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An opportunity to tackle attitudes to date rape missed

What you and I are talking about is a man forcefully having sex with a woman when she does not want to. That’s rape, a serious crime, of course it is a serious crime, and I am very glad people do now go to the police and report it, there used to be a taboo against it in a crazy way.

That’s the core sentence at the centre of Ken Clarke being reported as saying that some rape isn’t serious. Except that he said the direct opposite. Twice. And said that people should report it. And that the old taboo against doing so is crazy.

I find it fascinating that when I sat down to read up on the latest media explosion, none of the articles I read included this fact. Nor that the context was distinguishing between rape and consensual sex with a minor. Just the reaction to sensationalist interpretations.

You would hope that the goal of anyone commenting on the story is to improve in some way the way in which the justice system handles rape cases. Society as a whole needs to think about date rape differently, as Jennie Rigg explains extremely well in this post on the classification of rape. Here was an opportunity to talk about it.

Ken Clarke’s comment on date rape was that it “can be as serious as the worst rapes”. This is rather clumsy, it’s too easy to hear it as “date rape usually isn’t as serious as other rapes”. Even so, it’s a given that any and all and absolutely every kind of crime can have variable circumstances, including killing people. Clarke should be more clear on the damage that date rape causes, yes. But pointing out that the same crime can result in varying degrees of punishment shouldn’t be treated as shocking by professional journalists.

The point was made that date rape can also be deserving of the harshest sentence. This is an improvement on times past when it wasn’t even thought possible, let alone punishable. We’ve got further to go – again, see Ms Rigg’s article. The interview provided a basis to do so, if you were inclined to improve attitudes towards rape.

Instead, the media, the blogosphere and the Leader of the Opposition treated it with opportunism, attacking the individual rather than addressing the issue. They have made it clear that it is a political third rail, not to be approached too closely. There’s no reason, as far as I can tell, to believe that Clarke’s use of the word “forcefully” meant physical assault. It was nonetheless taken this way, accompanied by demands for his resignation. This does nothing but make it clear to politicians that rape is not a subject to be discussed lest they get trapped, too.

You could argue that the strength of the reaction demonstrates that attitudes to date rape have changed. Not so. The strength of the reaction shows the determination of a political party and the conservative media to attack someone they don’t like. Date rape will remain “not as bad as real rape” as long as it is not discussed openly. I know I instinctively think of the “drag them away and rape them” variety as worse than date rape. Like Ms Rigg says, it’s about having no experience of it and tending to focus on the violent aspect. I can only understand the other damage that rape causes through other people talking about it.

In the Ken Clarke episode, people are not talking about it. They’re talking about the politics and the news cycle. No lessons are being learned here.

So nice job, guys. There were a few column inches to be had – why waste them on an opportunity to discuss why date rape is about more than physical violence?

There are politicians in the world who do genuinely have attitudes like Ken Clarke was being accused of. Republicans in the US tried to redefine rape as only including “forcible rape”. Even if it would mean a victim of (please don’t shoot me if I’ve picked the wrong word) coercive rape is prevented from having an abortion. Yes, not only would the rape not be a rape, the woman could be expected to carry through with any resulting pregnancy. In a world where people think like this, it’s a deep shame that an opportunity to explore the issues was used only as a political opportunity.

Please, media and politicians, when the subject is as serious as rape, explore the subject itself. Take the opportunity to raise public consciousness. There are genuinely and dangerously misogynistic attitudes out there. Exploding over a 70 year old man’s clumsy words will only give them cover.