Laurie Penny on rape culture and apologists

We must fight the voice that says: stay home, keep your legs closed and your eyes lowered. In 2013, we face a choice.

‘‘It’s always sad to see young women become victims of sexual offences,” wrote Heather Keating, the head of Hastings Police, on her Twitter feed on the last day of 2012. “Don’t Drink too much on New Years Eve [sic] and regret your actions!” There’s a slim chance she could have been talking to men, telling them not to get drunk and assault someone, but that’s not a message that law enforcement has yet managed to promote successfully in the 21st century. Sadly, Keating’s meaning was as clear as it was predictable: women should take responsibility for “protecting” themselves from sexual assault because sexual assault is just a fact of life.

It was a good year for rape apologists in 2012. We had American politicians telling us that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape”, that “some girls rape easy”; we had a British politician telling us that date rape is simply “bad sexual etiquette”. But as Jessica Valenti wrote in The Purity Myth, “being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”

Keating’s words, by contrast, recall the depressing dogma of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who told a group of female students in Toronto in 2011 that they should avoid “dressing like sluts” if they didn’t want to be raped, kicking off the SlutWalk protests around the world.


Keating later qualified her tweet, insisting that “I am trying to protect victims of crime”. Undoubtedly she is. Structural sexism does not always come from a place of hate. When our great-grandparents’ generation urged their daughters to marry young or face social purgatory they thought they were doing so in their best interests. A hundred years later, when we tell our friends and children and younger sisters not to stay out late, not to walk in certain areas of the city after dark, and not to go out and get hammered in Hastings, we are thinking the same thing. We tell women and girls these things, not always because we secretly hate them, but because we care about them, we want to protect them, individually, from a world that we know isn’t as equal as we sometimes pretend.

This is what we are fighting when we fight rape culture – not just career misogynists spreading their bile over the airwaves like so much tacky mucus, but the quiet voice inside us that whispers, “Not so fast.” The voice that tells us that if only we stay home and keep our legs closed and our eyes lowered we’ll be safe.

Unfortunately, however, rape culture gets you coming and going. It is precisely about fear, about creating a culture where women are afraid to participate in public life as men do. A life lived in fear of sexual violence, a life where you cannot take the risks that men take without anticipating physical attack or, worse still, being attacked and then blamed for it, is not a life lived freely. It isn’t even going to protect you or those you love: in a recent study, more than half of all rape victims in the United States reported being raped by an intimate partner, a boyfriend, husband or lover. Most rapists are known to and trusted by the person they assault. Behaving “responsibly” is not, ultimately, any protection against sexual violence. 

Here’s what is understood when a senior police officer broadcasts a public message warning women not to do something they’ll “regret” on a night out: this is the way the world is. Rape and sexual assault are facts of life and, much as we may disapprove, much as we may want to see rapists brought to justice, there is nothing we can do to combat structural violence. That kind of rape myth is damaging enough when it comes from a friend or a parent. It’s far more harmful when it comes from law enforcement, or from an official government source.

A promise of justice

Sometimes change can happen all at once. We have seen that in the past fortnight, as the citizens of India rose up to demand a new settlement for women. The unnamed 23-year-old student who died after a gang rape on a bus that left her intestines pulverised had taken precautions. She was travelling with a male friend. That had long been seen as the only thing that could be done to avoid sexual assault, widely accepted as part of women’s lives in India.

Sometimes a tipping point is reached. This past week, the people of India held vigils to say: enough. Rape should never be something that women have to put up with. Not in India, not in Europe, not anywhere. Politicians have come forward to promise justice, after riots and demonstrations in every major city. Suddenly, across this country of 1.2 billion people, women and their allies are beginning to work, in the words of Alasdair Gray, as if they lived “in the early days of a better nation”.

Here’s what we must begin to say to today’s young women, all over the world. Rape does not have to be a fact of life. It is not your responsibility to be cautious, to restrict yourself, to be quieter and better-behaved so that men don’t rape you. If you choose to live your life in fear of male violence, nobody will think any less of you – the fear is pertinent and legitimate, and sometimes there are grave consequences for women who talk too loudly and flirt too much and take too many risks. Yet there are also consequences for those who don’t.

A life lived in fear, as the women of India and their allies taught us in the final days of 2012, is not a life lived freely. In 2013, we face a choice. Do we accept the current prevalence of sexual violence and teach our daughters always to be afraid of it – or do we work as if we lived in the early days of a better nation?

A woman holds a placard during a SlutWalk protest in Melbourne in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.