A woman holds a placard aloft during a Slutwalk march in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Getty
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We live in a culture riddled with rape-supportive beliefs about consent

The comments by the judge in the case of Adam Hulin, who was last week convicted on two counts of sexual assault, demonstrate that the judiciary still seems to have enormous problems wrapping its head around the personhood of women and girls.

Last week, a sentence was passed at Guildford Crown Court on a 19-year-old man named Adam Hulin. He had pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault – the oral rape of a child under 13 and assault by penetration of a child under 13. His penalty, judged to be “the appropriate disposal” by George Lawson-Rogers QC, was 100 hours of community service, six hours of counselling and a victim surcharge of £60.

In handing down the sentence, the judge stressed that he was unable to “dismiss the contention that what happened was not by mutual consent,” noting that although “[r]ape is a very serious offence” it “can cover a great number of different circumstances.” The defendant, he went on, was “19 and there is much to be said in his favour. . . I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything which would prejudice his future career.”

The judge had apparently concluded that Hulin’s guilt lay only in a pesky legal technicality. According to local reports, the defence recast Hulin’s “crime” as nothing more than “what most people would ordinarily define as regular sexual activity,” which unfortunately just happened to involve a child. Were the complainant not “a couple of months shy of her 13th birthday,” Hulin would never have found himself in the dock. “Once upon a time it wouldn’t have been rape at all,” the judge reportedly agreed.

Such nostalgia for a long-lost age when children could be molested with impunity deserves a special kind of scorn. It alone raises a huge red flag about the judgment. And this impression is only amplified by the judge’s all-too-familiar fears of ruining a good man’s glowing prospects, and the deafening absence of any care about the damage to the future of the girl.

We hear this all the time, the howls about the Yewtree witch-hunts, each a stinging reminder that, for many, the reputation of a single man is too high a price to pay for a possible world in which tens of thousands of women are not consigned each year to spend their futures struggling with despair.

The lives of women are just not worth that much: this is what we hear in Lawson-Rogers’ words. And we are somehow then expected to trust his judgment that Hulin has committed a crime in nothing but name – and as such is deserving of such unusual clemency.  Thankfully, following a number of requests, the Attorney General announced on Monday that he will review the case.

Nonetheless, the most disturbing thing about this sentence is that a man so seemingly inclined to privilege the needs of men arrived at his ”appropriate disposal” because he bought, in its entirety, the defence’s version of Adam Hulin’s actions. This argued that there had been no violation of consent; by trying his luck with this particular girl, Hulin was just engaging in sexual activity ordinarily defined. And this is a monumental problem – one we must shout about if we are to have any hope of more women seeing justice. We live in a culture riddled with rape-supportive beliefs about consent. What “most people” think about “regular sexual activity” is bullshit.

As feminists have noted for a good long time, we inherited our understanding of sexual violence from a tradition which conceived it as a property crime – originally against the “owner” of the woman. This might seem old hat, but cast your eyes below the line on any discussion of rape, and pay attention to the metaphors: flaunted jewellery jostling with wallets and laptops left inadvisably in unlocked cars.

Rape is conceived as an act of theft, or sometimes, and more notably, as an act of accidental trespass. Woman are unconquered – virgin even – territory. They are fertile land abandoned by an owner who forgot to place a stonking DO NOT ENTER sign just where a hapless journeyman would see it. Under such extenuating circumstances, how on earth could he have known that he had crossed a line?

Women are not wallets, or computers. They are not neglected land, or uncharted territory. Rape is not theft, or trespass. It is an attack on the very centre of someone’s personhood, an act of annihilation which leaves victims with the hollow sense of having somehow survived their own murders. It functions by violently converting a person into a thing, and in that – not incidentally – it shares something with the thought of rape that understands it as a property crime. 

The difference between property and persons is passivity. Despite changes in the law, our culture still places women in a default position of consent. When allied to the presumption of innocence, and an adversarial system that places the burden of proof squarely on the prosecution, this means that establishing that a crime has been committed falls invariably on the woman, and her ability to show that she withdrew her consent, and signaled so explicitly, ideally with some sort of convenient corroborating evidence.

But what would happen if the judiciary took seriously the suggestion that women are people, and that consent is not something that people withdraw, but extend? How would our sexual lives transform if men were raised to understand that explaining why they didn’t know what they were doing was inadequate, and they would be required to give a compelling account of why they were absolutely certain that they did? What if it wasn’t all about victims saying no, but about the grounds on which defendants heard a yes?

Creating a culture of active consent will take time, and no doubt there will be comments from (mostly) men who think it a conceit of those who wish to install a coterie of bureaucrats inside their bedrooms. But this is so much rape-supporting whataboutery. Many men – the overwhelming majority of them in fact – manage to negotiate their entire lives without accidentally raping someone. Working out if the person you want to have sex with actively wants to have sex with you is not like solving Fermat’s last theorem – it just involves understanding that that person is a person, and has their own wants, and bothering to care about what they are.

As the comments by Hulin’s judge suggest, the judiciary still seems to have enormous problems wrapping its head around the personhood of women and girls. Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, is presently considering a Victim’s Law to radically to revise a system which, he is well aware, is “hardly fit for purpose”.

Perhaps if the Victims’ Taskforce commits itself to transforming thoroughly how legal practitioners understand consent, we would start to see real change. And with it the slow depletion of some men’s confidence – and women’s well-founded fears – that inadvertent trespass will be met with nodding sympathy by those we entrust to execute the law.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.