Ken Clarke and rape sentencing

May 18, 2011

Ken Clarke, the UK Justice Minister, has given several interviews today, in the first of which he appeared to downplay the seriousness of rape. Here’s a full transcript.

Recently I’ve been lamenting not writing enough on feminist issues (there are only so many times you can say “yeah, the patriarchy’s shit”), and this is quite a good opportunity. Unfortunately I find myself, to a small extent, having to defend Ken Clarke. A lot of the coverage and criticism so far has concentrated on the fact that he said date rape wasn’t as serious as ‘proper rape’ or ‘classic rape’ as he apparently later went on to describe it on Sky News. But actually, I don’t think he said that at all, and there’s certainly a compelling case that some of his more vocal critics are fully aware of that fact. I would argue that his comments are bad enough in the first place that there’s no need to overplay it.

So for example, I’ve just watched BBC News at 10, and they played this part of the interview:

Derbyshire: So is date rape not as serious?

Clarke: Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes. But date rapes, as you are quite right to say very old experience, of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

which gives the impression that he’s saying date rape isn’t serious. That would be an absolutely shocking thing to say, not least because I’m pretty sure that’s the most common form of rape. But actually this earlier part of the interview is very important:

Derbyshire: Under your plans that woman could find… that woman could find the rapist back on her street in a year and a bit. It’s an insult to her isn’t it?

Clarke: The rapist is going to be….very light sentence for a…a year and a bit?

Derbyshire: Yes. A rapist gets five years.

Clarke: Rapists don’t get… rapists get more than that.

Derbyshire: Hang on a minute. Five years on average, yes they do Mr Clarke, yes they do.

Clarke: That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

which makes clear that when he’s talking about ‘date rape’, he actually means statutory rape. Now I don’t think it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that when an under-16 has willing sex, that’s not as serious as what most people would colloquially refer to as rape, but that’s the comment that was twisted and used against him. That’s a bit unfair.

But he’s not getting off this altogether. There are lots of other things wrong with what he said, and I’m not particularly familiar with the way statutory rape is classified so I’m sure there are other things wrong with it that I won’t have picked up on. But there are lots of people, and I’m ashamed to say it’s mostly men, and amongst my friends it’s the usual suspects, who seem to think that all he’s said is that there’s a difference between a young couple having sex when one of them’s underage, and a rapist hiding behind a bush, and that therefore his comments were fine. That’s not true.

Fairly superficially, it is eye-opening, to say the least, to discover that our Justice Secretary apparently isn’t familiar with the difference between date rape and statutory rape, to the extent that he doesn’t correct himself despite using the term ‘date rape’ several times. As I say, when he’d had that mistake pointed out to him later in the day, he went on Sky News and talked about ‘proper rape’ and ‘classic rape’. That is mindnumbingly stupid, it’s like he’s begging for the media to rip into him.

He also fumbled considerably when he was confronted with the sentencing guidelines for rape which say the minimum sentence is 5 years (page 25), and the sentencing range is 4-8 years. He then repeated again what he had said earlier about ’18 year old boyfriends’ which isn’t at all what the interviewer was talking about. That indicates to me that our Justice Secretary also isn’t familiar with the sentencing for rape.

And that’s not to mention that, when confronted with the short sentences actually given for rape – the figure of the 5 year average sentence which Victoria Derbyshire says comes from the Council of Circuit Judges – I couldn’t tell you if it’s accurate, but when confronted with that figure, Clarke’s first instinct is to downplay the seriousness of the offence that it refers to by saying that it also includes the 18 year old boyfriends that he keeps going on about. That is indefensible, for several reasons. It’s not even true for a start, because it’s unusual for a case like that to result in a prosecution, so it doesn’t have a significant skewing effect on the figures. Additionally those cases of statutory rape which do get to court quite often involve other factors like coercion and peer pressure, for example, so they’re still serious crimes. Just because it’s statutory rape doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

In all this criticism of his comments, there has been one part that’s been largely skipped over. In his comments on Sky, he said:

“Newspapers are using rape to add some sexual excitement”.

Are you fucking kidding me?! Again even on a superficial level, what kind of a moron uses the phrase ‘sexual excitement’ and ‘rape’ in the same sentence? That is so insensitive! He could have said so many other things, he could have said that the newspapers were using rape to make the story more emotive, or to distract from the fact that this sentence reduction plan affects all crimes, or countless other things that would have been less offensive that what he said.

