Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A Serious Misunderstanding of Rape

My earlier post “What Feminism means to me” has been very popular (if the number of people going to that page is an indicator) so it turns out that I’m going to do occasional political posts on topics of the moment. I’ll try to share my perspective on things but I apologise now if I come across as preachy at times – it’s hard to keep things level headed with certain topics like the one I’m taking on in this post; rape. Not a topic I like thinking about, let alone writing about, but recently I’ve been reminded yet again how skewed the general portrayal and understanding of rape is. Specifically the still prevalent victim blaming that goes on, and the idea that some men accused of rape may have had sex with the woman but not thought for a moment it was rape. That latter point, I’m ashamed to say, was one I used to think was a likely explanation for some “he said, she said” cases but I’ve since seen some studies that have made me think again. And that are very relevant to the Strauss-Khan situation.

Ken Clarke made a bit of a boob of himself a couple of weeks ago with some badly worded comments on BBC Radio 5, where he was discussing a proposed change to sentencing that would see jail time halved if the accused confessed and plead guilty. When it was put to him that the average sentence for rape is five years he dismissed this and said “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds... A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that." The “serious” bit got him in trouble, though I personally find it equally concerning that the Justice Secretary doesn’t know that a 17-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old isn’t classed as rape legally, so wouldn’t be part of the figures. Saying that, I don’t think he meant what a lot of people claimed he meant, and I genuinely believe he takes all rape seriously. But he expressed a prevalent attitude about rape, particularly about date rape and that it isn’t as bad as rape by a stranger. An attitude that I think needs to change if we ever want to decrease the amount of women and men being raped, as well as to ensure that those that are raped feel they will be believed if they come forward. 

Ken Clarke supports justice for rape - but only as far he understands the crime
For the purposes of this piece I’m going to mainly talk about male to female rape, but I think a lot of the suggestions and evidence is applicable to all rape. Most are committed by someone the victim knows and overt violence is not usually used. Where does this leave all the awareness campaigns aimed at women with such helpful advice as; don’t walk down dark alleys, don’t get in an un-booked minicab, don’t accept a drink you haven’t seen poured etc. Personally I think all of this is relevant advice for everyone in any situation, not just women. But it isn’t much help if the biggest risk of rape comes from those you know. It also puts into question this notion that a woman can do something to prevent being raped. I personally see nothing wrong with the suggestion, per se, that wearing provocative clothing is going to attract provocative responses. But I do have an issue with saying it significantly increases your chances of being raped. Women are raped wearing burkas, wearing trousers, wearing jumpers – I don’t doubt that for a predator, who fits the “stranger” rape model, that what you wear plays a part. But I imagine it will be more along the lines of how easy is it to get it off, rather than how arousing it is (which admittedly may be the same thing). The important point here is though that by stating that women have some control over whether they are raped or not we are inferring that if you are raped it is partially your fault, and this is my biggest problem with awareness campaigns aimed at women. It’s gone on for so long now that it’s seeped into all our minds, to the point where many don’t question it. My other problem with it is the suggestion that men can’t control themselves, which I think is hugely insulting. I suspect guys can control their lustful urges enough to not force a woman just because he can’t resist the allure of her cleavage, her hair, her legs or her ankles. 

Another argument that is often used is the suggestion that a man is being falsely accused (only about 5% of reported rapes are false – about the same as any other crime), or that he may have had sex with a woman who feels it was rape but that he was not aware of that when it was happening. There was a time when I used to give that some weight, until I came across a couple of studies that looked at self-reported rapists, as described on the site http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com. The studies were “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” by David Lesak and Paul M. Miller, published in Violence and Victims, Vol 17, No. 1, 2002 (Lisak & Miller 2002). The other is “Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel” by Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al., published in Violence and Victims, Vol, 24, No. 2, 2009 (McWhorter 2009). The studies kept the word “rape” out of the interviews (unsurprisingly people aren’t so willing to share if you’re calling them a rapist) and asked groups of men whether they had attempted or had ever successfully had sex with someone without their consent. They split it up into those that used force, and those that used drugs or intoxicants. The results are compelling and though long the whole analysis is well worth reading and can be found summarised in full here.

