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Laurie Penny: Ken Clarke was asking for it

Ken Clarke's comments are part of a culture that still misunderstands consent and wilfully ignores the scale and prevalence of rape.

Following the Justice Minister Ken Clarke's statement to the effect that some rapes are less "serious" than others, a chorus of MPs and outraged citizens is calling for his resignation. These comments were part of a debate on whether or not criminals who enter early guilty pleas should get reduced sentences, and Clarke has stated that "people are slightly spinning, loading what I said in order to get what I regard as false indignation". On the contrary: the attack on Clarke's comments is not a serious attack. He put his obnoxious prejudices out there on show, after all, for everyone to see. He might as well have been asking for it.

When challenged by the Radio 5 presenter Victoria Derbyshire that "rape is rape," Clarke immediately insisted: "No, it's not". He spoke of "classic rape, where someone jumps out from behind a bush" and mentioned higher tariffs for "serious rape where there's violence and an unwilling woman". It is concerning that Clarke, who was a lawyer for many years before he became Justice Minister, does not recognise that all rape, including "date rape" and "casual" rape, by definition involves an unwilling victim (who may be a man). It is concerning, too, that he fails to understand that non-consensual, forced sex is itself a form of violence.

Clarke's comments play into the weary stereotype that rape is not rape if the victim knew the rapist, or if the victim had a drink, or if the victim has consented to sex on a previous occasion, or if he or she was wearing a short skirt -- that rape is only really rape when a moustache-twirling, knife-wielding ruffian assaults an unsuspecting virgin in a burqa in a backstreet.

In the real world, however, rape is not a rare and ersatz pantomime of good and evil, maiden and villain. The terrible truth is that rape is a part of everyday life; it happens on a daily basis to thousands of people, most of whom are known to their rapist, who may be a partner, family member or close friend. The culture of rape is so ingrained, and successful punishment of rapists so infrequent (conviction rates remain stubbornly low at 6 per cent) that many throwbacks will drum up any sexist stereotype to avoid facing the truth. Date rape isn't serious, they say. Women are asking for it. Women lie. They especially lie about rape. All those tens of thousands of rape survivors who have been denied justice are obviously making the whole thing up -- after all, if it were true, something more would be done, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it?

Like hell it would. The world is full of rape, and this week, the headlines are full of rape. As the head of the IMF languishes in a New York prison on a charge of sexually assaulting a maid in his Manhattan hotel, the cover of Sky Sports magazine advertises a lavish interview with boxer and rapist Mike Tyson. "I'm extreme in everything I do," Tyson boasts, before going on to apologise for cheating on his wife. "If I were in a relationship with Tyson I wouldn't worry so much about infidelity, I'd worry about being beaten up and raped," comments the feminist writer Bidisha in a savage critique of the interview. Quite.

The conflation of sexual indiscretion with sexual assault has been a mistake made by many journalists in their coverage of the Strauss-Kahn case, drawing lazy distinctions between powerful men who are unfaithful, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and powerful men who are rapists. Just like the separation of date rape from "serious" rape, this formula is a poisonous misunderstanding of the nature and importance of consent.

Ken Clarke's repulsive, reactionary comments are part of a culture that still misunderstands consent, punishes female sexual agency, and wilfully ignores the scale and prevalence of rape. His views are hardly unusual, and they are grounded on a better understanding of the criminal justice system than many ordinary sexists. Unfortunately, Clarke is no ordinary sexist. He is the Minister for Justice, and as such, should be held to a standard which absolutely precludes the utterance or intimation of such prejudices in public. Clarke made a serious mistake, and he deserves to be seriously sacked -- but it will take more than a handful of resignations and high-profile prosecutions to bring an end to a culture of complacency where rape is everyday violence.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left