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18 May 2011

Laurie Penny: Ken Clarke was asking for it

Ken Clarke's comments are part of a culture that still misunderstands consent and wilfully ignores the scale and prevalence of rape.

By Laurie Penny

Following the Justice Minister Ken Clarke’s statement to the effect that some rapes are less “serious” than others, a chorus of MPs and outraged citizens is calling for his resignation. These comments were part of a debate on whether or not criminals who enter early guilty pleas should get reduced sentences, and Clarke has stated that “people are slightly spinning, loading what I said in order to get what I regard as false indignation”. On the contrary: the attack on Clarke’s comments is not a serious attack. He put his obnoxious prejudices out there on show, after all, for everyone to see. He might as well have been asking for it.

When challenged by the Radio 5 presenter Victoria Derbyshire that “rape is rape,” Clarke immediately insisted: “No, it’s not”. He spoke of “classic rape, where someone jumps out from behind a bush” and mentioned higher tariffs for “serious rape where there’s violence and an unwilling woman”. It is concerning that Clarke, who was a lawyer for many years before he became Justice Minister, does not recognise that all rape, including “date rape” and “casual” rape, by definition involves an unwilling victim (who may be a man). It is concerning, too, that he fails to understand that non-consensual, forced sex is itself a form of violence.

Clarke’s comments play into the weary stereotype that rape is not rape if the victim knew the rapist, or if the victim had a drink, or if the victim has consented to sex on a previous occasion, or if he or she was wearing a short skirt — that rape is only really rape when a moustache-twirling, knife-wielding ruffian assaults an unsuspecting virgin in a burqa in a backstreet.

In the real world, however, rape is not a rare and ersatz pantomime of good and evil, maiden and villain. The terrible truth is that rape is a part of everyday life; it happens on a daily basis to thousands of people, most of whom are known to their rapist, who may be a partner, family member or close friend. The culture of rape is so ingrained, and successful punishment of rapists so infrequent (conviction rates remain stubbornly low at 6 per cent) that many throwbacks will drum up any sexist stereotype to avoid facing the truth. Date rape isn’t serious, they say. Women are asking for it. Women lie. They especially lie about rape. All those tens of thousands of rape survivors who have been denied justice are obviously making the whole thing up — after all, if it were true, something more would be done, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?

Like hell it would. The world is full of rape, and this week, the headlines are full of rape. As the head of the IMF languishes in a New York prison on a charge of sexually assaulting a maid in his Manhattan hotel, the cover of Sky Sports magazine advertises a lavish interview with boxer and rapist Mike Tyson. “I’m extreme in everything I do,” Tyson boasts, before going on to apologise for cheating on his wife. “If I were in a relationship with Tyson I wouldn’t worry so much about infidelity, I’d worry about being beaten up and raped,” comments the feminist writer Bidisha in a savage critique of the interview. Quite.

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The conflation of sexual indiscretion with sexual assault has been a mistake made by many journalists in their coverage of the Strauss-Kahn case, drawing lazy distinctions between powerful men who are unfaithful, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and powerful men who are rapists. Just like the separation of date rape from “serious” rape, this formula is a poisonous misunderstanding of the nature and importance of consent.

Ken Clarke’s repulsive, reactionary comments are part of a culture that still misunderstands consent, punishes female sexual agency, and wilfully ignores the scale and prevalence of rape. His views are hardly unusual, and they are grounded on a better understanding of the criminal justice system than many ordinary sexists. Unfortunately, Clarke is no ordinary sexist. He is the Minister for Justice, and as such, should be held to a standard which absolutely precludes the utterance or intimation of such prejudices in public. Clarke made a serious mistake, and he deserves to be seriously sacked — but it will take more than a handful of resignations and high-profile prosecutions to bring an end to a culture of complacency where rape is everyday violence.

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