Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.