How did he get away with it for so long?

John Worboys may have sexually assaulted hundreds of women while police refused to take his victims' complaints seriously.

Published March 16, 2009 2:36PM (EDT)

Last week, London cab driver John Worboys was convicted of drugging and assaulting 12 women, one of whom he raped, over a 16-month period. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. He's already been linked to 85 assaults on women, dating back to 2002, and police believe he may have been responsible for hundreds of attacks. Worboys's M.O. was to pick up an apparently intoxicated woman in his black cab -- the iconic taxis are thought to be safer than minicabs -- tell her he'd just won the lottery and ask her to join him in a glass of champagne. The champagne was drugged. Once the woman was incapacitated, Worboys would sexually assault her in the backseat.

How could this have happened dozens, maybe hundreds of times without anyone stopping him? The Guardian's Barbara Ellen takes a look at the cultural factors that contributed to a serial rapist going undetected for years. "First, and not a small thing, [Worboys] exploited the bond of trust women have with black cab drivers. To men, black cabs are nothing special, but to women, especially at night, they represent safety, salvation, 'home.'" They also represent, I might add, the "responsible" option for getting home when you've had too much to drink -- the option that's supposed to indicate you weren't "asking for it." A recently released survey found, depressingly, that 36 percent of respondents in England and Wales believed a woman should be held at least partly responsible if she's sexually assaulted or raped while drunk. 14 percent said she should be held at least partly responsible if she's out walking alone at night. Despite the obvious fact that rapists, not their victims, are responsible for rape, women are routinely told that in order to protect ourselves, we should avoid getting drunk and, failing that, make sure we have safe transportation home. In London, black cabs are meant to be that safe transportation, the back-up option after you've flunked the first test of your worthiness to remain unraped.

Speaking of that worthiness, Ellen continues, "Worboys pulled off the trick of discrediting his victims in advance -- picking them up at night, possibly after they'd been drinking, ensuring that the 'so-called assaults' sounded bizarre, hazy, even silly ('He'd won the lottery; he gave me champagne') and 'only' having sex, not beating, maiming or killing, like some attackers would." Thus, the victims who reported the crimes were dismissed as having suffered, at worst, what Ellen calls "rape-lite" -- i.e., regrettable sex retroactively labeled rape, a phenomenon that seems to be far more common in the minds of paranoid men than in reality. "This rape-lite baloney doubtless has a large part to play in why we still have successful rape convictions in only 6 percent of cases. And you wonder, how can it be, even today, that institutionalised distrust of rape victims is as strong as ever?" Though police had received numerous complaints from women who were drugged and assaulted by a cab driver over the years, Ellen reports, "Many of them ended up listed as 'no crimes', or involved DNA samples that were lost, clothing untested, evidence discarded, similar-sounding accounts not linked, and victims disbelieved, treated with suspicion and giving up."

"A chilling thought occurs," she writes. "Perhaps Worboys wasn't such a criminal genius. It was just that, aided by a police culture still so reluctant to take sex crimes seriously, he managed to get in an awful lot of practice." Unfortunately, as her own essay makes clear, that accusation doesn't go far enough. Such institutional distrust can only thrive in a broader culture in which more than a third of people believe rape victims somehow bring the attacks on themselves, a culture in which rapists know that a drunk women who gets in a strange man's car -- even when it's a cab -- is likely to be told by friends and family, let alone the police, that she should have known better.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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