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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.