18 May 2011


Just when you thought things might be getting better, shit like this comes along to remind you that the powers that be remain utterly ignorant, and dangerously misguided, about pretty much anything to do with rape, sexual assault, or women's bodily autonomy in general.

I thought there might be some kind of turning point when I noticed the reporting over the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn wasn't the usual fest of victim-blaming misogyny that rape cases usually descend straight into. For once, the media seemed to be focusing on the behaviour of the accused, rather than the accuser, and suggesting that perhaps it's the (alleged) rapist's sexual history we should be examining when considering an allegation, rather than trying to undermine an already traumatised victim by trawling through their past and making them out to be a slut. Whilst headlines like 'PERV' aren't helping anyone, and not exactly upholding the whole 'innocent until proven guilty' thang, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing to see that instead of 'WHAT A LYING WHORE', which is what rape victims have had to put with since time immemorial.

But today Kenneth Clarke, the British 'Justice' Secretary, has caused my faith to plummet right back through the floor, with his proposal to halve convicted rapists' sentences if they plead guilty, and his comments by way of explanation that: "[Rape] includes date rape and 17 year-olds having intercourse. Serious rape, I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape, frankly, the tariff is longer for that and a serious rape where there's violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff's much longer than that."

I can't even begin to unravel the tangle of misunderstandings, misconceptions, and frankly outright falsehoods contained in this sentence. But let me take a few pot shots. Firstly, I'd be happy to see the phrase 'date rape' banished from the face of the earth forevermore. It's one of the most despicable, dishonest, misleading terms I've ever come across, precisely because of the implication it carries that there are 'different types' of rape, and therefore some must be worse than others. Like the term 'domestic violence', it gives this type of assault on women a cosy little niche of its own, lessening the impact of the words 'rape' and 'violence' by adding a qualifier to them, ergo 'Oh, she was raped, but it was only date rape, so not as bad'. Also, what the fuck exactly is date rape? Does it only count if you went for dinner and drinks beforehand? Or does there have to be a movie and dancing too? Basically, it's used to cover pretty much all forms of acquaintance rape, which is the most worrying part of the trend, because acquaintance rape is the most common kind, the most underreported, and the hardest kind of rape to obtain a conviction for. So, um, can someone explain to me why people feel the need to erode the seriousness of this crime even more?

Sure, people are gonna come back with the usual shite about 'Oh, if two drunk students fall into bed together and neither can remember what happened, that's not as bad as someone being dragged into a dark alley at knifepoint'. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't - I wouldn't know, being fortunate enough not to have ever had either happen to me. However, what most people forget is that the 'dark alley at knifepoint' scenario is RARE. Fucking rare. In the 2003 survey of thousands of women, conducted by the Home Office with a view to amending the Sexual Offences law, it was found that only 8% of rape victims reported being attacked by a complete stranger. EIGHT PER CENT. That leaves 92% of those cases as technical 'date rapes', or at least 'acquaintance rapes', because they were committed by male friends, neighbours, colleagues, family members and - in 45% of cases, by husbands or male partners. Are we really expected to agree that the 8% who were horribly violated by a stranger, suffered a more serious assault, than the 45% who were raped by the men they loved and presumably trusted the most, or the 37% who were attacked by men they thought they were safe with, in their own houses, workplaces or social spaces?

By conflating 'date rape' with statutory rape Clarke muddies the waters even more. No, of course statutory rape isn't always the same. It certainly can be - it can involve force, coercion, and a massive inequality of power. The law is there to protect children - if you fuck a 9 year-old, it doesn't matter if she was 'willing'. She's 9, and you're a rapist. Go straight to jail, do not pass Go. However, the oft-trotted out example of a 15 year old and a 16 year old having consensual sex? Yeah, OK, it's not the same, and few police in their right mind would waste their time seeking a prosecution. But to put that latter case in the same category of your husband, boyfriend, friend, neighbour, colleague or the guy in the local paper shop turning on you and violating your body in the most horrendous, degrading way possible? It's just fucking madness. And it's terrifying that any member of our government is making that comparison, let alone daring to do so publicly.

I can only hope that Clarke's words come from ignorance rather than true misogyny - sadly, I think in a lot of people's cases, and yes a lot of them do happen to be male, the ignorance comes from being in a position of total inexperience. If you've never lived your life under the threat of rape, you might not bother to try and understand the issues at work. I hope many men will prove me wrong by speaking out in the wake of Clarke's vile assertions, and yes I know women can be evil victim-blamers as well, although I think their mindset comes from a different, more understandable place (the 'it'll never happen to me' camp). But whether Clarke's just an ignorant old dickhead, or a foul misogynist, is not the issue. The issue is what he said, and what those words demonstrated about his attitude to women, rape and justice. He does not speak for us. He does not uphold justice for us. Therefore he has to go. NOW.

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