1980s >> 1982 >> no-931-march-1982

Rape Prejudice

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.

This law was the latest in a very long line; as might be expected, rape has preoccupied legislators for a very long time. Four thousand years ago the Babylonian code of Hammurabi decreed death for any man who raped a betrothed virgin (married victims were classed as adultresses, were bound and thrown into the river). More recently the Second Statute of Westminster (1285) chillingly proclaimed that any man who . . ravishes a wife, maiden or other woman . . . shall have judgement of life and member” . . .  Rape remained punishable by death until 1840, although it was likely that the severity of the sentence had long disuaded juries from convicting.
Early rape law was concerned with the protection of women as men’s property; it now claims to provide for the restraint of the offender as well as for revenge for the rest of society. With a few exceptions, the sentence is assumed to match the nastiness of the act and to express a widespread abhorrence of it. This apparent symmetry is dented when we remember that this is a social system which legalises and rewards a great deal of activity which goes directly against human interests—a society in which sexuality is too often a neurosis, liable to relieve itself in horrific excesses.
Sexual behaviour—including misbehaviour such as rape—does not spring from nowhere; it is socially conditioned. In her book The Mountain Arrapesh Margaret Mead told of a primitive people living in harsh, remote mountains in New Guinea. The Arrapesh’s living conditions persuaded them that they depended on peaceful co-operation for their lives and this was the basis for their morals. They were neither aggressive nor even competitive; they did not engage in warfare. These attitudes extended into their sexual relationships:

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.

In contrast were the Gusii people, studied by Robert Levine, who lived in the Highlands of Kenya, in seven tribes which were further split into clans and sub-clans, all traditionally hostile to each other. But each group imported wives from another group, which carried over the tribal hostility into their sexual activity in the marriage. The husband’s role was to hurt and subordinate—to rape—the wife, who resisted to the limits of her powers. At a conservative estimate, during 1955/6 rapes happened in the Gusii at the rate of 47.2 for each 100.000 of the population, while the rate in England and Wales was about 4 in each 100,000 (See The Facts of Rape, Barbara Toner).
Capitalism, a technically more advanced society, also fashions sexual conduct through a basic antagonism. It exists, first of all, on the antagonism of the commodity—wealth which is socially produced but privately appropriated. For the majority, access to that wealth is through the antagonistic relationship of wage labour. Capitalism conditions antagonism in sexual relationships. On the one hand it idealises the monogamous, nuclear family where sexual contact is as predictable, contained and as unsatisfying as an intravenous drip. On the other hand it sells promiscuity, in its popular press and in the sexually loaded inducements to buy cars, cigarettes, clothes . . ,
Capitalism is preoccupied with productive efficiency, with keeping the exploitative process pouring profits into the balance sheet. It can spare very little resources for the misfit, who cannot measure up to its expectations in social or sexual terms. Capitalism is a society populated with rejects, where deviance is more isolating than crime. Little wonder that sometimes the despair of the deviant misfit may explode into an act of intolerable aggression, with all the humiliation and suffering which it brings.
The true horror of rape is its deprivation. Sexual activity is necessary to human beings but it is no mechanical business; it is improved by some mutual respect between the participants. Rape substitutes anger and despair for affection; it makes a torture of a human essential.
Capitalism could never concede that its people are its victims, and must behave as such. So rapists will continue to be punished and after they are sentenced will experience a living hell in prison, at the hands of convicts anxious to reassure themselves that there are others more wretched than they are. This sordid mess is just one measure of the struggle before us, before we have an abuse-free society, of liberated relationships in humanity.

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