Monday, May 23, 2011

Why don't they get it?

Rape has been very much in the headlines this week. From Ken Clarke's ill-judged remarks that some rapes were "more serious" than others, to the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund charged with raping a member of staff at the hotel he was staying in.

Not surprisingly, media attention has also spilled over from straight reports of the situations to comment and editorial pieces. What some of those pieces have shown is how ill-informed members of the supposed intelligentsia can be when it comes to rape. Which is a kind description. But I would rather think they were ill-informed than assume they were simply peddling tired old misogynistic explanations of rape with no attempt at sympathy or understanding for those who have experienced it.

Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail declares "some rapes are worse than others" and later in the same piece says:
It means a dispute about consent, often between people who are already in a sexual relationship.
It means one person’s word against another’s, in highly unequal circumstances, with the accuser granted anonymity and the accused under the glare of publicity.

Reducing the definition of rape to "a dispute about consent" fails to recognise the act of sexual violence for what it is. Rape is violence, using sex as a means of delivering it. Rape is never a situation where the poor old rapist got a bit confused and thought his victim wanted to have sex with him when in fact, she didn't. That definition does a disservice to the many decent men who are not rapists. Decent men know when a woman isn't keen on the idea of having sex with them and they don't force the issue. Because they are not rapists. A rapist doesn't care whether his victim is willing or not.

Writing in his personal blog, the Conservative MEP, Roger Helmer decides Ken Clarke was right in making a comparison of seriousness for rape. Helmer then uses murder scenarios to illustrate his point. A hostage killed by his kidnapper and a man killed by a jealous husband after being found in bed with his wife.
In the first case, the murder is calculated, premeditated, deliberate and undertaken for money. In the second case, none of these comments applies. And according to Helmer, a more lenient sentence would be given to the jealous husband.

He then compares this with the "classic" stranger rape (you guessed it, the dark alley rapist) and a supposed "date rape" where a woman changes her mind at the last minute, but the young man, in the heat of the moment, is unable to restrain himself and carries on.

Helmer then trots out a "classic" rape myth: the first case, the blame is squarely on the perpetrator and does not attach to the victim, in the second case the victim surely shares a part of the responsibility, if only for establishing reasonable expectations in her boyfriend’s mind.
Well, well, well - it's the victim's fault again. She led him on, the poor rapist simply couldn't help himself.

Utter, utter twaddle. And misogynistic twaddle at that. Not to mention being offensive to the many men who are not rapists and are perfectly able to restrain themselves, even when aflame with sexual desire.

Both Helmer and Hichens have also missed the point about the comparative "seriousness" of rapes.

ALL rapes are EQUALLY serious. But some rapes involve extra criminal activity beyond the basic violent act of coercion and enforced penetration, which characterises all rapes. AS WELL AS raping their victim, some rapists ALSO kidnap, imprison, torture or physically abuse the unfortunate recipient of their violence.

And by the way, those rapists may or may not have already met their victim. A "date rape" can involve as much extra violence as a "stranger rape". Conversely, a "stranger rape" may not involve extra violence beyond the rape act itself. What is serious in each case is how badly the victim will have been traumatised by what happened.

And even without any extra violence, is a "date rape" really less serious than a "stranger rape", Mr Helmer? As one of the commentators on his blog post put it: is this not like saying that a peadophile who abuses his own daughter is less culpable than one who abuses a stranger?

And with all this emphasis on the relative seriousness of different "types" of rape, one thing both pieces seriously lacked was any genuine compassion for the victims of these rapists. Most of whom get away with their crimes over and over again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Serious, proper rape"

It's time to start tearing your hair out when your own Justice Secretary - a former lawyer - reinforces the rape myths and dangerous stereotypes that contribute to the UK's woeful failures to convict rapists for their crimes.

The Conservative minister, Ken Clarke was outlining possible proposals to halve prison sentences for criminals who plead guilty early, including rapists. In an interview on BBC Five Live, it was put to him that many rapists would therefore be out of jail in 15 months as the average sentence in the UK for rape is five years.

Clarke insisted that figure "includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds... A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that."

That even the Justice Secretary believes "date rape" is somehow less serious than "stranger rape" depressingly underlines just how ingrained misconceived attitudes towards rape are.

