Thursday, 19 May 2011

When rape is serious: a generalist's guide

My goodness me. I think in all the time I have been writing my blog, I may never have picked on a subject more contentious than yesterday's.

Ken Clarke is of course not really the issue being discussed - he is a symptom, if you like, of a male-centric attitude that sees the victims of rape crudely classified into true victims and those who, if they didn't ask for it, could certainly have done more to prevent it. The calls for Clarke's resignation will go on, and he will remain steadfastly unmoved. He did, finally and belatedly, apologise. The political commentators quickly shifted to Ed Miliband's adenoids and his clumsy call for Clarke to resign.

Ed, as he is wont to do, missed the boat. A thoughtful opponent would not have attacked Clarke himself but rather the snide, unspoken Tory cabinet view that the real business in the world is done by tall, masterful men in sharp suits, while the little women decorate the homes, bear the children and suffer their anxieties in private. The very attitudes, in short, that feminists so vehemently oppose.

Truthfully (and there are certainly those who will mock me for stating this openly) the more I read about feminism, the more I am becoming impressed with the arguments it presents. It would simply not have occurred to me as a man that a woman might feel the need to plan a route through a crowded shopping centre to avoid large groups of young men who might harass her. Until it was pointed out to me, it did not occur to me that the issue of how rape is treated in law is a reflection of society's attitude - and not to rapists, but to victims.

I mentioned the subject of rape in the context of Ken Clarke's comments to friends today, a group made up mostly of women, and it prompted a debate that I could scarcely believe I was hearing. There were those who thought that modern men couldn't be expected to know better. Those who thought that testosterone was an excuse for aggressive sexual behaviour. Women, unbelievably, who thought that other women should 'expect to be raped if they behave like sluts.'

I did my best to contribute, stating my belief that there was a clear separation of a woman's need to take responsibility for her personal safety and the responsibility of a man to know that what he is doing is fundamentally wrong. But the discussion continued and the consensus was clear - they felt that 'true' rape (or 'serious', as we have seen it described by Clarke) is a term that should only apply when a victim and assailant are strangers. In familial or date rape, it was felt that there must have been circumstances that caused the man's behaviour.

I was, and remain, astounded and sickened.

One of the more canny people who discussed the subject with me gave me his opinion and then slyly asked me if I would state my own opinion on my blog. I quickly said no; I couldn't have hoped, with the stream of new perspectives I have been offered in the last twenty-four hours, to have an informed opinion on the subject. But reading what I have read since, I have tried my best.

Rape is a horrific crime, and this is reflected in British law by the maximum possible tariff of a life sentence. While there is a difference between constitutional rape and rape, the need for a definition of constitutional rape demonstrates a clear need for the protection of those who are underage, so we cannot get away from the issue of consent. As men, we have to accept the responsibility for our actions regardless of what drives the people we interact with; so yes, a girl is entitled to tease you, show you every aspect of herself physically and then still say no to you. We simply need to accept that. You can make all the arguments you like about men being wired differently to women, but it makes no difference. Simply, we do this by demonstrating maturity and having confidence in our masculinity.

Finally, and no less importantly, we have to challenge the prejudices of those around us in the same way that we would for any other injustice. Victims of rape deserve our support and empathy. The manner in which they have conducted themselves up to that point should not be a concern in our minds.


  1. The attitudes of those people just show how society is brainwashed by the media and the mainstream view perpetrated by people like the Tories. Just wait until they are subject to it, or their daughter or sister or best friend. Then they will realise the truth. The sad truth is that most rapes are committed by people who know the victim, and that's what's most depressing. I also can't stand the ridiculous argument that men can't control themselves, that they are no better than animals. If that's true then they shouldn't be allowed to be in any position of responsibility. It also ignores the fact that rape is not about sex, it's about power.
    Since 1 in 3 women have been raped, it's likely there was a rape victim in that room. I dread to think how she felt hearing those disgusting opinions.

  2. Also, he didn't actually apologise. He apologised if people had misunderstood him. He didn't apologise for his disgusting and blatantly wrong views.

  3. Also, of course feminism makes sense and has impressive arguments. There are radical feminists as there are radicals in all schools of thought, but the core of feminism is simply a belief in equality. Anyone who mocks or argues against that really doesn't have a clue, or is threatened by the notion of women as equals.

  4. Hello Layla, thank you for posting on my blog.

    As I said in my article, I was truly amazed to see what people say about victims of rape. I do wonder whether the attitudes absorbed from the media are created consciously as a control mechanism to discourage certain behaviours amongst women, or whether they are simply a logical continuation from old-school conservative (note the small c) attitudes. Regardless, I believe a sea-change in the way rape is viewed will come in the near future. It's long overdue.

    Primarily, I feel women need impress upon men the part about rape being about power. The need to demonstrate such power comes from a deep-seated feeling of powerlessness in a man, often a reaction to perceived repeated rejection or humiliation. This is not an excuse in any way - I agree with you that the notion of men being unable to control themselves is both insulting and utterly preposterous. The only positive responses to those emotions I describe above are the ones I mention in the entry - emotional maturity and acceptance. No-one gets everything they want.

    Finally, I still think the core of men are ignorant and slightly fearful of feminism. Of course men are threatened by female equality - all of a sudden, we have to do more than ever to distinguish ourselves if we are to succeed in a world where there is twice as much competition. However, there are positive benefits of equality which men don't necessarily appreciate at this stage - intelligent and strong partners challenge us and make us better people, empowering us at the same time by absorbing some of those responsibilities which have been solely left to men for so long.

    Like I have said to you before, I regard myself as progressive and always willing to learn, but the things I have read in the last few weeks have given me entirely new perspectives I could never have appreciated before.

    It would be a positive step if post-modern feminism could separate itself from the Andrea Dworkin 'all sex is coercive and degrading' school of thought. The irony is that that interpretation of her work may well be a result of that which she opposed - but it remains unhelpful in association.

  5. The problem is that with feminism, like with all movements, there will always be an extremist core. But I'm sure most feminists don't take that view on sex. I also think that an important part of feminism is getting men involved, because without that, it becomes impossible to achieve equality. But like you said, sexism doesn't do men any favours either and the more of them that realise that, the better.