Victims are not to blame
We have been offered a glimpse of the chauvinist and sexist prejudices that are rife in society, argues Eddie Ford
Recent headlines have raised the issue of rape and, in turn, the more general question of women’s oppression.
There was a furore last week over the comments made during a BBC interview by Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, in which he rejected the idea that “rape is rape” when it comes to the criminal justice system. Rather, he maintained, there are different and varying degrees of rape, going on to give the example of an 18-year-old man having sex with a “perfectly willing” 15-year-old girl - which, according to Clarke, is classified as rape, as she is under the legal age of consent and therefore “she can’t consent”. True, in the United States this is called ‘statutory rape’. But what most people (“you and I”) normally mean by rape, he ventured, is the scenario in which a man is “forcibly” having sex with a woman against her will - a “serious crime”. Clarke next mentioned “date rapes”, stating that they “can be as serious as the worst rapes”, but in his experience as a practising lawyer “they do vary extraordinarily one from another” - meaning that, ultimately, it is up to the judge to “decide on the circumstances” and then sentence accordingly.
Clarke’s remarks about serious and not so serious rape arose as part of a wider discussion concerning his proposals to increase the maximum discounted tariff for rape, alongside other crimes like robbery and burglary, from a third to 50% for those who make early guilty pleas. This scheme, as things stand now, looks likely to be included in the government’s green paper, Breaking the cycle, now going through its final, protracted stages in the House of Commons. The backdrop is Clarke’s scathing attack last year on the “failed” penal system and his call for a “rehabilitation revolution” - sentiments that communists fully endorse, it goes without saying. Prison does not work.
Of course, his plan is motivated more by financial imperatives than by humanitarian or progressive impulses - after all, he is a Tory who rose through the ranks during the Thatcher years. Bluntly, Clarke wants to cut costs. Early guilty pleas free up valuable court time (more than 10,000 cases a year end in a guilty plea at the door of the court) and the early release of prisoners, it is hoped, will help ease some of the financial pressures on the current penal system. The UK’s prison population now stands at a monstrous 84,928, with a “usable operational capacity” of 87,787; each new prison place costs £170,000 to build and maintain, while the annual cost for every prisoner is £41,000 (or £77,000 in Northern Ireland due to the “complexities of prisoners’ needs”). Overall, the government spends £2.2 billion a year, and rising, on the prison system. No wonder that the green paper is keen to “stabilise” the prison population and halt the “sentence inflation” that has raged unchecked since the early 1990s - amounting to an obscene and inhuman waste of human and financial resources. As is only to be expected though, sections of the judiciary and the police - and, of course, the rightwing press - are hopping mad at what they see as an attempt by home office liberals to ‘pamper’ criminals and ‘ignore’ victims.
Clarke’s commentary on the UK’s rape laws met a furious response - and for good reason. Clarke exuded a distinctly condescending and boorish attitude during the entire BBC Five Live show - so much so that at one point presenter Victoria Derbyshire felt compelled to interject: “Don’t patronise the listeners.”
He also got his facts plain wrong with his hypothetical case of an 18-year-old having consenting sex with a 15-year-old girl. In the UK, unlike the United States, that would not be treated as rape (‘statutory’ or otherwise) but rather as “unlawful sexual intercourse”. Instead, what we often call ‘statutory rape’ - though that phrase is not used in the law itself - is having sex with a girl under 13 and there is no defence to this charge, even if a boy says the girl was willing or that he thought she was older than she was (carrying a maximum life sentence, though the average sentence is between five and seven years).
When interviewed later that day on Sky News, Clarke accused his critics of trying to “add a bit of sexual excitement to the headlines” - only further adding to the suspicion that the justice secretary was at the very least guilty of gross insensitivity on the subject. Ed Miliband urged David Cameron to sack him - possibly in a show of sincerity, as opposed to naked political opportunism. Inevitably, Clarke was forced to eat humble pie in the end and apologise, declaiming that “all rape is extremely serious” and how sorry he was if his comments gave “any other impression”. There is also the possibility that there could be political fall-out from the affair in terms of legislation - thus the green paper, when eventually finalised, might omit altogether the 50% tariff proposal.