And incidentally, the sentencing average does not include teenagers involved in underage sexual activity. That is not regarded as rape by UK law.

So once again the image of the knife-wielding stranger brutally dragging a passing woman into a dark alley to violate her is held up as being the "classic" rape. When in fact, it is the rarest type of rape.

Is it also fair to say stranger rape is more horrifying than that carried out on a woman by someone she has already met? No. All rape is horrifying and has an appalling effect on the victim, however it was carried out and by whom.

So, should a rapist's sentence be halved if he is "considerate" enough to confess so his victim doesn't need to participate in his trial? No. Since when did an admission of guilt make the crime less serious for the victim? Instead, how about sentences being doubled for rapists who insist on pleading not guilty and are then convicted? That would be far more fair.

As for the issue of violence - some rapes being seen as less "serious" because the victim wasn't left with visible cuts and bruises - then the Justice Secretary and anyone else involved in the legal system should consider this:

1. The very act of penetrating an unwilling victim is an act of violence.

2. If violence in addition to penetration is carried out against the victim, it would make more sense to add Actual Bodily Harm or Grievous Bodily Harm to the charge sheet, rather than consider a rape perpetrated without extra violence as being somehow less "serious".

After a media outcry, Clarke later claimed he had been misinterpreted, saying "all rape is a serious crime".

But before that, in an interview on Sky News, Clarke complained: "Rape has been singled out as an example [of the proposals under discussion] mainly to add a bit of sexual excitement to the headlines."

That the Justice Secretary equates rape with sexual excitement is breathtakingly crass. His remark that talk of rape was being used as a means to spice up a news story is beneath contempt. And underlines once more his ignorant assumptions about the reality of rape.

I only pray any proposal to allow rapists to have discounted sentences in return for an early guilty plea will be well and truly scotched. I leave the last words on that subject to a rape victim herself:

I will still have to live with the fact my rapist is laughing at me, live with the memories etc. It is in effect a long sentence followed by life on parole. I am the victim not the culprit, I would have to be the culprit to have rights. That is the society we live in, that is what our legal system gives us.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Institutionalised rapists

I'm not talking about the kind of rapists - all too few - who are put in jail for their crimes. I'm talking about the rapists who are protected by institutions at the expense of their victims.

Most people with a sense of fair play might imagine that an institution with a duty of care would try to make sure no one is harmed while inside its walls. And if someone was harmed by another person, surely the institution would do everything possible to help the victim and punish the perpetrator?

In the case of rape, that approach is far from a given.

Take the case of Liz Seccuro, who was raped while at a fraternity party held at a US university in the 1980s. She was left horribly injured after the attack and had to be treated in hospital.

When Liz reported what had happened to the dean of the institution his first response was to ask: "Are you sure you didn't have sex with this man and you don't want to admit that you aren't a 'good girl'?"
He then claimed the university didn't fall under police jurisdiction (a lie) and that the university authorities would investigate.

The "investigation" involved asking the rapist, William Beebe, for his side of the story and accepting his claim that sex was "consensual". No action was taken. It was only many years later, after the rapist contacted her, that Liz was finally able to pursue some sort of justice. Although the sentence Beebe was given was laughably short.

Have things improved since the 1980s? It would seem not, as the recent case of a Texas cheerleader who was punished for refusing to cheer her 'rapist' demonstrates. I've placed inverted commas around the word rapist as a nod towards the law, because Rakheem Bolton was actually convicted of sexually assaulting the sixteen year-old under a plea bargain whereby the rape charge was dropped. Make of that what you will, I know what I think about it.

The cheerleader's protest against her attacker was greeted with expulsion from the cheer leading squad. Her parents, already irate about the way their daughter had been treated, both by Bolton and his friends and many others in the local community, decided to pursue a court action fighting for the teenager's right to free expression.

They lost. Two separate courts ruled against her, deciding that a cheerleader freely agrees to act as a "mouthpiece" for a institution and therefore surrenders her constitutional right to free speech. The teenager's football star assailant, meanwhile, continued to enjoy his heroic status on the school team.

To pour salt into the wound, the teenager's family was then told to pay the school's legal costs - an amount which the school would likely have made from ticket sales to a single one of its home football games, according to one commentator.

