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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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt