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We Believe You

We Believe You is the name of the latest Mumsnet campaign, launched this week to raise awareness of rape, how prevalent it is and how many myths surround it. Please go and read about their campaign – the research they have done is quite eye opening, to say the least.

“Victim blaming” is so prevalent in our society that I honestly believe that many women are afraid to report rape and assault for fear of being blamed. I just read that sentence back and it sounds really silly doesn’t it? Who, in their right mind, would blame a woman for being raped? Well, a hell of a lot more people than you might think.

Women are criticised if they don’t dress modestly. If a woman is raped on a night-out  people will openly wonder what she was wearing, had she had too much to drink, was she stupidly wandering down an alleyway on her own.

Sound familiar?

If you’re not shocked at these attitudes let me tell you why you should be. There is NO excuse for rape. Placing even a tiny part of the responsibility of an assault on to the victim is wrong. I would like the freedom to wear what I like, walk where I want to without being told it may get me into trouble.

A society, where attitudes like this are prevalent: blaming the victims to a greater or lesser extent – is a society where rape is tacitly accepted. “No, rape is never acceptable,” you might say, and you’d be right. But it appears that we live in a society which does accept it.

That’s not a very nice thing to realise is it?Rape Pre-dates miniskirts - banner at a slutwalk.  Photo: cathredfem

Rapists can, and very often do, get away with their crimes, because our society doesn’t believe the victims who come forward. They say things like “oh well if you go out at that time of night on your own you’re asking for it”. Who say that? You’d be surprised. Men, women, of all generations, think that way.

No. No woman is asking to be raped.

How about if you then learn that in over 80% of cases of rape and sexual assault, the victim knows the aggressor. “Yeah, date rape,” you might think, and millions of us will shudder at that very phrase. Date rape. That’s not real rape is it? Not proper rape. If a girl goes up to her boyfriend’s flat she’s asking for it isn’t she. She can hardly complain if she changes her mind at the last minute.” Can she?

Yes. She can. Date rape, (ugh) or rape within a relationship is rape too. It is just as serious, just as brutal, just as damaging as any other kind of rape. In fact it can be even more so. Because you go and tell your average Joe Bloggs that you were raped by your boyfriend, or husband, or even on a casual date. Most people just won’t take you seriously. It’s not considered real rape. Ask Ken Clarke. The guy in charge of the British justice system.

So, a victim may be accused of having asked for it in some way, or her experience of rape might be belittled and treated as non serious. That’s bad enough isn’t it. But it gets worse. Because lots and lots and lots of people just simply don’t believe women when they say they have been raped or assaulted.

Can you imagine having such a traumatic and life changing experience, and turning to the people around you for support and them not believing you? And when it goes public (because there’s nothing the press love more than a nice juicy rape case) the onus will be on you, the victim, to prove you are the victim. And often people won’t believe you. Lots of people. People who should be helping you, like the police. Some will, some won’t. You don’t want to have to deal with the people who don’t believe you.

A case in the news recently that I blogged about several times was the chambermaid in New York who accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of assault. Regardless of what has happened since (and no, he wasn’t cleared, there were issues with the evidence) the reaction in France when he was arrested was shocking. I blogged about it here.

The Mumsnet campaign makes for some pretty depressing reading. It is the 21st century and rape, how it is treated and how easy it is to report it, hasn’t changed all that much. Far too women are still being raped. And far too few cases are being reported. And even fewer convictions are happening.

It’s very  very sad.

Drunk Girls in Mini-skirts: the Rules of Rape

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?skirts of different lengths

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.

Why I’m a Feminist

I was a student in 1980s Manchester, hotbed of student activism. And at West Berlin’s Free University, incubator of student radicalism. Feminism was a cool lifestyle choice, though of course there was far more behind it. A rapist terrorised female students in my first year at Manchester. Women refugees spoke of their persecution in their home countries. But we marched together to reclaim the night, I volunteered on student helplines, and there was a palpable shared sense of injustice and of community acting to redress wrongs.

Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first timFeminism is the radical notion that women are people Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.

And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.

These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.


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