The rape-inspired panic arising from a series of recent incidents has, to put it mildly, served to distort the true picture, which is bad enough as it is. There was the televised questioning, by incredulous Thames Valley policemen, of a woman who complained that she had been raped. There was the decision by the Scottish law authorities not to prosecute three young men suspected of raping and slashing a young woman in Glasgow. And there was the rapist who was “only” fined £2,000, rather than being sent to prison, because the judge thought his victim had contributed to the offence by her negligence (she accepted a lift in his car when there was no other way to get home which she could afford).
These incidents have been interpreted as proving that there is a lot wrong with the way the offence of rape is dealt with. The police won’t believe the victim, or if they do the authorities won’t prosecute the offender, and should the case come to court some doddering male chauvinist judge will let the man off lightly. One result of this is a dramatic increase in the interest being taken in rape; Spare Rib (February 1982) claimed: “Every accessible Women’s Liberation group has been flooded with telephone calls from women wanting to do something”. The London Rape Crisis Centre said their switchboard was jammed with calls, with a 100 per cent increase in the number of women alleging that they had been raped.
Naturally the press has rushed to exploit this panic, confident that nothing sells newspapers like sex. Acres of newsprint have been turned by this particular plough. Here for example are some headlines from the same page of the Daily Telegraph of 30 January: 2 Years For Sex Assault “Too Little”. “Horrifying” Sex Attack By Railman; Jail For Raping Prostitute; Sex Attackers Bound Husband. And all this, mark you, from a “quality” newspaper; the hysteria among the other levels of Fleet Street, where soft porn is habitually dressed up as moral indignation,was of historic intensity.
One spin off of the decision not to prosecute the three Glasgow men was the sacking of Nicholas Fairbairn from the job of Solicitor General of Scotland. Fairbairn’s defence of the decision in the Commons was itself panic stricken and so earned the contempt of the House, where they will readily applaud all manner of deceit but cannot abide an incompetent performance at the Dispatch Box. The Baron of Fordell (to give Fairbairn his other name) is an Old Etonian who lives in a castle in Dunfermline—a comfortable, ruling class world away from the sordid working class slum where the girl was raped and knifed. He once informed the Commons that: “It is part of the business of men and women that they hunt and are hunted and say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and mean the opposite”. Any sympathy for this boorish aristocrat should be tempered by the knowledge that he still hopes to get into the government. Immediately after being sacked by Thatcher he described her as “. . . probably the warmest and kindest human being that those who have met her have ever had the privilege of encountering”, and a few days later as “. . . very loving, very kind and very compassionate”.
The Glasgow case provoked a great swell of outrage on the opposition benches. Relentless penal reformer Robert Kilroy-Silk denounced the government’s decision to stand firm against the panic and not to change the law on dealing with, rapists as “. . . totally unsatisfactory . . . a grave disappointment to all women and those who want law. order and justice maintained”. Kilroy-Silk, normally among the loudest of those demanding more leniency for criminals, has tabled an amendment to the pending Criminal Justice Bill providing for harsher treatment-mandatory gaol sentences for convicted rapists. There is nothing remarkable in Labour reformers, who endlessly and boringly trumpet their progressiveness, demanding that the clock be put back. Standing out against a popular panic can lose votes.
In this country rape is the third most serious criminal offence, after murder and treason (like discharging blanks from an imitation pistol when the queen is nearby on a horse). The panic is obscuring the fact that it is notoriously difficult to judge the frequency of rape and whether it falls or rises, or even to compose a satisfactory legal definition of it. The statistics depend on highly subjective elements—on whether a woman decides she has been raped, whether she then reports it to the police and whether they believe her; whether the final conviction is for rape rather than for a lesser charge. To begin with, only about two-thirds of reported rape is recorded as such by the police.
For what they are worth, then, the figures show an increase of 39 per cent in cases of rape recorded by the police in England and Wales between 1970 and 1980—from 884 to 1225. During the same period, all recorded sexual offences fell by 13 per cent. Nearly a quarter of recorded rape now happens in the area of the Metropolitan Police, which might say something about the delights of life in one of capitalism’s great urban concentrations.
The last great outcry about rape arose from a particularly nasty case in 1973, which brought stiff gaol sentences for four men in the RAF. Their appeal eventually reached the House of Lords, where Lord Hailsham spoke from beneath his wig in words which raised a storm. No man, said Hailsham, could be convicted of rape if he genuinely believed, however unreasonably, that the woman was actually consenting. Tediously vociferous Labour MP Jack Ashley quickly composed attacks from his dictionary of cliches, describing Hailsham’s ruling as a “Charter for Rapists” and fulminating in the Sunday Mirror (where better?) that “The Scales of Justice have swung heavily in favour of rapists. . . “Amid all the fuss it went almost unnoticed that the four men remained in gaol. The result was a new Act in 1976 which, among other things, attempted a redefinition of rape.
Of rape the Arrapesh know nothing beyond the fact that it is the unpleasant custom of the Nugum people to the southwest of them. Nor do the Arrapesh have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them.