But despite Clarke’s seeming flippancy on the matter, the ugly reality is that sexual violence and intimidation against women - including rape - is rife in UK society, just as it is across the globe. For all the alarmist talk about false rape accusations, these are in fact very rare - but when they do occur, horribly, the disproportionate amount of headline coverage they generate can only give the impression that they are relatively common. God forbid that the law-abiding and eminently respectable tabloid press would do such a thing in order to spread misogynist prejudice and hence boost sales.
In reality, it is common for rapists to get away with their actions. Between half and four-fifths of sexual assaults are never reported to the authorities in the first place - maybe even as many as 95%, as suggested by various department of health reports. If so, a truly appalling statistic. And of those tiny minority of accusations that do come to light, only 6% result in a conviction on the full charge of rape. Conviction rates once formal charges are brought are, of course, higher, 59% in 2009, but most of these come from guilty pleas - meaning that far fewer are found guilty by a jury, underlining the extremely difficult problems posed by ‘her word against his’ trials.
Yet, for all that, the most ignorant and abominably backward attitudes remain stubbornly in place. So in France the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was frequently referred as a “ladies’ man” or the “great seducer” - which now seem to be euphemisms for sexual predator, if not a violently inclined rapist. We now have allegations that nine years ago Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted a French journalist, Tristane Banon, like a “rutting chimpanzee”. Indeed, numerous stories are circulating that ‘alpha males’ prowl the IMF buildings for sex like something out of the “pirates of the Caribbean” - the women employees, from top to bottom, having to be constantly “on their guard” from sexual harassment and intimidation. Institutionalised sexism, IMF-style.
Then in the UK please step forward Tory MEP Roger Helmer, for an especially odious illustration of the ubiquity of sexist culture. He felt duty-bound to weigh in behind the justice secretary, though doubtlessly Kenneth Clarke will be wishing he had not done so. Writing on his blog, Helmer outlined what he imagined (or so he pretended) to be a “classic stranger rape” scenario, whereby a “masked individual emerges from the bushes, hits his victim over the head with a blunt instrument, drags her into the undergrowth, rapes her and then leaves her unconscious, careless whether she lives or dies”. On the other hand, he contends, there is “date rape” - which is when a woman “voluntarily goes to her boyfriend’s apartment, voluntarily goes into the bedroom, voluntarily undresses and gets into bed, perhaps anticipating sex, or naively expecting merely a cuddle”. But at the “last minute”, Helmer posits, the woman “gets cold feet and says: ‘Stop!’” But this “young man”, he continues, is hopelessly caught in the “heat of the moment” and is therefore “unable to restrain himself and carries on”. Yes, Helmer concludes, in both cases an offence has been committed, deserving of punishment. However, he adds, there is a clear difference between the two cases - it being that in the first example the blame is “squarely on the perpetrator and does not attach to the victim”, but in the second case the victim “surely shares a part of the responsibility”; if only because she has created “reasonable expectations in her boyfriend’s mind” as to her sexual wants and intentions.
In other words, she was ‘asking for it’ - a bit. Enough, anyway, to partially exonerate the rapist. Or maybe, to put it another way, as implied by Kenneth Clarke, there is “serious” rape and ‘non-serious’ rape. Deserving rape victims and less deserving rape victims. Women, somehow, by their own behaviour and actions are inviting sexual assault or rape. A viewpoint reflected in the now famous, or infamous, words of the Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti, who told York University students at a “personal security class” three months ago that they should “stay safe” in the following way - “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” Insult was added to injury for Canadian women a few weeks later when justice Robert Dewar, whilst presiding over a rape case, remarked that on the evening of the rape “sex was in the air” and the victim’s “behaviour and attire” (she was wearing a tube top and heels) may have given the attacker the “wrong impression” - describing him as a “clumsy Don Juan”. Justice Dewar also mentioned that the victim was wearing make-up and had been drinking. Obviously, she was ‘asking for it’ too. In the words of the rape victim, a 26-year-old single mother, the judge’s decision was “beyond sexist”.
