I’ve just been reading the transcript of Kenneth Clarke’s recent interview on rape sentencing in the UK, which has left me feeling angry and flabbergasted. For a while now, I’ve had problems with the idea of statutory rape: not only does it result in some teenagers being branded as sex offenders for sleeping consensually with their slightly younger partners, but by virtue of lumping such consensual (yet illegal) acts together under a non-consensual heading, the terminology has opened the door for what seems to be a sliding scale interpretation of forced rape. Nowhere has this latter problem been made more apparent to me than in Kenneth Clarke’s stumble-tongued assertions: reading through his statements, it is painfully obvious that he views some kinds of rape as being worse than others – and more, that different ‘kinds’ of rape should merit lighter sentencing. When told, for instance, that the average sentence for rape is five years, he defended the statistic by saying:
“That includes date rape [and] 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”.
I’m sorry, but in what possible way is date rape comparable to consensual sex between teenagers? One is unequivocally rape; the other is not. And yet, despite the fact that the majority of rapists are known to their victims – a statistic that the phrase ‘date rape’ was originally intended to publicize – it has somehow become twisted in our cultural vocabulary as a means of distinguishing rape that is somehow less “distressed”. According to whom? From calling one kind rape distressed and another not, it’s a very short step indeed to assuming – as Mr Clarke evidently has – that a smaller amount of physical distress during the rape itself (because, you know, the woman is drugged or drunk or otherwise unable to say no, and therefore less likely to incur the same injuries she would by fighting back) must logically equate to the victim feeling less emotionally distressed afterwards.
This is what I mean by a sliding scale: the idea that the circumstances under which a rape takes place must always be a mitigating factor in how horrific that rape is considered to be. From his comments, Mr Clarke seems to hold that the most terrible form of rape is universally one in which the perpetrator is violent and unknown, and where the woman fights back to no avail, despite the fact that – crucially – she has done nothing at all to provoke a sexual response in her attacker. (Take careful note of that word, provoke: we’ll return to it shortly.) For people who hold to the sliding scale, either consciously or unconsciously, this is what makes date rape different from forcible rape: that the women in question had willingly entered a sexual arena as (however tenuously, however potentially) willing sexual partners; that they dressed a certain way, or dared to become intoxicated, or both, or neither; perhaps even that they consented to kiss, touch or otherwise romantically interact with a man they didn’t want to sleep with, or who they subsequently changed their minds about.
It is not different. A rapist who assaults his victim without attacking her beforehand should no more win points for his ‘considerate’ methods than the law should consider a victim who wasn’t beaten or tied up to have been somehow less raped than a victim who was. Rape is rape, Mr Clarke. Funnily enough, it’s why we call it that.
And then we come to the age-old and sadly non-antiquated question of provocation. Was she asking for it? Did she dress like a slut? Let me give you a hint as about answering these questions: a woman wearing a FUCK ME shirt doesn’t want to be raped any more than a man in a SHOOT ME shirt wants to be shot. However distasteful or improbable you might find these hypothetical shirts to be, the point is that clothes are many things, but an open invitation to assault is not among them – and if that’s still true in an instance when FUCK ME is actually written on someone’s outfit, then you can pretty much assume that the logic holds universally. No, I don’t care how much skin a woman is showing, what fabric her clothes are made of, what she wears on her legs and feet, what her profession is, what time it was, where she was or with whom, or whether she thought to change into a skirt. Anyone still confused by the issue should read Ben Pobjie’s excellent piece, How Not To Rape People: A Handy Guide For Modern Men And Footballers. It’s actually very simple!
For the life of me, I don’t understand why women’s clothing is considered relevant to rape cases. Where does it end? Women who wear bikinis rather than one piece swimsuits are asking for it! Topless sunbathing should be legally reclassified as an unequivocal sex invite! Schoolgirls, nuns and nurses who walk through red light districts deserve to be mistaken for sex workers! Women who dress up for a night on the town in accordance with their own individual tastes all want to have sex with strangers! Oh, wait…
To carry the argument further, trying to assert that women who join nudist colonies do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped, or for any other reason other than that they like being naked, would be ludicrous. And yet part of our culture persists in asserting that women who dress a certain way must only do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped. Take note of that phrase, a certain way: how bloody subjective can you get? As judged by whom? (One only hopes it isn’t Kenneth Clarke.)
The recent wave of SlutWalks began when a male police officer in Toronto suggested that women should avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ if they didn’t want to be raped. Our culture should be beyond this sort of idiocy – the fact that we aren’t saddens and sickens me. Rape does not work to a sliding scale. Women do not ask for it by dressing a certain way. Rape is rape.
It really is that simple.