Friday, 4 September 2009

"Rape Is Not The Worst Thing That Can Happen To A Woman."

Rape is one of the worst things that could happen to most people, male or female. If a group of people were asked their worst fear, the answers might run the gamut from bankruptcy to losing a loved one - but I’m willing to bet that rape would be up there with a violent attack or a painful death.

Author Ellie Levenson, in an interview with me for the Fabian website, said that while it is an abhorrent crime, there is a difference between stranger rape and date rape and there needs to be a wider discussion of that. In the podcast she argues that the rape debate needs to be reopened; that there is a clear difference between a date rape in which consent is unclear, and a violent attack by a stranger.

And in her new book on feminism she adds: "Rape is always wrong. ...I think we do women an injustice when we say rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is after all just a penis."

This view is unsettling, and dangerous in its complacency. Opening up the grey areas of the rape debate does not lead to clarification or better understanding of the offence. Current conviction rates are abysmally low; splitting hairs will scatter the few victims willing to come forward. Victims are often humiliated and afraid they won’t be believed. If they have ingested drink or drugs, they may think what happens to them doesn’t count. This shifts the blame from the attack slowly but surely from the perpetrator to the victim. From there it’s not such a leap to accusing someone of “asking for it.”

These perceived grey areas arise not only because of factors like alcohol and drugs that impair judgment, but also because most victims know their attacker. The stranger rape scenario is real, but not as common as one might think. 97 per cent of callers to rape crisis lines know their assailant, according to the Rape Crisis Federation of England and Wales. Just 6.5 per cent of rape cases end in conviction, compared to 25 per cent in France.

Research by the Fawcett Society found that women face a postcode lottery as the conviction rate across the UK varies widely. Whereas Cleveland has seen steady improvement in rape conviction rates since 2004 – from 7.75 per cent to 18.1 per cent in 2007, conviction rates have fallen for 16 out of 42 police areas. And these are just the figures for women. Figures for male rape are hard to come by, as the numbers of men willing to come forward is so low.

In the US, Cosmopolitan magazine published a controversial article about “grey rape” in 2007 in an attempt to explore the issue of “sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is even more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what.”

Lack of consent is what defines rape. And if it comes under the definition of rape, then it’s rape - there can be no grey areas. In that sense, the “grey rape” debate in the US is a paradox.

Section 74 of The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent as, “if he has the choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” If your ability to make an informed choice is hindered, by alcohol or the threat of force, then you cannot consent to what happens next. And it may well be the worst thing that could ever happen to you.


Paul said...



Date rape is not as bad as "stranger rape".

It's like a timewarp back to the 1960s.

Maybe Ellie Levenson should come and talk to me partner, who's a helpline volunteer for Refuge. She could tell Ellie all about the 21 year old girl who rang up yesterday after being raped by her boyfriend.

Actually, he rapes her daily. It's been going on for years now, but she was too afraid to leave because she thinks he'll kill her. Except now she's got a kid, and let's just say - because I don't want to talk about it - that the kid's not safe.

But hey, we need to "re-open the debate". Because obviously, being raped by somebody you know is not as bad as being raped by a stranger is it?

What a fucking idiot.

Katy Taylor said...

The whole arguement about something not being the worst thing that can happen to you seems thoroughly pointless. Are we really talking about grading crimes against the person in terms of whether it is 'the worst', perhaps the 'second worst', 'well, not as bad as that time when...'??? The suggestions of levels of 'badness', therefore levels of deserved help is a stupid distraction from the issues.

Noughtie said...

I think this takes my comments out of context somewhat. I went to great pains to stress that I do think rape is an awful thing to happen and that we need a sensible debate about rape and how awful it is without saying every type of rape is the same.


Ellie Levenson

Kiri Kankhwende said...

Apologies for any misunderstandings. I think the title and the post that follows are misleading. A conflagration of issues here, sorry Ellie. In my second paragraph I made it clear that Ellie does not think rape is not a terrible thing to happen - only that the debate about types of rape needs to be reopened. The examples I used are from the book itself and we do discuss this further in the podcast.

Whether rape is the worst thing that can happen is entirely subjective, and having that issue juxtaposed with the debate about different types of rape may have led some to believe that Ellie was trivialising the whole thing. She was not.

I do believe that intellectually, yes, there are different types of rape - because each scenario is different. But in reality I don't see the merits of opening the debate about them because you run the risk of further intimidating the victims, and may ending up regarding one type as more serious than another. This undermines the battle to combat the scepticism that still surrounds a great many rape cases. I also think rape is not as easily classified as, say, murder, where you have 1st and 2nd degree etc.

So, once it's rape, it's rape, in my opinion. The penalties must be clear and uneqivocal.

Dandelion said...

Saying that being burgled is not the worst thing that could happen to someone doesn't imply that burglary is not wholly unacceptable. Why does this logic not apply equally to rape?

Telling rape victims that it's the worst thing that could ever happen to them serves to compound the damage done. Telling women in general that being raped is the worst thing that could ever happen to them serves to perpetuate a climate of fear. I don't think any of that is a very nice thing to do, and therefore I applaud Ellie Levenson.

There are different kinds of rape. While stranger rape can be understood by the victim as a random, one-off event, the betrayal of trust in date rape can have a much more devastating effect on a person. In addition, the issue of consent in stranger rape is a lot less muddy than in date rape. What would happen, I wonder, if we accepted that stranger rape is terrible, but that date rape can be even worse for the victim?

I can't help thinking that rather than shutting down the debate, addressing it might be a little bit more constructive.