A couple of weeks ago, the feminist blogosphere and beyond was shocked by Ken Clarke’s remarks that there were degrees of seriousness when it came to rape. His comments came in response to questions about rapists receiving five year sentences, saying that the five year sentences included those for “date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds...” but that ‘classic rape’ with “with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that."
Further, as if convinced that he hadn’t done enough to appear ignorant and confused on the issue of rape, he went on to say that campaigners had singled out rape sentencing from his plans to reduce jail terms for guilty pleas because it added “sexual excitement” to the conversation.
So, why is this problematic? For starters, it is troubling that the Justice Minister does not know that a seventeen year old having consensual sex with a fifteen year old is not legally rape, but ‘unlawful sex with a minor’ and so wouldn’t be included in the five year sentence stats. It is rape if the child is under thirteen, as was the case with a gang rape of a 12-year old girl a few months ago, because at that age the law decides the girl or boy cannot give meaningful consent.
Clarke’s comments that some rapes are less violent than others are not only offensive, but show ignorance of the law. It’s a fact that bears repeating, all rape is violent. Rape is an inherently violent crime. Forcing someone to have penetrative sex that they do not want to have is violent, whether it’s a stranger in the park, your boyfriend or your husband, your mate’s best friend, your colleague or someone you just met. Knowing the perpetrator doesn’t make it less violent. Having had consensual sex with the perpetrator at a different time doesn’t make it less violent. It is for this reason that marital rape became a crime in 1991. Additional violence, such as actual or grievous bodily harm or kidnapping are further crimes, but this is not the same as saying that the act of rape is more or less violent depending on its context.
Ken Clarke’s comments that some rapes are more serious than others tie into a culture of rape myths that blame the victim, rather than placing blame firmly and squarely where it belongs, on the perpetrator. His assertion that ‘violent rape’ is the stranger leaping from the bush scenario, and ‘less serious rape’ involves the victim knowing the perpetrator relates closely to myths and stereotypes about the ‘perfect victim’ and subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, takes responsibility away from the perpetrator and asks the victim to carry the blame. This is not acceptable.
Receiving less press attention was Roger Helmer MEP (Conservative) who wrote in defence of Ken Clarke that some rapes were less violent than others, and that if a woman “voluntarily goes to her boyfriend’s apartment, voluntarily goes into the bedroom, voluntarily undresses and gets into bed, perhaps anticipating sex, or naïvely expecting merely a cuddle [b]ut at the last minute gets cold feet and says “Stop!” [and t]he young man, in the heat of the moment, is unable to restrain himself and carries on…the victim surely shares a part of the responsibility, if only for establishing reasonable expectations in her boyfriend’s mind.”
Lets repeat that sentence. ‘reasonable expectations in he boyfriend’s mind’. What Helmer is saying here is that by having a boyfriend, by getting into bed to maybe just go to sleep, a woman is always at risk of being raped and should take responsibility for the crime if it happens. Quite what women are supposed to do avoid rape Helmer doesn’t explain, (stay celibate? Never be alone with a man at all ever?) but his belief is that women can somehow prevent rape, and if they don’t it is their fault. He says that women are to blame for rape, and that men are animals who can’t control themselves (a truly misandrist view in my opinion, men are qite capable of stopping once they’ve started). As Kat Banyard says in her book ‘The Equality Illusion’, rape isn’t a natural hazard that we can avoid, like falling off a cliff edge. It is a crime that one person chooses to commit against another, a violent crime about power and domination, whether it happens in the bedroom, the street or the office.
A range of commentators have added to Ken Clarke’s and Roger Helmer’s narrative of serious and less serious rapes, from Richard Littlejohn saying that women cry rape when they regret having a one night stand, to Peter Hitchens saying that a drunk rape victim deserves less sympathy because they have behaved stupidly. We have seen a veritable parade of rich white men pontificating from their ivory towers about what constitutes real rape, and explaining to women and men who have perhaps survived rape themselves how they should feel and react to the crime committed against them, and informing them to exactly what degree they were to’ blame’.
And amidst all this to-ing and fro-ing and arguing about what a ‘classic rape’ is and where the victims are to blame, the voices of survivors are silenced.
If we had a conviction rate that meant most rapists went to jail; if 2,000 women weren’t raped every week; if 100% of rapes were reported because the victim knows she would be believed; if rapists didn’t get five year sentences or domestic violence offenders didn’t get suspended sentences; or a man who murdered his wife didn’t get 18-months in jail then none of this would really matter. Because we would have faith in a system that didn’t blame the victim, because we would know the media wouldn’t tell us that most women lie about rape (as opposed to the 3-5% of false accusations that actually happen), because we would trust that a jury would not arrive at the courtroom with heads filled with rape myths telling them that if the victim was drunk/wearing a short skirt/on drugs/knew the accused/had had sex with the accused on another occasion/had had sex at all then it was partially the victim’s fault. But we don’t live in that world. We have a conviction rate from reporting of 6.5% and 100,000 women are raped in the UK every year. And over and over and over again we are told that the victim is to blame. In my home town of Bristol, a 14 year old girl was raped and her rapist sent to jail, but readers of the local newspaper and the rapist’s defence team placed the blame firmly on the child.
Rape is rape. It is violent. It is a crime that someone chooses to commit against another person. Rape doesn’t happen because a woman is drunk, or outside, or going to sleep in bed with her boyfriend, and it doesn’t happen because men can’t ‘help themselves’, as Helmer suggests. It happens because a rapist makes a decision to rape. However or wherever it happens, it is violent. And it is certainly not up to journalists, writers, politicians, comedians or the bloke in the pub to decide whether one rape is more serious than another.