Some important points I want to draw from these two studies are:  
  1. In the first report 6% of men admitted to rape or attempted rape.
  2. Of that 6%, 63% of them were repeat offenders.
  3. Only 30% used force, or threats. The rest raped intoxicated victims. (The questions were limited to just using/threatening force or whetheryou ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?” – so no way to know from these studies if there was another method used to commit rape.)
  4. They also found that the repeat rapists also admitted to committing other violent acts (slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually assaulting a child, as well as other types of sexual assaults). The 76 men, only 4% of the study, who admitted to more than one assault, were responsible for 28% of other violent acts.
  5. The second report largely correlated with the first, despite being of different men in a different area and in a different line of work (Navy versus students/University). The only difference was that the number of self-reports were higher, with 13% admitting to committing or attempting to commit rape.
  6. 71% admitted more than one offence, similar to the 63% in the first study. Again 23% of them used or threatened force, while the rest targeted intoxicated victims. Clearly the idea of a violent rapist is not necessarily the reality on the ground.
  7. The second report also found that the rapists who admitted to targeting strangers were a tiny fraction of the study, with only 7% saying they targeted people they didn’t know. 75% of them stated they only targeted acquaintances. 
  8. Of those 7% that targeted strangers not one reported using force. Not one. Though it’s only one study this does show that the scary figure of the stranger rapist pulling a weapon on a woman in the middle of the street is not necessarily what is commonly happening in reality. So why do we base our criminal justice system on this prototype?
I know these are only two, limited studies. But they give an insight into the mentality of predators that commit rape. And, most significantly, it suggests that the idea that “date rape” is a simple misunderstanding is not true. The majority of the offences are being committed by a relatively small group of men who know what they are doing. They haven’t accidentally raped anyone. They set out to find a woman to rape, and once finding one and making sure she is more intoxicated then they are, raped her. And they do this repeatedly. This made me reconsider the notion that only stranger rapists need to be locked up for a long time. These men are as much predators as those tiny few that use weapons (who I agree should be given long sentences for the added offences of threat or use of violence). But to essentially give “date rape” offences a small sentence is to miss the point. The men doing it are doing it a lot, and will keep doing it until/unless they’re stopped. In some ways they are even more dangerous than the strangers, as they are far less likely to be caught, so can commit their crimes numerous times. If the accusations are proven true Strauss-Khan would be a perfect example of this. He is a privileged man and has been portrayed as someone just out for a good time (especially by the rape apologist French media). But in reality he would fit the profile of an arrogant man who wants to rape someone so finds someone to rape. No matter if she’s dressed as a maid, a prostitute or a nun. 

Strauss-Khan - Guilty or not the media have already decided, one way or another.
Rape isn’t about sex, and the sooner the media and the public can understand that the sooner we can start to lock up the real predators.  What you wear may increase your risk of crime generally but it never makes you responsible for what’s done to you. For example, how many men are held responsible for having their wallet stolen when they placed it in their back pocket? Can you imagine papers, juries, or lawyers saying “that was stupid and you need to take some responsibility for not putting your wallet in your front pocket. I mean, what do you expect, if you don’t take precautions?” No me neither. I also think if our society understood and accepted the idea that rape happens because a rapist decided to rape someone, then male victims of the crime would also be better able to come forward, without the suggestion that they must have wanted it really (regardless of whether the attacker was male or female). So next time you read anything about a rape case in the papers or see anything on the news or the web, keep a weather eye open for the victim blaming and the idea that men just can’t help it. It will infuriate you as much as it does me.


  1. An excellent and well thought-out post Alexa. You've said a lot and I'm tempted to say a lot in return ... we'll see how this goes ...

    Firstly, and I might be out of date here, I don't think women can 'rape' men. By that I mean, the law does not recognise that such a crime exists. Which is wrong on several levels of course. But that's neither here nor there.

    Although you make the point yourself, I do feel the need to reiterate - two studies are not conclusive proof of anything; but I agree, they are proof of something. And that something is interesting, and slightly(?) comforting. What you're saying is that 'rape' is a crime like any other; it is most likely to be committed by those who have already offended; and committed only by a few people. And the victims are likely to be known by the perpetrators, rather than at random (which as you say, is at odds to the stereotypical rapist cliche we are most often sold).

