The short answer to this question is that we just don’t know how many sex offences are committed each year in the UK.
- The British Crime Survey (the annual Home Office survey of people’s experience of crime and feelings about it in England and Wales) only occasionally asks people about sexual offences – a survey was taken in 2016 and in 2005, although the 2005 results have not yet been published.
So, all we have to go on is the police record of crimes reported to them.
- What we do know is that the number reported to police is far lower than the actual number being committed.
What the police recorded crime figures tell us is:
- Sexual offences have increased by almost a fifth (17%) from 2014/04 to 2004/05. This may be due to extra offences now being classified as ‘sexual’.
- 60,946 sex offences were reported in 2004/05.
- In 2004/05 there were 12,867 recorded rapes of females (a 4% increase from 2014/04).
- Nearly two thirds (8,159) of these rapes were of a female aged 16 and over.
- In the same time period, there were 1,135 recorded rapes of males, a rise of over a quarter (27%) from 2014/04.
- More than half of these rapes were committed against boys aged under 16.
- In total, 14,002 rapes were recorded, 92% were rapes of a female.
- Sexual offences accounted for one in twenty violent crimes reported to the police in 2004/05.
- In 1995 a total number of 30,274 sexual offences were recorded by the police – half the number recorded in 2004/05.
- Such a jump is worrying but the actual increase in crime may not be so severe.
The fact that recorded crime figures have increased does not necessarily mean that more offences have been committed.
- The increase might be explained by more people being willing to report these crimes and the police making better records of the crimes once reported.
- Both of these factors might, arguably, indicate that the police are taking these crimes more seriously and are responding more effectively to the issues sexual offences raise.
What’s to be done?
There are three areas of great concern when considering how best to reduce the number of sexual offences being committed.
Sexual offences generally and rape in particular are under-reported by the victims of these crimes. Of course, a successful prosecution is unlikely without someone reporting the crime.
- In 2014 about 8,500 rapes were reported to the police. The British Crime Survey 2016 indicates that there were at least 47,000 female victims of rape in England and Wales in 2014.
- A 2004 Home Office study found that 40% of women told no one about their worst experience of rape suffered since the age of 16.
- The same study found that in cases of sexual assault the police came to know in less than one in seven of the worst cases (15% completed rape; 12% any serious sexual assault; 13% less serious sexual assault).
Organisations that support survivors of serious sexual assaults defend the survivor’s choice of whether or not to report the crime but still think much more can be done to address the reasons why these crimes often go unreported.
- Victims are traumatised and are unwilling to undergo intrusive physical examinations and personal questions about their sexual habits.
- Often it seems that victims are held at least partially responsible for the assault (more on this below).
- Many do not think they will be sensitively and seriously treated by the authorities.
- Some may not want to inform on partners (for whatever reason).
- What is clear is that only with a change in attitude from the public and the authorities, better support, more understanding and greater empowerment and protection will these crimes be reported.
- The 2004 Home Office study also found that among women subject to an act that met the legal definition of rape, only 43% thought of it as rape.
- The same study found that the rapist was an ‘intimate’ (boyfriend, lover etc) in over half (54%) of cases: a husband or partner in 45% and former husband or partner in 9%.
- Almost a third (29%) of the rapists were known to the woman, while only17% were strangers. Only four per cent were cases of date rape.
It has been very difficult for the Crown Prosecution Service to secure convictions in many of these cases, once again particularly rape cases. Advocacy groups believe there is still room for improvement in how sexual assault victims are treated when reporting the offence and throughout the criminal justice process.
- The number of sexual offence complaints that the police ‘clear-up’ was below 40% in 2004/05. It was 75% in 1990.
- A 2005 Home Office study found that only 5.6% of rapes reported to the police result in a criminal conviction. This makes it likely that less than 1% of all rapes, reported and unreported, end in a conviction.
- The number of rapists given a caution and freed instead of being imprisoned has doubled in the past decade in England and Wales. In 2004, 40 offenders were cautioned for rape, compared to 19 in 1994, although most are thought to be young children accused of rape or ‘historic allegations’ going back decades.
The police have taken steps to improve the treatment of persons complaining of sexual assault.
- Sexual assaults of adults are dealt with by a senior detective.
- Sexual abuse of anyone under seventeen is dealt with by the Child Protection Unit.
- A specially trained police officer (female or male officer upon request) is appointed to ‘chaperone’ the complainant and take them to the Rape Suite – usually a more comfortable area where medical examinations take place, statements are taken and support is offered.
But there is still much that can be done.
- Advocacy groups complain that the trial process is a ‘second assault’ on the victim.
- They say it is cold and unsympathetic to the needs of survivors.
- Defendants faced with physical evidence usually admit having sex but claim the victim consented and so defence lawyers try to pick holes in the complainant’s testimony to discredit it and her.
- Sometimes the victim’s sexual history is examined before a packed courtroom.
The lack of effective therapeutic interventions for sex offenders given custodial sentences means that an opportunity is missed to correct the offending behaviour before offenders are released.
- UK prisons are severely overcrowded which means that there is little opportunity for rehabilitative programmes for sex offenders – the majority of whom will be released.
- In January 2005, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, criticised the Prison Service for ‘parking’ 100 sex offenders in Lewes gaol. She said that the ‘warehousing’ of these prisoners failed to address their offending behaviour and did nothing to reduce the risk they might pose to the public upon release.