Andrew Macdonell is a chemistry PhD student entering his last year at the University of Glasgow. He works with polyoxometalates, trying to produce new materials which will save the world or, at the very least, get him his degree. In an effort to preserve some vestige of his social skills, he likes to talk to people about science (in appropriate settings) and convince them that it’s not all as bafflingly complicated as it might first appear. Being something of an addict for extracurricular activities, in his spare time, he normally likes to have a little lie down.
He is a contributor for the blog http://www.thescifact.wordpress.com 
My experience of the British Science Festival had been, for the first few days, fairly whimsical. Talks about animating dinosaurs, living forever and the science behind cosmetics were all serious science, but fairly light, fun subjects. This only served to throw the serious subject matter of Attitudes to men’s violence against women into sharper relief, and the results discussed provided very few reasons to be cheerful.
The first speaker, Dr Nancy Lombard, presented a survey on the attitudes of a group of 11-12 year old Glaswegian school children towards gender, emotional abuse and violence. Having been to school in an area not too far away from Glasgow myself, I wasn’t expecting the most enlightened of attitudes, but the kind of responses she received to her “vignettes” – imagined situations between a man and a women in a relationship showing either violence or emotional abuse – still managed to shock me.
In a situation in which a man had told his girlfriend he didn’t want her to wear a particular top because it attracted too much attention, the vast majority of the children, both boys and girls, felt like the man was justified and questioned the motives of the girl in dressing so provocatively.
The exact same situation was then presented immediately after the first to the same groups of children, but with the genders reversed. The answers immediately changed to “She’s not the boss of him” and “He can wear what he wants”, showing a double-standard so entrenched that even the juxtaposition of the questions did little to pique the children’s awareness.
Further questions probed their attitude towards men being openly violent towards women, and there was a clear tendency in the responses to seek to justify the behaviour of the man by finding fault in the behaviour of the woman.
That these rigid gender attitudes (including mockery of homosexuality or of behaviour outside the gender binary) is present and easily observable in children so young and of both genders shows just how hard a task those working against domestic violence face, since it is these cultural stereotypes that make challenging it so complicated.
The second speaker, Prof. Lesley McMillan, gave an overview of attitudes towards rape cases in the police and judiciary system. The worrying figures which spurred her research were the incredibly high rates of attrition seen for rape cases.
Compared to the number of rape incidents reported to the police, only 27% of cases actually make it to a prosecution, and the majority are lost while the case is still entirely under the care of the police department. In an effort to understand why this is, McMillan explored the attitudes towards and the influence of the myths that surround women and rape within the justice system.
She started by explaining the idea of “stranger rape”, in which someone is assaulted by a predatory stranger which, though making up a very small percentage of actual rape cases, was for a long time considered as the only “real” rape. While noting that the police have improved in this regard and that the validity of other rape cases is acknowledged, she then mentioned the concept of a “good” rape case (one that is considered likely to result in conviction) and how the criteria for such a case exacerbates the problem of attrition.
Some elements of a “good” rape case would be that the victim was relatively sober when the rape occurred, in good mental health and had never had any previous consensual sexual contact with the suspect. The problems with these criteria as a means of judging cases (and ultimately deciding which cases are passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service) becomes apparent when you look at the circumstances of those who report being raped – many have substance abuse problems, mental health issues or are otherwise “vulnerable” people.
This means that those who are most helpless and vulnerable are further penalised since the very qualities which make them a target are the same ones used by the police to dismiss them as a victim.
The questions following these talks were quite subdued. Most focussed on the specifics of rape cases and how a guilty verdict is actually obtained, especially in cases where the only evidence is the accounts of the suspect and the victim. Someone shared a story about a relative who had been through the system with a rape case and found it to be very much like it was described.
Finally, an older gentleman offered up some literary quotations seemingly in favour of domestic violence and appeared to suggest it was an inevitability of the world. Judging by how his comments were received, I think neither the speakers nor the rest of audience were inclined to agree, and I hope that work like that of Lombard and McMillan helps to banish these attitudes and the behaviour that stems from them to the darkest chapters of our history books.