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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times