Ken Clarke is wrong on rape – but many seem to agree with him

The Justice Secretary’s latest comments on rape reveal a depressingly common prejudice.

Kenneth Clarke has become the latest public figure to make some rather odious remarks about rape. During an interview on Radio 5 Live, discussing the coalition's plans to reduce sentences for those who plead guilty to rape, the Justice Secretary said:

Serious rape, I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape – frankly, the tariff is longer for that – and a serious rape where there's violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff's much longer than that. [Emphasis added]

When the show's presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, challenged Clarke, saying that "rape is rape", he responded: "No, it's not."

Clarke compounded his error a few minutes later when he appeared on Sky and talked about "classic rape, where someone jumps out from behind a bush". Before, finally, mentioning the phrase "serious, proper rape".

Following these comments, Ed Miliband called during Prime Minister's Questions for the Justice Secretary to resign. Clarke is certainly guilty of using extremely sloppy language in discussing a very sensitive issue. He is also guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding many of the problems that surround attitudes to rape in the UK.

Many people think that there is, as he seems to contend, a scale of rape – with random attacks in parks at the top and date rape at the bottom. A significant proportion of the population agrees with him. In one study, 30 per cent of those surveyed said that a woman was partly or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

This attitude is completely wrong – and when it comes from the mouth of the Justice Secretary it is unhelpful, to say the least. The fact is that most rapes are not what Clarke calls "classic rapes". More than half of all rapes are committed by people known to the victim, according to the Fawcett Society.

As Justice Secretary, he should know this. A rape is a rape is a rape. Whether the attacker is known to the victim and where it takes place are both irrelevent. At the very least, Clarke should apologise for his offensive, stupid remarks.

UPDATE: Listen to the full interview below.

UPDATE #2: Ken Clarke has attempted to clarify his comments below:

He said: "What is happening is what always happens in politics, I'm not surprised by this, people are slightly spinning, loading what I said in order to get what I regard as false indignation.

"I think rape is a serious crime. Always gets a long sentence. It should do. I'm not proposing to reduce the penalty for rape in any way. The proposal I'm making, a discount for an early plea, applies to every criminal offence in the book. It has good reason for it."

Update #3: My colleague David Allen Green has blogged on the legal issues of Clarke's comments.

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"There's nowhere to turn": What it's like to be gay and homeless

Many LGBTQ homeless people cannot ask their families for help. 

Ascania is a 41 mother with a 24 year-old son, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002. “I was raped at gunpoint in the area I lived in Jamaica," she says. "They’d found out in the community that I’m a lesbian. They hit the back of my head with a gun- sometimes it is still painful. I had to move from that area, then I went to another part of the island. I lived there for 18 months. People in these communities start to watch you – to see if there are men coming to see you. They begin to be suspicious. Luckily I had a chance to come to the UK before something else happened."

A friend, who was also gay, paid for a ticket for her to reach the UK. She started a relationship, and moved in with her girlfriend, but the girlfriend turned abusive. "It was a nightmare," she remembers. "It ended then I started to sofa surf. Sometimes I would go into pubs meet different girls, go back with them, and sleep over just so I had somewhere to spend the night."

Eventually, Ascania received help from St Mungo's, a homelessness charity, after the LGBT charity Stonewall put her in touch. The charity helped her get food from a food bank, and find somewhere to stay. 

While all homeless people can struggle with physical and mental challenges, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face extra stigma, discrimination, and rejection by their families.

“That’s why I think LGBTQ projects are important," says Ascania. "From being on the gay scene, I meet all these people and they don’t know about the support available. They’re out there having a really rough time. They don’t know where to turn."

She feels that in shared accommodation, people like herself can be judged for their friends. 

Homeless charities point out that transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are sometimes turned away from shelters.

Melissa is a trans women in her early 40s. She is now living in transgender accommodation in London provided by the charity St Mungo’s and says she is successfully engaged with drug and alcohol services and rebuilding relationships with her family.

Before beginning her transition she was married with two teenage children and had been in trouble with the police. 

She says the stress of denying her true self led to self-destructive behaviour.

She said: “I was sleeping rough, in graveyards and stairwells. In 2012 I went to prison for nine months. My probation officer put me in touch with St Mungo’s and now I have a really nice place and I hope to become a project worker with the charity. I can see a path forward.”

According to Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working with people who become homeless in England, the causes of homelessness include poor and unsuitable housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, transitioning/leaving accommodation or institutions such as prison, and loss of employment. These circumstances are often coupled with mental health issues, experience of trauma, relationship breakdown, and fleeing domestic violence or abuse.

Awareness of the specific needs of LGBT homeless people is starting to enter mainstream politics. Last month, LGBT Labour passed a motion at its AGM to affiliate to the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness (LCEH). The two organisations will hold a joint event at Labour's annual conference in the autumn.

Sam Stopp, a Labour councillor in Wembley, is chair of LCEH. He said party activists launched the campaign two years ago, because they wanted to do more than talk about the problem. He said: “LGBT homelessness has some specific aspects. If your parents do not support you and you are thrown out of your home that may require a different approach to help people rebuild their lives. There’s not just an economic reason but your sexuality has closed them off.”

Stopp hopes that by aligning Labour activists with homelessness charities, his organisation will be able to provide practical support to people who need it. 

Chris Wills from LGBT Labour’s National Committee, and chair of LGBT Labour North West, said: “The homelessness crisis is worsening. I live in Manchester, where every day I see more and more people sleeping rough – and that’s just the ones we know about, let alone the “hidden homeless”, who are reliant on hostels or going from one friend’s couch to another’s floor night after night.

“This year marks fifty years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and huge advances were made for LGBT equality under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Society as a whole has become more tolerant. Yet even now, coming out as LGBT to your family can still often result in you being kicked out onto the streets, or forced to flee the family home due to verbal and physical abuse.”