THE review of the Sexual
Offences Act 2003, published last week, signifies a new breadth of
awareness about crimes of sexual violation. For the first time, it
moves away from focusing solely on bodily harm to the deeper trauma
that rape and assault have for the victim. It also puts the
activities and motivation of the violator in a bigger context -
recognising that some offenders are calculating, persistent, and
ready to breach positions of trust.
The review makes clear that
the perspective of survivors must be central, and that sentences
should "reflect everything the victim has been through and what the
offender has done". Gone, it would seem, is the old ethos about
victims' not suffering very much, or "bringing it upon themselves".
Instead, we find a more realistic assessment of the long-term harm.
The review has already been welcomed by groups engaged in
counselling or advocacy of survivors; they recognise all too well
how the effects of sexual violence continue long after the physical
scars have healed.
But the review is striking
for another reason. The new guidelines reflect the rapid changes in
our culture over the past nine years. The 2003 Act was drawn up
before the mass market in mobile-phone cameras, before the advent
of Facebook and social-networking sites, before potential victims
could be so easily chatted up, groomed, or stalked using the
There was little awareness
in 2003 of the vast capacity of new technology to link people
together, or of the dangers it posed for those vulnerable and
exposed. We could not begin to imagine the spread of networks for
sexual predators, the level of intimidation, or the market for
images of sexual cruelty. We had no idea of the scale on which
assaults could be filmed for voyeuristic distribution, compounding
even further the damage done to the victim. New technology does not
make the experience of rape any worse for those who suffer it, but
it does widen the reach of the perpetrators, and make safeguarding
measures even more urgent.
So the review recommends
that sentences should reflect not just the physical offence, but
the attitudes and tactics employed by offenders: the targeting of
vulnerable victims, grooming, the use of intimidation, the
involvement of alcohol or drugs, bribes, violent or threatening
language, networking, filming, and the abuse of trust. It offers
guidelines for preventative-treatment programmes for offenders, and
recommends that significant custodial sentences be available, with
a tougher 19-year maximum for one-off rape. The suffering of the
victim must never be lost in these "incredibly complex, sensitive
and serious offences".
As a sociologist, I am
grateful for the thoroughness of this review, and the way it
integrates the nature of sexual offence with an understanding of
contemporary culture. But I am even more grateful as a theologian.
From a theological perspective, sexual violence is a moral and
spiritual attack on the wholeness and integrity of a human being.
It disregards a person's God-given worth and dignity, and treats
that person as a commodity - a thing for the violator's own
It imposes power over the
body, mind, and emotions of another, denying his or her real
humanity and ensuring that the damage done to the victim is deeper
than physical injury, affecting identity and self-worth. This is
why public acknowledgement and justice are an intrinsic part of
The review implicitly
recognises all this, and addresses the implications. It invites us
now to make our own contribution in consultation (http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk/consultations-current.htm).
We can do more. We can pray that it will have safe passage, and
bring greater justice and new hope.
Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.