What’s the difference between these two situations?
Situation A: One night, a man and a woman meet at a party and have some drinks together. She’s dressed in hot-pants and a sparkly top. They’re at the party for a while and they get on well. They like each other; sex may, at least, be on the agenda. Other couples around them are clearly about to hook up. An hour after they part, the man accidentally wanders into the host’s bedroom and finds the woman lying on the bed. She is clearly unconscious with drink. He later claims he innocently presumed it was okay to go ahead and have sex with her.
Situation B: One night, a man and a woman meet in a hotel bar and have some drinks together. She’s dressed in a smart suit and low heels. They’re in the bar for a while and they get on well. They like each other; sex may, at least, be on the agenda. Other couples around them are clearly about to hook up. An hour after they part, the man idly tries the handle of the connecting door between their rooms and discovers it has accidentally been left unlocked. In the next room, the woman is lying on the bed. She is clearly fast asleep. He later claims he innocently presumed it was okay to go ahead and have sex with her.
Here’s another example. Somewhere in London, two women go to two parties. Woman A is dressed in a thigh-skimming mini-dress. Woman B is wearing a knee-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse. Woman A gets blind drunk and is escorted home by a male friend. Woman B suffers from narcolepsy and is escorted home by a male friend. On arriving home, both fall unconscious. Both are raped by the men who brought them home. Whose rape provokes the most outrage?
However much we don’t want to, we see the difference. We hate and despise this difference, and when Ken Clark refers to “degrees of rape”, we’re rightly outraged. Nonetheless, the difference is there. But it’s not about degrees of consent, or degrees of rape, or even degrees of confusion. The terrible truth is that, when a woman is drunk and in a mini-skirt, the man knows he has society’s permission to rape her.
Very early on, we learn the rules of nakedness, display and sexual contact. Context matters. If it didn’t, acts of attempted rape would happen most often on beaches and in swimming-pools, and Beauty Pageants would need to take place behind closed doors. In this sense, rapists are just like anyone else. And, just like consensual sex, society tells us when and how rape can take place. Like most social rules, the rules of rape are irrational, but – just as we generally don’t wear our underwear to the beach – we abide by them, and we expect rapists to abide by them too. As a bald statement, this fact is appalling; but on a basic level, we know it’s true.
This is why we tell our daughters (but not our sons) that they “can’t go out like that”. This is why reporters speak of drunk women (but not sleeping women) as “vulnerable”. Through these phrases, we reinforce the rules of rape.
“You can’t go out like that.” “Don’t make yourself vulnerable.” When we teach our daughters how they can evade rape, we also teach our sons that raping a drunk woman in a mini-skirt is socially sanctioned.
This is not to say that all men are rapists. I hope and believe that almost no men are. But all men learn the rules; and among them are those who enjoy forcing sex on an unwilling partner.
Here’s a statistic that shows how good rapists are at keeping the rules. I have a friend who is a police officer. She’s damn good at her job; she’s clever and diligent and careful, and her success rates are excellent. She’s worked on the force for seventeen years. In that time, she’s put away one rapist. This isn’t the only case she’s seen. It’s just the only case where the perpetrator was sent down.
Successful police officer. Seventeen years. One rapist. Am I still going to teach my daughter the rules? You’re damn right I am.
Is it possible to change the rules in our favour? I have an idea for this. It has its flaws, but I think it could work. In every alternate year, rape will become the default position for all sexual acts, between all men and woman, anywhere. In every alternate year, for a woman to prove rape, all she’ll have to prove will be sexual contact. If she says it’s rape and sex took place, then it’s rape. Job done.
The only permissible defence will be if the man can produce a standardised form, signed and dated by the woman, confirming consent for the sexual acts defined on the form, on that date, at that time and in that place.
This form won’t be infallible. If she says she was drunk when she signed, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says she was coerced or threatened into signing, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says her signature was forged, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If sex took place on a different date, at a different time (each form will allow a maximum of, say, one hour for the agreed acts to be completed) or in a different place to the ones specified on the form, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says he committed an act not agreed in advance, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape.
Please note: this form isn’t compulsory. It’s simply an optional tool to protect men against wilful rape accusations. You can still have sex without the form. Most couples in established relationships may not bother ever. Probably even most couples having sex for the first time won’t use it. But if men want to be safe – they’ll get that form signed, and get it signed properly.
And men themselves can do a lot to avoid the risks. For example: don’t have sex with women you’ve only just met – you can’t spot a false-accuser by looking. Don’t have sex when you’re drunk – you’re more likely to lose the form, or forget which acts she consented to. If possible, get your form signed in public, and in front of a good friend. That way you’ll have a witness. You might want to carry a tape-recorder to collect proof that she didn’t tell you “no” at any point during the act.
This system will lead to some miscarriages of justice, and I’m very sad about that. Some innocent men with no bad intentions will have their lives destroyed by women who, for some sick reason of their own, abuse the power they’ve been given by society. That will be terrible, and I mean that sincerely. I’ll pray it never happens to my son. If you organise a march to protest about it, I might even go on it.
But you know what? I’ll also know, in my secret shameful heart, that l have the power. I’m a good person, so I won’t abuse it. But I’ll have it.
Okay, even I can see this completely fucking ridiculous. But you know what? At least it’s equally fucking ridiculous. At least this way, everyone gets to experience both sides of the equation. At least this way, everyone gets an equal amount of time in power, and time in fear. And maybe when we’ve all experienced the other side of the equation, we’ll find some way of living together that lets us all get disgustingly drunk in clothes that don’t suit us, without the Rape spectre hanging over us.