1 Sep 2009

I Should Know Better...

...than to even glance in the direction of OK! magazine, given that it's owned by a notorious pornographer who also has the dubious accolade of owning The Daily Mirror. These facts alone should tell me to keep my blinkers well fastened when passing the magazine shelf in Borders but as big, red obnoxious headlines tend to, this week's issue caught my eye. Cover celebrity - Jordan aka Kate Price. No surprises there. What got me looking? The blaring proclamation "JORDAN - 'I WAS RAPED'". Alright, this just got interesting, I decide, and dare to look inside. What followed was a sensationalised account of Ms Price's sexual assault at the hands of a stranger at the age of 6, and some fairly vague words about feeling 'threatened' by staff who were 'standing very close' to her during an early nude/topless photo shoot. Hmmmm.
Several issues immediately jostle for attention in my mind here. One, is the pretty deliberate use of the word 'rape'. Legally, I'd call what Ms Price describes (being touched and being asked to touch the abuser) as sexual assault- the legal definition of rape being penetration of the vagina, mouth or anus by a person or object. Perhaps I'm nitpicking and unfairly trivialising her experience, but I can't help but feel the headline wouldn't have had as much clout without the undeniably emotive and provocative word 'rape'. We think rape, we think violence, we think stranger in an alleyway, threats, weapons, physical force. Even though this is rarely how it happens. It could be that OK! Magazine are trying to remind us of this, but I seriously doubt that this is a magazine with the promotion of women's rights at the forefront of its agenda. Rather, I think they used a deliberately sensationalist term to sell more magazines, even when it's questionable to define Katie Price's experience as rape.
As a feminist, you're immediately getting onto dodgy ground when you start questioning the victim or arguing over the severity of the label that should be awarded to their ordeal. However, that doesn't mean we should be afraid to do it. Confusion over what rape actually is, or misuse of the term to describe a different type of assault, is often what leads to actual rapes not being taken seriously enough. If a grope of your breasts (sexual assault) is being put in the same category as someone forcing their penis into your vagina (rape), then people are going to stop taking the crime of rape as seriously as they should. Or rather, they're going to take it even less seriously than they already do (have you ever had an argument about the legal treatment of rape without someone piping up about the evil wimmin who are always 'crying rape' just to get at men? I haven't). A few months ago I sent a story about the rape of a 15 year old girl in a swimming pool changing room to a highly intelligent, culturally educated lawyer friend of mine. His response was that he would have to take it with a pinch of salt, as rape could mean all sorts of things - after all, we use the term 'statutory rape' for sex with someone under the age of consent, even though in many cases no violence or coercion has taken place.
So clearly we already feel that the word has become bandied about, legally blurred and misused enough that before we even start thinking about the victim, we're already questioning the seriousness of what happened to her and if it was really that bad. OK's cover today really hasn't helped that situation, and nor have the actions of a woman whose career is so dependent on publicity that she would allow a magazine to sensationalise an act of paedophilia in order to boost sales. What is also distasteful is how the claim seems to be something of a grab for sympathy, given that Katie Price is being painted as the bad guy in her acrimonious divorce. You wonder just how low she is prepared to go if she'll bring out a 25-year-old sexual assault in order to make herself seem wronged and vulnerable. The sisterhood may want to crucify me for saying this, but having been sexually assaulted or raped doesn't make you a better person, or more deserving of forgiveness when you behave in a distasteful way. I would hope victims of assault would understand that what I am saying is not 'let's give victims of sexual violence a hard time', but rather, that people should be judged for who they are and how they act towards others, not the random awful things that have happened to them, over which they have no control.
In an episode of The Office (the US version), a female worker accused of deliberately sabotaging her colleagues' careers, breaks down in fake tears and says "I was raped." The viewer is shocked until her manager responds wearily, "You can't keep saying that. You can't just keep saying you were raped every time you do something bad.". The viewer then feels they are allowed to laugh, as it's clear that we're not dealing with a real rape victim, but someone who trots out a deliberately shocking lie every time they're caught misbehaving. The implication is that the girl is trying to deflect attention from her actions by blurting out a (fabricated) statement about something that she know will shock and gain sympathy for her. The show makes it clear that nothing of the sort has actually happened to her (as her crocodile tears turn off as soon as the manager says he will let the matter go) so it is not mocking real victims, but rather those who do a shameful disservice to real victims by taking their experience and using it as a grab for attention, or a deflection of the negative focus on them. I can certainly see parallels between this scene and what I saw in OK! today.
It's pretty clear what damage these actions do. As long as we see rape claims - real or fabricated - as something women do for attention, revenge or sympathy - we are going to continue down the road of not taking sexual violence seriously, and continuing to treat victims with suspicion. In a country where the conviction rate for rape remains shamefully low, and complaints about police treatment of victims (often described as 'a culture of disbelief') continue to flood in, those who exploit tales of sexual assault are only making matters worse. Sadly, it's probably only when those people find themselves or their loved ones accused of 'crying wolf' or 'saying it for publicity' when they really do experience sexual violence, that they'll realise why it's such a dangerous game to play.

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