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.