Naturally, the “slut” comments made by the Toronto cop were posted online and on April 3 over 3,000 attended a ‘Slutwalk’ in Toronto - protesting against those trying to blame the victims of sex crimes. This demonstration, which combined elements of carnival and street theatre, aimed to appropriate the word ‘slut’ - in the same manner that homosexuals appropriated the word ‘gay’ in order to show their defiance of homophobia. Historically, the word ‘slut’ has overwhelmingly negative connotations - as the “intent behind the word is always to wound”, to quote the words of those who organised the demonstration. The organisers also write that women are “tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming” and of being “judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result”. Instead, they reason, “being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work”.
On the April 3 demonstration, slogans included: “Sluts have dreams too”, “Not asking for it”, “Police look like sluts to uniform fetishists”, and so on. The men who participated in the demonstration, itself obviously an excellent development, held placards saying things like “Real men take no for an answer”, “Sluts are not as disgusting as Toronto police services”, etc. Following Toronto’s example, other Slutwalks were held in Canada and are being planned across the US and UK - including Glasgow on June 4 and London on June 11.
What has been particularly interesting has been the reaction of the Socialist Workers Party to the Slutwalk ‘phenomenon’. Yes, obviously, the SWP comrades applaud the fact that women are fighting back - they “refuse to take the blame for rape” and assert that “many people are rightly angry” at the “pornification” of society - where “sex has become a commercial product to be bought and sold” rather than a “relationship between human beings”, castigating what the SWP thinks is the “pressure on young girls to look like Barbie dolls”.
Having said that though, Socialist Worker - or the author of the article, Sally Campbell - then rather primly registers her disapproval of Slutwalk’s campaign to appropriate and redeploy the word ‘slut’, arguing that as a term it is “completely and inextricably bound up with women’s oppression”. For comrade Campbell, this can only mean that Slutwalk “seems to accept that binary opposition of the ‘pure’ woman and the ‘slut’ - but it simply reverses the polarity”. This leads the comrade to the conclusion that Slutwalk’s essential project “cannot get us very far in challenging oppression”, though she notes that it “would be a shame if those feminists who balk at the name of this march cut themselves off from the many young women who will be taking part” - at times like this “you just have to link arms and argue”.
The reference to “those feminists” is significant, as comrade Campbell’s presumption appears to be that if Slutwalk was more feminist then somehow it would be more progressive. This is a totally mistaken position, though one that is indicative of the SWP’s moralistic and non-Marxist streak when it comes to women’s sexuality - especially younger women and girls. This was revealed when it came to the whole debate around so-called ‘raunch culture’, sparked off in 2005 by the publication of Ariel Levy’s Female chauvinist pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture and the subsequent interview with her conducted by Judith Orr in the pages of Socialist Review. So we found that the SWP does not approve of activities like pole-dancing, etc - which, it seems, is an ‘incorrect’ activity for women to engage in - and think that young girls should not pierce their belly buttons, among many other things. Very schoolmarmish. In that sense, the SWP has been part of the feminist - and generally authoritarian - backlash against women’s sexuality, rather than the opposition to it.
True, they make the point about commercialisation, but what under capitalism is not commercialised - including sex? The fact that the SWP comrades are now expressing deep unease about the Slutwalk demonstrations is just another manifestation of their moral conservatism, an unfortunately all too common trait on the British left, which has a history of economistic priggishness - and philistinism - when it comes to sexual matters (artistic ones as well). But for communists the Slutwalk marches are precisely about promoting and defending women’s rights to wear whatever they want and for the victim not to be blamed in cases of sexual attack. In this context, the term ‘slut’ in being used by the Slutwalk organisers in a creative and joyous sense - as an affirmation of the freedom to be openly sexual. No shame in sex.
- New York Times May 19.