Are All Men Rapists, after All? British Rape Figures, Already Shocking, Peak in the Heavy-Drinking Party Season. Why? Because This Is a Crime of Opportunity-And Many Men Will Take Their Chance, Argues Kira Cochrane

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There are those among us who, in our naive, glass-half-full fashion, did not believe that British rape statistics could get any worse. After all, with the British Crime Survey estimating that 47,000 rapes occur each year, the rates are already redolent of nothing so much as a war zone. (I realise that people often don't believe statistics, but this survey is indisputably huge--45,000 people were interviewed for it--and, as far as I know, it is not carried out by a cabal of radicals.) Yet, incredibly, the numbers continue to rise, or at least spike. In the last three months of 2004, for instance, there came a sudden surge, with rape cases rising by 18 per cent. In October to December, the months when British women defy the cold, hail and snow by donning their shortest skirts and heading for the bars (give it about a month until we all start up again), the figures burgeoned.

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Although the steady rise in reported rapes over the past 20 years is sometimes seen as a good thing (evidence of a concurrent swell of trust in the police's handling of rape), this argument, which denies any increase in the incidence of crime, cannot explain such a sudden hike. The reason, if anything, would seem to be the season--a period when people are happily drinking their way through a string of parties in the lead-up to Christmas. In 50 per cent of all reported rapes the victim was seriously drunk; the figure is likely to be far higher for cases that went unreported. This year, a UK study analysed 1,000 cases of suspected "drug rape" (women apparently sedated by their assailant with drugs such as rohypnol and GHB) and found that not one of the women had any evidence of such a drug in her bloodstream. It is worth noting, however, that GHB can be detected in the urine for 18 hours only--which you would probably know, if you intended to plant it. However, 65 per cent of the women had been drinking heavily or taking recreational drugs. The survey does not state whether they had been plied with either alcohol or drugs by their assailant. Slipping a drug into someone's drink is very much frowned upon, but getting a woman drunk for the precise reason of having sex with her is often treated with a nudge and a wink.

So, beneath the veil of binge drinking (the number of women drinking more than 35 units a week has tripled since 1990) lies an epidemic of rape in Britain. What is both interesting and shocking is that the sheer number of cases, and their continuing increase, challenge our perception of rapists as a psychopathic minority, a discrete band of "monsters" acting entirely out of impulse. Given the preponderance of rape cases, there must be thousands of rapists out on the streets, even if we accept that many will commit more than one offence. In addition, the spiking pattern of increase suggests that many are opportunists, capitalising during periods when women and girls are most drunken and vulnerable, retreating at others. In other words, they act not on a sudden urge, but in the knowledge that, at certain times, they will get away with it.

This is not the first evidence we have had that suggests rape might be a crime of opportunity as much as of impulse. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a number of highly controversial psychological projects sprang up at colleges in the United States, analysing male attitudes to rape. Half of a group of high-school males, for instance, said that they believed it acceptable "for a guy to hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse" if he found her sexually attractive. In a survey of 7,000 men, conducted by Shere Hite, 46 per cent responded in the affirmative to the question, "Have you ever wanted to rape a woman?".

But arguably the most distressing statistics came from a study conducted at the University of California in 1980. A group of men was read a story in which a woman politely refuses a man's offer of a lift home. Enraged by this perceived rejection, the man holds a knife to her throat and proceeds to full intercourse, the victim protesting wildly throughout the attack. …