When it comes to rapist v. rape victim, it seems the rapist is offered a chance to either escape justice or be dealt with leniently at every step of the process. From the tittle-tattle of those close by, through to the "caring" institutions they belong to and right up to the criminal courts.

In both the cases mentioned above I applaud the victims who ultimately refused to just sit back and accept defeat. They fought. They may not have received the justice they deserved, but at least they tried. Perhaps the next victim who tries will be more successful.

For those victims who don't try - I don't blame you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Victims' Voices

The voices of rape victims are silenced. Mostly by the social stigma of "shame" - which comes from society's prevailing attitude of blaming the victims for their own attacks. So women who have been raped may tell one or two close friends, perhaps a member of their family, or a trusted partner. They may tell the police. Or they may tell no one at all.

Because rape is so often regarded as a "dirty" secret and kept behind this convenient veil of shame, it is all too easy for people who have never been raped or sexually assaulted to assume it is not a widespread problem. And many of the many, many women who have been the victims of sexual violence think they are one of the very few. They are not. The recently published Stern Review (which can be found on the UK Government's Equalities website) is testament to that.

Now a new blog exists where people can anonymously post the stories of their rapes and experiences of sexual violence and coercion.

The accounts are heartbreaking because so many of them are so very ordinary. A party. A night out with a friend. A boyfriend. The simple, social things that so many women enjoy every day.

Another feature the accounts have in common is the effect of these assaults on the women who describe them. Life shattering.

Here are a few short extracts:

"None of my family have any idea of any of it and that’s the way I want it to stay. I’m telling my story here because I want people to read the story and know that rape victims never ask for it or deserve it. I didn’t ask for him to spike my drink. I didn’t ask him to violate me in my sleep. I didn’t ask to become pregnant only to lose the baby later. No one ever does."

"I couldn’t understand why (the police) didn’t believe me, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t help me, I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me go home. I was still drunk and I could feel the throbbing pain from the choking and the rape.
I couldn’t go home. I spent the next 4 days in jail, waiting to see a judge about bail. I had to have a public defender because what they’d charged me with meant prison time - and it took time to find an attorney who would represent me.
The day I was released, I attempted to commit suicide."

"I’d been successful, and happy, and remarkable. Now I had nothing. I hated him but I blamed myself. I thought I’d “asked” for it, I thought I’d not made it clear - I let him link my arm, I let him get into my flat, I could have fought harder, I could have said something, I could have called him and told him he was a rapist scumbag, I could have gone to the Police. Everything I did was wrong. I blamed myself for everything."

"We had been together for about two months. We were in bed kissing, and he decided to have sex with me. He was on top of me, and I kept telling him to stop. He didn’t. He forced himself into me, and I felt myself starting to bleed. I pushed him off of me and ran out of the room, crying. I cleaned up in the bathroom, then went outside to have a cigarette. He followed me. Still crying, I said to him, “Are you happy now, you fucking asshole?” He looked at me tenderly, enveloped me in a hug, and said, “I love you, baby.”"

"I remember lying there with his hands all over me. He kept touching me, he wouldn’t stop touching me. I just closed my eyes shut and tried to fade out. I can’t be here right now. He kept apologizing. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He had to have known what he was doing to me. He had to have known that he was ruining me. With each touch he was breaking me apart. Each breath on me tore apart my old identity."

More common features of the accounts quoted above: in each case the victim knew her assailant. And none of the perpetrators was brought to justice for his crime.

The entirely understandable reluctance of rape victims to tell people about their ordeal means it is chillingly easy for our society to sweep the extent of the abuse under the cultural carpet.

In fact, despite the authorities publicly urging rape victims to seek justice, the social pressure not to be branded as a woman who was - that vile phrase - "asking for it" is often far stronger. Society plays straight into the rapists' hands, so much so, that society could be said to be conniving with the rapists, allowing them to continue raping with impunity.

Because time and time again, that is what is happening. And time and time again, the victims' voices are unheard or ignored or disbelieved.

Society is made up of people. It is you and me. Every time we pass casual judgement on a victim of rape ("What did she expect, dressed like that?"; "She threw herself at him because he was famous"; "She shouldn't have got so drunk"; "She led him on" ) we become an accessory to rape.