Rape myths past and present

Popular prejudices estimate about half rape victims are lying, but research shows just 3% of rape al

Harriet Stump was a 14-year-old domestic servant, working in Islington in 1880. A couple of weeks before Christmas, her employer burst into the room she was cleaning and, without a word, raped her. As Stump later testified in court, “he came and pushed me down on the sofa and pulled up my clothes, and put a cushion over my face, so that I could not holloo. He then put his thing in me, he hurt me”.

Despite all the evidence, including testimony from Stump’s mother that he had offered money if they dropped the accusation, the case was dismissed. Unfortunately for Stump, a number of so-called “rape myths” could be applied to her.

The term “rape myths” is a shorthand way of talking about a number of seemingly commonsensical truths (often expressed as sound-bites) which, once examined closely, turn out to have no validity. The most common ones are “it is impossible to rape a resisting woman”, “men risk being falsely accused of rape”, and “no means yes” because women “really want ‘it’.”

Surprisingly, these rape myths are as strong today as they were in Stump’s time. Many doctors and lawyers in the nineteenth century didn’t think it was even possible to rape a resisting woman. In a phrase that appears time and again, it is “impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard”. Metaphorically, the penis was coded as a weapon; the vagina, its passive receptacle. Merely by “vibrating”, this receptacle could ward off attack.

This wasn’t a mere fancy of the nineteenth century. Even in the late twentieth century, it was often argued that, unless the attacker possessed a weapon, the “average woman” would be able to fight him off. Raping a girl or women accustomed to manual labour (like Harriet Stump) was regarded as even more unlikely. By definition, all penetration by a sole and weaponless man was consensual.

Some women have even found the myth that no woman who “truly” resisted could be raped strangely appealing, since it held out the possibility of preventing victimisation (while unjustly stigmatising those women who somehow “failed”). As one rape law reformer sighed in the 1970s, “I wish I had a get-out-of-jail-free card for every time I have been told that ‘women with skirt up run faster than man with trousers down’.”

An even stronger myth is the notion that women frequently lie about rape. When Stump’s attacker was confronted, he claimed that he was “only having a game the same as I would with my own [adolescent daughters]". The fear that women lie about being rape can be found throughout history. In the seventeenth century, Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale was responsible for introducing the “cautionary instruction” into common law. This entailed the judge informing the jury that rape was a charge that was easily made by the victim and yet difficult for the defendant to disprove. Until the 1980s, judges commonly uttered these words to jurors, despite the fact that the legal system within which Hale worked was fundamentally different from the one facing defendants from the nineteenth century onwards. In Hale’s time, criminals were not presumed innocent, proof beyond reasonable doubt was not required, and notions of due process were shaky. The accused did not have the right to counsel or the right to testify under oath; he could not subpoena witnesses.

It is still important to ask: what is the risk of an accused man being falsely accused of rape? Popular prejudices estimate that around half of rape victims are lying, but a major Home Office research project in 2000-2003 concluded that only three per cent of rape allegations were false. Indeed, contrary to the notion that men are at risk of being falsely accused, it is much more common for actual rapists to get away with their actions. Around four-fifths of rapes are never reported to the police. And only five per cent of rapes reported to the police ever end in a conviction. This is the lowest attrition rate of any country in Europe, except for Ireland.

But the most important rape myths that ensnared Stump were the belief that “No means yes” because women “really want ‘it’.” Any evidence that a woman was “promiscuous” was routinely used to argue that she was incapable of meaning “no”. Indeed, what eventually destroyed Stump’s testimony was evidence that she had dressed up in some old flour sacks and, with a doll she had made out of rags, sung a risqué song at a party. The song went:

My father is a sinker and a sinker was he
He sinkered my mother before he had me.

A “sinker” was a miner who opened new shafts. With this song and dance, Harriet Stump destroyed her 14-year-old reputation.

Even today, the claim that many rape victims had “asked for it” or “really wanted it” is frequently heard. As late as October 2005, an ICM poll found that one in every three women believed that women who acted flirtatiously were partially or totally responsible if they ended up being raped and one in four women believed that women who wore sexy clothes were also partially or totally responsible if they were raped.

Rape myths are alive and well in contemporary Britain. Today, as in the past, no injured party is more distrusted than the rape victim. In the late nineteenth century, Harriet Stump was caught within a sexual script biased towards perpetrators of sexual violence. Today, in the early twenty-first century, the same rape myths still circulate. These flaccid catchphrases seem clear and self-evident, yet are profoundly damaging for people who suffer sexual abuse. Exposing the underlying falsehood behind rape myths is an important step towards stopping sexual violence.

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck and author of Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present (Virago, 2007)

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.