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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.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.