Throughout recent weeks the UK press has been unusually dominated with stories relating to rape, infidelities by powerful men and the sex industry. The stories have ranged from a leader of an exceptionally prominent organisation being arrested and charged for sexual assault, a British minister finding himself tripping over both of his left feet into a pit of indignant fire for trying to distinguish between “proper rape” and, well, that other kind of rape, to an insurance industry rewarding its employees with prostitutes.
Between them however these stories have exposed the myriad complexities, prejudices and myths which continue to pervade both in the press and the public conscience about rape and about women. Which is why I think now is a good time to talk about rape. So, let’s talk about rape.
Firstly, I think we need to clear up what rape actually is. Although different countries and bodies define rape differently, we can use British law for the purposes of this discussion. According to British law, rape involves forced penetration (of either variety and for both sexes), done without consent. Given that this definition is fairly clear and simple, I have been ashtonished to find that so many people still persist in thinking there are many different types of rape. Apologists for this viewpoint argue that some rapes are violent, or multiple, or abusive. But that doesn’t change the rape aspect of the crime; that simply means that the rapist has committed additional crimes or aggravating factors. If a man abducts a woman and commits a violent rape upon her he is charged not with “really bad rape” but with rape, abduction, assault and possibly ABH or GBH. Simarly if a woman is gang-raped, all of the men who raped her are charged with rape. This is because she was raped more than once, not because she experienced a “worse” rape.
I believe that ultimately this dialogue in more serious/less serious rape is based upon a notion that there are gradations of consent (and the refusal of it). This is because, given that rape is penetration without consent, (discounting for additional crimes or rapes committed during, previous or after the rape in question), any notion of “worse” or “more serious” rape must lie in an evaluation of the degree of consent (or lack of it) involved. For instance a women who was date-raped is viewed to have mildly refused her consent whilst a woman abducted by a stranger has strongly refused her consent.
To elaborate upon this point, I now move on to the debate surrounding the accusations made against Strauss-Kahn. Now, I do not mean to presume that Strauss-Kahn is guilty simply because he was accused and I am a feminist. It is entirely possible that he is innocent and, whilst we may be able to form a clearer viewpoint after the court case, ultimately the only people who will ever know the complete truth about what happened in that hotel room were the two in it at the time. What bothers me however is the reasons many people are giving for why they believe Strauss-Kahn to be innocent; such as “he didn’t need to rape, he was rich and powerful”, and just like all the other rich and powerful men who have been shown to have been cheating on their wives this week, it is assumed to be a natural thing that there would be numerous women willing to engage in consensual sex with him.
Aside from indicating a total lack of understanding about why men rape, this shows our attitude to men, rapists and women. There is in this argument both the assumption that by being successful Strauss-Kahn has disqualified himself from being a potential rapist, and that rapists are only men who cannot gain consensual sex. Both of these are fallacies, but commonly accepted. The reasons for this tie back to the assumption that Strauss-Kahn’s success has somehow earned him the consent of women, because women’s consent is something that can be quantified and bought.
This leads us on to the story of the insurance giant which rewarded its top staff with prostitutues. What is especially telling about this story is not just that these successful men were rewarded with sexual gratification (or that this sheds another angle on possible reasons women are kept out of boardrooms) but that these women wore labels showing which men they were available to. The “highest class” ones were only available to executives. What this shows us is a snapshot of a society where men compete against other men to be successful and in return are rewarded according to their success with sexual gratification and access to women’s bodies.
It is this culture in which women are viewed as commodities and status symbols that leads many to presume that Strauss-Kahn is innocent: Through being rich and successful he had become entitled to sexual access to a multitude of women. This is also why people believe that there are different types of rape – because there are different degrees of non-consent, because consent is something you can earn or have a right to. Bacially, in the popular mindset women are still something you buy, own or be entitled to. This isn’t just a view held by men but by any woman who has ever felt obliged to consent to sex. A date-rape is less bad than a stranger-rape because he had earned part of your consent by taking you out and treating you to dinner. If you get drunk/are promiscuous/dress ‘sluttily’ the rape is less bad because you have shown both that you are a lower price good and that your consent is more easily bought. There is a smaller degree of non-consent for a rapist to overcome so, during a rape, less consent is considered to have been refused than might otherwise be the case had you been sober/a nun/wearing baggy trousers.
Many people argue that the reason for the shockingly low conviction rates in the UK (6%) is because rape is a difficult crime to prove. But if that is the case why is the conviction rate for male rape so much higher? (419 convictions out of 532 cases in UK magistrates Courts in 1994). Why is rape of women treated so diffferently than rape of men? The reason – becuase juries and the public still view women’s bodies as commodities, heterosexual sex as an economic transaction and women’s consent as something that can be bought. Rape of women is viewed as something more akin to theft, a commodity not paid for but taken anyway. A crime, but not a serious one and whose gravity can be judged by evaluating the good that was stolen (by asking what the woman was wearing or about her previous sex life).
This state of affairs will only change when women and men realise that women’s bodies are not commodities, and not even that “women’s bodies belong to them” as the slutwalkers would have it, but that women’s bodies are them. Women’s bodies cannot be bought, given, sold, taken or refused. It is not a bargaining tool. Sex is not a transaction. Rape is not theft: It is a violation of a woman’s person, of who she is. When our society recognises that they will finally start punishing rape in the way it should be punished and respecting women as equal integral members of society.