Monday, 23 May 2011

When 'No' means 'Yes'


Here's a comment from beneath this Guardian article, one of a feast of internet arenas where the proposal that 'rape is rape' is currently being aggressively debated, following controversial comments from MP Ken Clarke and MEP Roger Helmer, who have both suggested that there are gradations of seriousness in rape cases:

"Men get it fine. They just don't switch their brains off when they hear the word 'rape'. How come majority opinion on CIF can be quite detached when discussing murder, or burglary regarding it as a complex issue and even asserting that the perpetrator may be a victim of society, that the vengeful statements of victims is misplaced, that the indignation of public opinion is merely the frothing of ignorance fanned by the malice of the right wing press.
"But when it comes to discussing rape ..."

This point is made again and again, with varying degrees of rage and dismay, and is often linked to the much-put-about stereotype of feminists as shrill man-haters. In some ways, I'm not unsympathetic. It doesn't matter how much you talk down the prospect of being falsely accused of rape - the very idea is terrifying, and men are bound to attach some importance to it. Articles like this one, posted by an anonymous police blogger (now taken down - but the comments remain), seem to support the contention that the majority of rape allegations that don't make it to court turn out to be false. Why, then, it is asked, do rape campaigners persist in quoting the low conviction statistic without taking this into account?

To be fair, these are points that deserves an answer. So here is the answer.

First of all, the simple reason why it's instilled in multiple generations of feminists to make their points loudly, repeatedly and without much subtlety is because it makes the rest of us pay attention. They learn very quickly, one can intuit, that arguments made quietly, with built-in wiggle room, lead to them being at best ignored and at worst shouted down. Unfortunately, the tendency of those who consider themselves embattled with feminists is not to seek out and talk to those who are making their points quietly, intelligently and after lengthy consideration, but to react solely (and with predictable indignance) to those that reel off slogans and statistics. These feminists are often acting as digital demonstrators - criticising them for not behaving as if it's a panel show debate is like asking protestors to paint more caveats on their placards.

Secondly, any comparison to a violent crime or theft is somewhat misplaced because both can be, in certain situations, acts of self-defence or social justice. Robin Hood and Indiana Jones are heroic figures who rob and kill respectively. There is no equivalent in rape. A rape can never be anything other than an act of aggressive domination. The rapist may be a pitiable figure, set against the rest of society, but there is no sense in which we can say that society has raped them in the way we might say that society, through its harsh inequality, visits violence and theft upon those who are destitute. It is never an answer in kind.

What's more, when we discuss murder and theft in our more 'detached' way, we focus in on the criminal figure and their circumstances. The victim, more often than not, is just the victim. Only when debating rape does there seem to be an almost prurient interest in what the victim was doing at the time and how much 'responsibility' should be attributed to her.

Thirdly, and most important, when does 'No' mean 'Yes'? When men say it. As a nation, we seem to be quite happy to take part in Sun polls where more than 90% of us think rapists should be jailed for life, or hanged, and we're happy to hang around on messageboards declaring that we can't even understand the mindset of a rapist, and: "Of course rape is wrong! Of course it's terrible!" That shit is easy.

But we don't seem to really mean it. Otherwise, how on earth does a politician go into an interview without first sorting out in his head whether he means 'date rape' or 'statutory rape', or without noticing that an 18 year old having sex with a 15 year old isn't actually classified as rape at all? One can only imagine it didn't strike him as something he needed to be particularly precise about. How can another politician (a far more odious one, I might add) think it proper to come up with this sort of ludicrous example of a less 'serious' rape:

"Imagine that a woman voluntarily goes to her boyfriend’s apartment, voluntarily goes into the bedroom, voluntarily undresses and gets into bed, perhaps anticipating sex, or na├»vely expecting merely a cuddle.  But at the last minute she gets cold feet and says “Stop!”.  The young man, in the heat of the moment, is unable to restrain himself and carries on."

There's no room for equivocacy on this: if you believe there is really such a thing as a young man 'unable to restrain himself' in such a situation, you don't take rape seriously. Yet this myth of the red-blooded male who has no control over his body seems to be widely accepted - and tacitly encouraged - by mainstream culture. Its very existence is an encouragement to rapists, who think they have an excuse that at least 50% of the population can somewhat get behind. And even if they knew full well they could stop, who could prove it?

The level of delusion here beggars belief. Is a man's sex drive so overpowering that they wouldn't stop if a fire broke out? Or if their parents walked into the room? Hardly. Which suggests that for some people - including, apparently, tory politicians - women's objections rate slightly lower than personal embarrassment in the scale of things to act on.

The idea that, in any other serious situation, a person's action or lack of action can be partially excused by their horniness is one that normally wouldn't even be raised (our child starved to death because we never came out of the bedroom? Ambulance late because on-call driver was engaged in foreplay?) The concept simply has no place in a morally intelligent society.

At the same time, we have this deep-seated hypocrisy regarding clothing and casual sex. When I searched Twitter for 'slutwalk' recently, the first tweet that came up was some wag suggesting that there was a contradiction in women not wanting to be objectified, whilst at the same time 'dressing like an object'. What 'object' is she dressing like exactly? Here we have the whole unpleasant mentality laid bare: the woman's body is the object. If she doesn't disguise her body adequately, she is flaunting it. The concept that a woman might want to dress in a particular way for her own personal satisfaction in her appearance, and not for the purposes of harvesting stares, genuinely seems to baffle some men - the same who seem to most easily believe that a man's reaction to a state of partial nudity is one he can't be expected to control (presumably, the effort it takes him not to crack one off there and then, in public, is stupendous).

When this sorry attitude is mixed in with the inexplicable tendency to want to implicate the victim in their own rape, we get ridiculous comparisons along the lines of: it's like leaving your keys in the ignition. Not only is the woman's body treated as a posession in this comparison, but her degree of nudity is a kind of moronic carelessness, because rapists are more likely to target them! This, despite the fact that the circumstances of most rapes (look up any account) don't appear to include the rapist making choices based on degrees of nudity. Moreover, if we must make the car key comparison, since most rapes are carried out by people the victim knows, it's more like taking your keys with you to a friend's party and leaving them in your jacket pocket, hanging up by the door. Then your friend's friends find them and steal your car. Oh well - you should have known better! And you do realise that they won't be punished because you can't 'prove' that you didn't leave the keys there with the express intention that they should help themselves?

So can you blame a woman for not trusting men when, collectively, we seem to be looking her in the eye and saying, "Rape is abhorrent", while making a secret signal over her shoulder to the rapist: "Don't worry - just make sure it isn't 'proper' rape. Just make sure you can pin some of the blame on her, and we'll all get ourselves in a lather worrying about how complex the issue is"?

Or, even better, when we seem to be saying: "Mate, just don't get caught." Objecting to the spinning of the rape statistics is missing the point. Rapists get away with it. Not in the same way murderers or thieves get away with it (because no one knows whodunnit) but because somehow, with all our great minds and modern gadgetry, we can't puzzle out a way to make conviction of the real perpetrators more certain. The worrying statistic isn't necessarily the allegations that are dropped; it's the number of rapes that aren't even reported. And we don't even know what that number is.

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