Rapes might not all be the same, but they are all rapes
In these unsettling last few days, a question that one would have hoped had been laid to rest – specifically, whether sexual intercourse without consent necessarily constitutes rape – has reared up once again, and not only in strict relation to Julian Assange’s future. The suggestion has come from the likes of George Galloway and Todd Akin that some kinds of sexual intercourse without consent might not really count as, to use Akin’s phrase, ‘legitimate rape’, presumably therefore being ‘illegitimate rapes’ – rapes that don’t deserve as much sympathy because, for example, the woman involved had recently had willing intercourse with her attacker, or because the rape didn’t also involve a broader kind of physical violence.
I was on the Sky News newspaper review last night and a point arose in the discussion that I don’t think I’ve seen clarified properly during this whole depressing circus. It’s to do with that now deadly phrase, ‘rape is rape’, a term that even passed the lips of Barack Obama when he reacted to Mr Akin’s remarks. Even to someone like me – who firmly believes that, yes, rape is rape is rape is rape is rape – it has started to be purged of meaning; it sounds like a liberal shibboleth, one of those expressions that everyone uses to indicate that they’re on the right side of the argument without really knowing what they mean. So it’s worth trying to breathe life back into it by addressing what it’s actually saying.
It’s natural enough that people who find this kind of language inherently suspicious – who roll their eyes when someone starts talking about, I don’t know, inclusive communities, or whatever – should assume that the phrase disguises a piece of intellectual weakness. They think that the use of such a bald term demonstrates that you are prone to accept whatever precepts lie behind it without thinking them through; because the assertion they face – that disagreement represents a kind of misogyny – is so insulting, and because they don’t feel like misogynists, they conclude that the starting point is a moronic simplification of the varieties of human experience. They think it’s dogma.
They’re wrong. The phrase ‘rape is rape’ and the sentiment behind it are simple, but they aren’t simplistic, and to dwell so insistently on this one topic and never argue, for example, that ‘all murders aren’t the same’ or ‘all parking tickets aren’t the same’ seems really peculiar. Everyone knows that all rapes aren’t the same; the point is, they are all rapes. The law is quite capable of a straightforward definition of rape that still allows for discretion by a court as to exactly how to treat a particular case, and that discretion does not carry any suggestion that the basic offence is ever anything but serious. (This was the error Ken Clarke made last year, with his distinction between ‘a serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman’ and another, implied category of lesser offences). Just as with a murder, or with any other crime, sentencing after a guilty verdict doesn’t just rely on the specific offence committed; a judge will also consider aggravating and mitigating factors, and these can play a significant role. (Look at this CPS document if you want to see chapter and verse.)
So, I would never argue, and I don’t suppose many people would, that a man who raped a woman shortly after consensual intercourse while she slept, who swiftly pleaded guilty and had no prior form, should receive exactly the same sentence as a man who beat his victim senseless at the same time, who had a long list of convictions for sexual assault, who drugged his victim, or who abducted her. Of course these are not identical sets of circumstances. But the betrayal of trust – perhaps repeated, and secret, and forever inescapable – can be as traumatic as extreme violence. What does not change is this: rape is rape, and the first hypothetical man is as guilty of it as the second, however tight the hug was that he gave his victim afterwards. To argue to the contrary is basically to give permission to any man in an intimate relationship with a woman, or any man who can suggest that at some recent point a woman had been interested in him, to do exactly as he pleases, without fear of the consequences.
I guess that the self-righteous Galloway feels that by referring to how things change when you are in ‘the sex game’ he is striking a blow for complexity, subtlety, and honesty about the reality of intimate relations. In fact, he and the apologists for his denialism are doing no such thing. To really see the absurdity of their argument, try to imagine how it would sound if anyone were to take the same approach to, for example, robbery. Sure, it wasn’t great, but the victim wasn’t beaten senseless, and he had given the thief some money a bit earlier. That’s not robbery. That’s just part of the financial-exchange game. Doesn’t really work, does it?
The real consequence of ridiculing the simplicity of the insistence that ‘rape is rape’ is to set it apart from our understanding of almost any other crime, to insist that it only really counts when the effects are visible to the (presumably male) observer after the fact – and this without getting into the question of whether, when conviction rates are so heinously low, this is even the right or most productive conversation to be having in the first place. I’m not saying the phrase is a piece of poetry. I’m not saying it offers any profound insight into the nature of sex. I’m just saying: rape is rape. If it has been committed, there is no external circumstance that can extenuate it. And that’s it.Tagged in: George Galloway, Julian Assange, legitimate rape, rape, Todd Akin
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