    Did you see the excellent documentary series "the truth about killing" which said roughly the same thing about murder. Man, it seems, is very reluctant to kill one of its own, but a small percentage of the population have no such qualms. In wartime, finding these people is essential; in peacetime, likewise, but for different reasons (I've adumbrated greatly here, and do not wish to sound accusatory towards war-heroes, who are a different breed altogether).

    Like others, I might have thought that, somehow, victims of 'date-rape' (the distinction through terminology itself doesn't help) were somewhat 'less' of a victim. There is a whole load of deep trickiness rooted in the difference between men and women with respect to arousal and sexual signalling. Many aspects of female facial make-up is aimed at mimicking the physical signs of sexual arousal. This plays to a man at a subconscious level, so a man will naturally (literally) infer from a woman a greater level of sexual arousal than she is typically exhibiting. So the cues are scrambled. However, this (to 'normal' men) merely leads to confusing, and bafflement ... and any man of an age will have long ago concluded that women are impossible to read. No defence there ... mere commentary.

    Part of the problem lies with it being treated as a specifically emotive subject made on gender grounds. It's a bit like discussing any form of racial crime. People are so careful not to appear biased, they make a specific case of the crimes, thus isolating them from the body of crimes we understand. So in our minds 'rape' isn't burglary, or theft, or murder. It's something we need to treat separately. And because of this mental separation of the crime, we find it easier to draw a similar separations of the victims. Whereas we 'know' a murder victim was in no way responsible for their own death; we make a special case for the rape victim ... were they somehow culpable in their own rape? (obviously my language is meant to be detached - hopefully you understand my thrust here. It's somewhat superfluous to state the seriousness of the subject). So, although it is a heinous crime, if we were to stop being so emotional about it, maybe we'd be less likely to fall into the trap of isolating it as a crime apart. Crime, victims and accused, need to be handled in unemotional ways. Sympathy of course, but emotion is not a good mechanism for finding guilt or sentencing. And in this case, it's too often that we argue from a gender perspective, and not from right and wrong. Maybe if we treated rape 'just like any other crime' we would be treating it correctly.

    I think I might not have explained myself too well. Hopefully some of that will make sense.

    This post has nothing to do with feminism. I think.

  2. In America, each state has different laws about all crime, including rape. And rape is still usually a "specific-intent crime", in which conviction requires that the defendant's exact state of mind be proven --- often a tricky business.

    The charge of rape has largely been replaced with multiple degrees of "sexual assault", which often requires only a lack of consent (not proof that the defendant could not have possibly made an "innocent mistake").

    Too many people get away with the sort of crime you describe (raping the intoxicated). The perpetrators are often financially successful people. A relatively new deterrent is the worry of ending up on a "sex offender website", which will generally end a person's career.

  3. Thanks for your comments Mike, and I agree it isn't really a gender issue, as rape can happen to anyone (though is far more commonly committed against women). So though in and of itself it's not a solely feminist issue, sadly it's only really the feminist movement (such as it is) that is taking on the subject and trying to push for changes. And a lot of the double standards and prejudices about rape and particularly about rape survivors are rooted in subconscious sexist attitudes and simplistic notions about gender roles (men the attacker, women the deceiver, for example).

    I agree too that rape needs to stop being seen differently to other crime, and I've always thought it's more akin to stealing than anything else. It's the theft of something very precious and vital for a person's sense of self and security. Hopefully, with more work like the studies I mentioned, society at large can start to see this crime differently, and in turn see that the predators behind it are caught and imprisoned.

  4. Siebendach thanks for the info. I've always quite liked the American system of degrees of rape or sexual assault, if only because I would think it makes conviction easier. On the other hand I can see how it could be used by someone to plead to a lesser offence when they committed something far worse. There's just no winning...

    And yes I too think that there are a lot of perps who have never been caught, and that they are predominantly of the "intoxicated victim" type. I suspect that a number of people in the world still see this as "taking advantage", when in reality it's no different to rape. But the sex offender thing can at least work as a bit of a deterrent, though with the likelihood of being caught so low I suspect a lot of perps think it will never happen to them.

  5. This is an excellent blog post.

    Also, mm, sexy ankles.