Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Asking for it?

Ken Clarke's comments on rape at Westminster today have prompted mass outrage and calls for him to resign or be sacked. But following on as they do from comments about child abuse made by Nadine Dorries on The Vanessa Show, are they indicative or a deeper level of misunderstanding or misogyny within the Conservative party?

This has been another extraordinary week. Among other things it has seen the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, on seven counts of sexually-motivated assault against a hotel cleaner. This case stands out for two reasons. Firstly, because the accused is such an influential figure; and secondly, because (despite that) it ever got this far. A brutalised women feeling brave enough to report what happened to her; an employer offering instant sympathy and support, doing all the right things; police officers taking the complaint seriously and taking immediate action; a judge taking the complaint seriously enough to refuse Strauss-Kahn bail. This shouldn't be an unusual story, but it is. And that in itself is a story we should be paying more attention to.

Of course, Strauss-Kahn may yet turn out to be innocent, and any change in rape laws must always take account of the possibility of the accused being innocent, but this is precisely why rape should be a subject for civilised discussion in parliamentary committee, not for point scoring arguments on the floor of the House and not for television chat shows. Discussions of the latter sort are bound to lead to the issues being confused and distorted. They are distressing for victims of sexual violence to observe (let's not forget that, statistically, that's likely to have included a number of people sitting in the House for Prime Minister's Questions) and they can easily lead to politicians saying things they later regret.

Witness Kenneth Clarke. Nobody seems more surprised than he does by the position he finds himself in today. He did, after all, start out by trying to make a reasonable point: that the issues covered by rape laws are various and that a nuanced approach to sentencing is the most effective way to respond to this. But his attempts to defend himself upon receiving criticism led to him digging himself a deeper and deeper hole, especially in his use of the term 'serious rape' (perhaps akin to the Whoopi Goldberg concept of 'rape rape'), which by default implies that there are types of rape he thinks of as not serious (probably not the case) or, at best, as less serious. Following that up by accusing the Labour Party of whipping up 'false outrage' was his crowning error. The outrage was real and palpable; it behoves a minister to acknowledge such a response even in circumstances where he does not consider it appropriate.

There is background to this. In 2006 the then government commissioned an extensive consultation on sexual offences and how they should be treated in law. After lengthy consideration by committee, some of the resulting recommendations were adopted into law. Others were notably excluded. These included the suggestion that the age of consent should be staggered so that, from the age of fourteen, it is legal for a young person to have sex provided that their partner is not themselves below that age or more than two years older. This would have brought Britain more closely into line with European law and would have tackled an important problem with age of consent laws - that, whilst they are intended to protect children from exploitation by adults, they too often end up criminalising young people who are experimenting together, where there is an equal power relationship and no need to panic about predation.

It's easy to understand why the Labour government ignored this proposal; it would have been a political hot potato. Yet it is precisely in this sort of area that the public is dissatisfied with laws describing rape. As long as somebody is considered old enough to be capable of giving informed consent, and is not under pressure, should sex automatically be classified as rape on equal terms with some of the other cases we could discuss here? This is the sort of issue Mr Clarke appears to have been referring to in his initial statements.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that in attempting to clarify his remarks Mr Clarke starting producing much more problematic examples, for instance claiming that rape committed by a stranger "jumping out of the bushes" should be considered a more serious crime than rape committed by a partner (in fact, victim support organisations generally report that the latter is more damaging because of the breach of trust involved and the fact victims may have no safe space to retreat to). This illustrates muddled thinking on the issue, as does his suggestion that rape is more serious if it involves violence. Rape must be treated equally seriously in cases where victims avoid violence through compliance because otherwise justice is biased toward those who place themselves at increased risk. If prosecutors are unwilling to bring multiple charges (such as, where relevant, GBH alongside rape) then this can be tackled by adding an extra element to the principle charge, as with hate crimes law. In fact, British law already allows for something like this, hence the charge of 'aggravated rape'.

Mr Clarke has spoken out on rape issues before, making equally problematic comments; the fact that he seems to have learned nothing in the interim suggests that this is an area which he is failing to approach with the thoroughness one would hope for in a Justice Secretary. One must also wonder why his party did not nip this in the bud before he spoke out in the House, but then, Clarke's opinions, ill-informed though they are, may not be all that rare within his party (they are sadly not rare in the country as a whole though we must always look to politicians to set a better example and make more effort to educate themselves about the jobs they are required to do). The Conservatives have had several embarrassing episodes over the past few years with prominent members who had to be removed after making unacceptably misogynistic comments, and let's not forget Bill Aitken MSP's inconsiderate suggestion that a woman raped in Glasgow may have been a sex worker (as if, indeed, it would have made the crime any less serious had that been true).

This week the Conservatives have had a double helping of embarrassment in this area. Fortunately for them, fewer people were watching The Vanessa Show, so there has been less of an outcry over Nadine Dorries suggestion that teaching young girls to say no to sex would decrease rates of child abuse - but those comments are, when you think about it, much more serious. Clarke's problem is that he's clumsy and he doesn't understand how rape victims are affected by the experience. Dorries' is that she expects girls to take responsibility for assaults upon them initiated by other people. She is, in effect, blaming children for failing to prevent themselves from being sexually abused.

I'll leave you to imagine the kind of damage that can do. Plenty of people have written eloquently on the subject already, detailing the agony of self-blame they lived with for years before finally realising that they weren't the ones who did something wrong - and, indeed, the struggle to break those habits of self-hatred even after that revelation. What matters here is that children who are suffering now should not be placed in that position by somebody whose job it is to help create the laws which are there to give them recourse.

I suspect Ms Dorries genuinely doesn't understand the full import of what she has said. She has, after all, a history of hurling herself into debates without properly thinking things through first. But this isn't enough to excuse her actions. She, like Clarke, needs to acknowledge her mistakes and make a real effort to understand where she has gone wrong. Only when these two politicians are able to deliver informed apologies should they be considered fit to do their jobs.

Of course, many in the Conservative Party would be delighted if Mr Clarke lost his job and Ed Miliband may have dug a hole for himself by calling for Clarke's resignation. The current minister would almost certainly be replaced by someone further to the right - quite possibly someone with more recidivist views on rape. But this aside, it is time that the Conservatives got their act together in this area and showed willingness, as a party, to do something about it. Proper training for MPs, PPCs and researchers would be a start - if they cannot be trusted to handle themselves sensibly around such sensitive issues, teach them. But please, if you want to avoid regaining that Nasty Party title for reasons you couldn't justify even to yourselves - please, dear Conservatives, do it soon. Hundreds of thousands of people you represent have been victims of rape of sexual assault. They deserve better. We all deserve better. And nobody should be in parliament unless they are willing to make that effort.

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