Ken Clarke’s horrendous views on rape – more than just a political ‘gaffe’.

It’s not often the media are clambering over one another to condemn the ignorance of someone who trivialises the pain and trauma of women who have been raped by perpetuating myths about what constitutes ‘real’ rape compared to attacks where the events do not involve violence or bushes or raincoats. But when that person is a government minister of course, it’s suddenly as hot a topic as a Sky Sports presenter, who happens to be suing his media empire employers, making sexist remarks about female football officials. For women however, the fact that the ignorance in question has come from the Justice Secretary is nothing less than terrifying. I know all aspects of Ken Clarke’s diem horribilis have been written about and discussed at length everywhere from The Daily Record to Newsnight and our own Belfast Telegraph. For that reason, I’m going to keep it brief. The issue of sexual violence and the barriers for victims going through the criminal justice system is one which has been highlighted before on soisaystoher so it seems important to write something on the events of this week, given that it feels like a bit of a landmark development in the public discourse on sexual violence. Here are the particular low points in Clarke’s bullshit pit, in my opinion:

1. His total lack of knowledge of the law on sexual offences which led him to inaccurately suggest that consensual sex between an 18 year old and a 15 year old would result in a conviction for rape. Having spent years working with young people I knew instantly that this wasn’t correct and took the opportunity to confirm my understanding of it today with a senior PSNI officer in the Public Protection Unit who deals with both child abuse and sexual crimes. He supported my suggestion that Ken Clarke had gotten the law very badly wrong…in fact the exact phrase he used was “utter tripe”. While a 15 year old is under the legal age of consent to sexual activity, any incident reported to the police would be investigated on the basis of assessing the potential vulnerabilities and the Gillick Competency of the 15 year old in question. A conviction for a sexual offence would only be pursued if they had evidence that there was some form of coercion or abuse taking place. Even under those circumstances, the conviction obtained would not be one of rape. Unless of course they had actually been, you know, raped. The charge of statutory rape only applies in the UK where a child is under 13. Not 16…13, because at this age a child is automatically considered unable to give their consent to sex due to their developmental stage. There is a myth in the public consciousness that any sex with a person under 16 is considered statutory rape and may lead to some poor lad being thrown in jail for unwittingly getting busy with a saucy little jailbait minx who tricks him into thinking she’s older. I think it’s a deliberate distortion of the law that adults tell kids to scare them out of having sex with each other – in the absence of proper sex education, fear seems to be the only tool people are willing to employ. The problem is, I can understand the general public getting this one wrong but when the justice secretary’s knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act appears to be no more nuanced than the average Daily Mail reader’s then that is pretty infuriating. Oh and when Nick Robinson asked Clarke on the Politics Show “No apology then – no resignation?” and he responded, “If someone can explain anything I have said that is factually inaccurate then of course I will consider it.” You’re welcome Mr Clarke. Now fucking resign you idiot.

2. His attempts to categorise rape in terms of how “serious” it appears. This is probably the aspect of his remarks that has incited the biggest reaction, and for very good reason. Despite his later protestations that he didn’t mean to suggest there was such a thing as a non-serious rape, the rhetoric used in his discussion of the subject very strongly suggests the kind of subtle but pervasive attitudes that shape many people’s core beliefs about rape under a variety of circumstances. No one would admit when asked that they think a man forcibly penetrating a women with his penis is ever excusable or less than “serious” but they may hold a set of assumptions about the boundaries of consent and the right of a woman to “cry rape” after an unwanted sexual experience. Clarke was heard to use language like, “forcible rape”, “a serious rape where, you know, violence and an unwilling woman…”, “rape in the ordinary conversational sense where some man has forcefully, with a bit of violence…”, “date rapes can sometimes be very confusing…they do vary extraordinarily”, and my personal favourite, “the classic rape of someone who leaps out on an unsuspecting woman and forces her to have sex…nobody is suggesting that a proper rapist is going to be let out of jail in 12 months.” It’s all there really, in his own appalling words. He’s confused as to how he gave the impression that he considers some rapes to be less serious than others. I’m confused as to how he could possibly be confused. Victims of sexual assault and rape are still fighting painfully hard to increase the understanding that most rapists are known to them, that lying there and waiting for it to be over because you are terrified of the violence that may result in your fighting back does not constitute consent and that having your body used by an opportunistic attacker when you are unable to give consent due to the effects of drugs or alcohol is a serious sexual crime and is not your fault. For Ken Clarke to reiterate the myth that to be a real victim of rape someone would have to have lept out at you is just heart-breaking.

3. His cynical attempt to make it sound like the proposals around 50% sentence reductions for early guilty pleas are to make victims feel better. While the experience of giving evidence in court is no doubt a difficult one, it seems to me that the whole process of reporting the rape to the police and pursuing a conviction is all pretty harrowing. How much worse then if you find out that your attacker has managed to get a shorter sentence for playing ball with the CPS/PPS? This happens in domestic violence cases all the time and there is evidence to suggest it actually deters women from reporting assaults more. This commenter at The Guardian Politics Blog, who describes herself as a victim of sexual assault, says it best:

On the issue of shortened sentences for an early guilty plea, victims are being spoken for, rather than spoken to. Whilst I agree that appearance in court for a rape victim is traumatic, the main issue is to have the attacker brought to justice. Trauma at a trial is only one result of rape; the anger and sense of injustice at the most basic of human rights violations is far more overwhelming.The thought of an attacker halving their sentence, after weighing-up the odds and tactically pleading guilty with the advice of a lawyer, would bring no solace to victims whatsoever. If the victim’s trauma at going to trial is the issue, then more support should be given in the form of counselling and other services.

Currently word in the tabloids is that David Cameron is backing his man, but is unlikely to include any mention of the 50% reduction proposals for sexual offences in the policy on sentencing reform due to be announced soon. I’m impressed by the public outcry. I’m glad it appears to have led to this ridiculous proposal being shelved. I just hope it helps further the public’s understanding of how far we still have to go in properly dealing with sexual violence.

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