O’Sullivan was involved in setting it up, and says they were surprised by the stories of incest, domestic violence and marital rape.
“When you look at movements,” she says, “they permeate the whole society, so they change the dialogue.”
The conversations that arose through Rape Crisis allowed for the broadening of definitions of sexual assault and rape, to recognize the gamut of offenses and how they affected different groups. In 1980, for instance, as recorded in Maria Bevacqua’s book Rape on the Public Agenda, the Washington Rape Crisis center hosted the first National Conference on Third World Women and Violence; the center also worked with men who were incarcerated locally, who had formed a group called Prisoners Against Rape.
In the 40 years since the movement started, rape in marriage has been recognized in law in the UK, and oral and anal penetration have been included in the definition of rape — the latter as a result of strong, successful lobbying from gay rights groups. However, the chances of victims being believed, getting proper support and securing justice remain low. According to the Home Office, more than 300,000 women in England and Wales are sexually assaulted and 60,000 raped each year, yet a report by Baroness Stern in 2010 estimated only 11 percent of rapes came to the attention of the police. Of those rapes that are reported, a very small proportion — usually quoted at around 6 percent — end in a conviction on that charge. This is largely due to cases failing to get as far as court. Of those that do reach court, 62.5 percent end in a conviction of rape, serious sexual assault or a violent crime, and 40 percent in a conviction of rape. However, the process is so lengthy, and so bruising, that many of those who report drop out and others have their case dropped by the authorities.
Jan McLeod started volunteering at Rape Crisis Glasgow in the late 1970s, when she was still a student, and is now on Rape Crisis Scotland’s board of directors.
She says that, back then, the police often aggressively questioned women who reported rape and would justify this by saying: “We have to be tough, because they’ll get asked worse in court.”
There was some truth in this. She remembers circulating a petition regarding “the situation of a young woman who had been raped, it must have been by more than one man, inside a motor vehicle. The jury made her re-enact it, because the defense was saying it would be impossible for one person to rape another in this confined space. So they actually, in the trial, made her get into the back of the same car, and lie in the position.”
In 1982, Roger Graef’s BBC documentary A Complaint of Rape caused a furor regarding the treatment of rape complainants; the fly-on-the-wall program showed a woman reporting a rape by two men, to which police responded with aggression and incredulity.