In addition to that, he completely misses the point of the criticism that’s been made, and this criticism actually deals with the policy itself rather than just his comments. The people focussing on rape aren’t doing so as a way to get press headlines. The objection is that in his plan to halve sentences for a guilty plea, an exception should be made for rape because the sentence for rape is already so pitifully low.

Now I actually hope that Ken Clarke isn’t fired, because if he were then I’m afraid we’d get someone worse. Clarke doesn’t believe in just banging people up, he takes an approach to law and order that’s refreshing to see from the Tories, he’s very vocally opposed to the war in Iraq, and of course he’s pro-Europe, which means he’s a counterforce to the xenophobes in the government. Ultimately, however, a justice minister should know that when you’re in an interview and the subject of rape comes up, your first concern should be encouraging victims to come forward and getting the conviction rate up. Today’s comments will only do the opposite.

I may have to cut myself off from the outside world

January 15, 2010

because almost everything I catch wind of makes me pretty fucking angry.

Here‘s the latest perpetrator. A court has cleared a group of men of rape, after it was revealed that the victim… well, I suppose I’m not allowed to call her a victim now… complainant then, had mentioned a fantasy about having group sex over an internet conversation.

So, here’s how this goes as far as I can tell from the BBC article (which has the most information out of the coverage I’ve seen, all the others just seem to be rewrites of this). Woman in Liverpool and man in Bolton meet over the internet. She talks about a fantasy of hers about having group sex. They agree to meet up, and she later admits that she was willing to have sex with him at the time. When they met up, he has his mates around and they all have sex. She alleges that it’s gangrape but I suppose we can’t know for sure.

Now, there are a couple of ways you can read this, I suppose. It could be that in the conversation, she consented to having the group sex with this guy and his friends on this day that they were meeting up, but you’d think that whichever reporter was at the trial wouldn’t deem it newsworthy in that case, the story becomes “rape alleged, turns out it wasn’t rape”. And if somehow they did consider that newsworthy, you’d think they’d mention that she gave consent, rather than all this business about fantasies. That reading doesn’t really make sense to me.

The other way, and the way that seems more plausible to me from the reading of the article, is that she had mentioned that she liked the idea of having group sex, and the prosecution has used that fantasy to assassinate her character. This seems to be backed up by the statements. The prosecutor said:

It is right to say that there is material in the chatlogs from the complainant, who is prepared to entertain ideas of group sex with strangers, where to use her words ‘her morals go out of the window’.

This material does paint a wholly different light as far as this case is concerned.

If I’m right about that, then I’m disgusted. They may as well be saying “she’s basically admitted she’s a bit of a slut, so she probably enjoyed it, the dirty bitch.” And I also have other problems with this story, why the hell did the BBC think it appropriate to refer to this woman as “rape woman”? Even the Telegraph had a less offensive headline on this story than the BBC, instead deciding to call the story “Men cleared of rape after online chat on group sex revealed”.

Just to be clear in case someone doesn’t get it, mentioning a fantasy about having group sex is not the same thing as consenting to it. Plenty of people like to have normal one-on-one sex. That does not mean that if someone comes over and shags them, it’s not rape.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that the case would probably have got down to their word against hers, and that the vast majority of rape charges do not bring a guilty verdict. I have no idea how to fix that situation, and I’m not saying that if the case went on they would have reached a guilty verdict. But throwing the case out on the basis of a fantasy that she mentioned, before any evidence has been heard, is surely unacceptable.

There’s nothing positive about positive discrimination

September 19, 2009

This is the latest column in Humanitie. This time, Tim at the Friendly Humanist and I tackle positive discrimination and come to fairly different conclusions. Be sure to read this side by side with Tim’s column.

When I was at school, one of the things we did in Spanish class was to take a newspaper article on a subject, split the class and debate over its content. One day, the article was on Zapatero appointing equal numbers of men and women to his Cabinet, and I was supposed to argue against it. “Bloody brilliant,” I remember thinking, “how the hell am I supposed to argue against equal representation for women in government? That’s like arguing in favour of apartheid!”

I was about to bite the bullet and falsely take the machista line, all too familiar in an all-boys Catholic school, when I looked at the accompanying photograph and suddenly it hit me. (An idea, not the photograph.) Why are they making such a big deal out of this? Why does it matter how many women are on the Cabinet? If we’re going to insist that the government represents the demographic from which it gains its legitimacy, then are we also going to select people based on religious belief? Race? Disability? Age?  Class? Left-handedness? I understand 1 in 18 people have a third nipple… The whole point of the equality movement is that race, sex, disability and all that shouldn’t matter, and yet this positive discrimination malarkey is shining a huge light on each feature and saying “Look! Women in government! Big deal! Big deal!”

Whatever happened to just hiring someone because they’re most suited to the job? Wouldn’t women (or any other disadvantaged person for that matter) rather get a job because they’re the best person for it, rather than because they fulfil a quota? I’d rather have a black, 50 year old blind woman who’s good at her job represent me in government than someone who shares some of my attributes but wouldn’t know a good law if it bit him on the arse. Now some affirmative action advocates are going to stop me here and explain that it’s not about passing over someone who is more suited, it’s only about discriminating when two candidates are equally suited. Equally suited? There’s no such thing! When you look at everything, attendance rates, references, qualifications, interview performance, experience, one candidate will always have the edge, and that’s who should get the job.

But the main reason I despise positive discrimination is that it’s the easy way out. Without it, we’d have a lot of work to do improving access to education, facilitating social mobility and changing hearts and minds so that earlier down the line negative discrimination won’t have had an effect, and there won’t be any need for positive discrimination to make things right at the end stage. As it is, positive discrimination just puts a blanket over all the background work that needs to be done, tweaking the numbers at the end to make it look like everything’s ok, because the alternative would take a lot of time and a bit of effort. I want equal opportunities, not just equal numbers.

Feminist frustration

January 17, 2008

There’s an article in this week’s Student, Edinburgh Uni’s weekly newspaper, entitled “Musings of a Closet Feminist”, by Claire Stancliffe. It’ll probably be on their website in a couple of days, but at time of going to web, it’s not yet.

I’ve got to say I agree with her on the vast majority of what she says. As a former A Level English Language student, I’m all too aware that feminist issues DO still exist, contrary to popular belief, not least in language (although it’s certainly not the most important manifestation of sexism). I’m always confused when I hear words like ‘actress’, ‘waitress’, ‘manageress’ etc. Why do we need a female alternative to the word ‘actor’ (ie. someone who acts), ‘waiter’ (someone who waits on people) or ‘manager’ (someone who manages things). And there’s still the issue arising of how we should avoid the ‘generic he’ in situations like “a police officer should not wear his uniform while off duty”. The majority of readers would not realise that the police officer in this sentence is not necessarily male, because in the English language, when the sex of the subject is not specified, the generic ‘he’ can be used to refer to either a male or a female, since we have no neuter pronoun to refer to people. In any case such a usage of the word contributes to what is commonly known as the ‘invisible female’. What people prefer instead is to use what is being called ‘the singular they’, ie. “a police officer should not wear their uniform while off duty”, which avoids the awkward “his/her”. But it’s grammatically incorrect to refer to a singular subject with a plural noun. Recently I’ve noticed that a small number of my lecturers are using a ‘generic she’, which could be an alternative, just use both terms equally. Just one of the many boring controversies in contemporary English Language studies.

In any case there were a couple of parts that I had very minor objections to. Firstly she appears to imply that men encourage women to objectify themselves as proof that they’re sexually liberated, when in my experience that’s not exactly true. Frequently when women are going out they themselves choose to wear an inch of makeup and less than an inch of clothing, as well as a pair of heels that would cripple even the most balanced of mountain goats. When you ask them why wear such impractical and over-revealing clothing, the usual response is that ‘they have to’. I’m not telling them to, and I’d prefer if they didn’t, so where’s this pressure coming from? I suspect it’s from other women, that if you’re not showing off loads of skin then you’re not dressed up enough.

Secondly, when she describes her discussion with her friends about her musings, she says “unsurprisingly the boys responded with the usual witticisms involving bra-burning lesbians”. I wonder whether this conversation actually took place, because I can’t think of many men who would actually do this. Maybe Claire should get some better friends. I know that if one of my female friends came to me and wanted to talk about a feminist issue, I’d be 100% behind her, particularly if she felt I’d done something to offend her.

But going along with all this is the misconception that feminism is all about women. It affects men almost as much. Sexual prejudice and discrimination tells me that I should be being macho all the time, wearing blue instead of pink, and changing car tyres in my spare time, just as much as it tells women to stay at home and do the housework. Maybe it’s not such a big deal for men as for women, but feminism isn’t just the fight for women’s liberation, it is a more general fight against sexual discrimination and prejudice, which affects men too. I feel this fact has been neglected in writers of feminist literature.