Rape not sexy, just awful

Herman Cain

The relation between sex and politics is as old as politics themselves; however, the last eighteen months have seen a dangerous increase in rape and sexual assault allegations against candidates, left to defend themselves in the public eye, away from the clinical and supposedly objective eyes of a courtroom. What those “scandals” – such a salacious word to cover such a traumatizing event – appear to reveal is a blurry line of consent. The old rule of “no means no” is now barred with buts, ifs, would haves, could haves, and other rhetorical tools to discredit the accuser. From the Clinton era to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, from Julian Assange to Herman Cain, rape is in itself redefined. When US lawmakers created the fictitious “forcible rape” concept, our contributor Josh Kitto raised the red flag and called for a state of the union in matters of rape and sexual assault. The consequences  in collective consciousness and court room tribulations are way too important to be overlooked. What is consent and why are we walking away from it?

 

“It is (…) revealing that sexual violence is seen as a natural extension of sexuality, rather than a weapon”

Who wants to hear some juicy gossip? Herman Cain, inexplicably a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, was forced to drop out due to a “sex scandal”! At least four women said he had sexually harassed them. How naughty!

Something sound wrong here? The disintegration of Cain’s campaign was framed as due to a “sex scandal”. One woman who said they had a consensual affair with Mr. Cain was put into the same category of “accusers” as those who said Mr. Cain had harassed or assaulted them. There are several revealing implications here. The use of the word “scandal” implies something salacious, not potential illegal conduct. The women are seen as equally controversial (further exacerbated by the use of “accusers”). But it is also revealing that sexual violence is seen as a natural extension of sexuality, rather than a weapon.

Discussion of sexual violence does not focus on the important second word, but on the former, almost as ‘sex gone too far’. Immediately, even if most blame remains with the ‘accused’, there is at least some shift in the burden of blame to the ‘accuser’. Rape in particular gets discussed as something almost accidental, as the next step from the condom splitting. The corollary is that rape is seen as either done by serial rapists randomly attacking women, or not at all. For a third of people according to an Amnesty International UK study in 2005, if a woman has been behaving flirtatiously (how dare they), she is partially or totally responsible for being raped. One in four believes revealing clothing leaves women totally or partially responsible for being raped. One in five had the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners (however that is defined), with one in 12 believing women were totally responsible for being raped if having had many sexual partners. The attitudes expressed in the rest of the study are also not indicative of a feminist gaia.

 

Nafissatou Diallo, DSK's victim, during a press conference

It’s tempting to cast all this as part of a right-wing framework. But it crosses the political divide, particularly if a beloved figure is threatened. Cain’s candidacy was destroyed by his support flatlining amongst Republican women. While his support fell from the mid-thirties to the mid-twenties amongst Republican men, his support amongst Grand Old Party women fell from around a quarter to about 5% in some polls. Fellow male lefties have repeated the same excuses Cain’s supporters used for their own figures ‘under attack’. Juanita Broaddrick said during the Lewinsky scandal that she was raped by Bill Clinton in 1978. She was derided by “liberals” and never given the credibility she was due. Interestingly, she was also put in the same uniform category as Lewinsky of an “accuser”. Dominique Strauss-Kahn backers immediately blamed women saying they had consensual affairs with Strauss-Kahn, and those saying that he had attempted to rape them. They were dismissed as traitors, or as right-wing plants trying to destroy his 2012 French Presidential campaign. The infamous case of Julian Assange has been framed according to the same rules. The interests who seek his prosecution do deserve scrutiny. But the women saying they were raped by Assange do not deserve the vilification offered by supposed “radicals”. Usual lines about the women’s sexual history, whether they had been flirting with Assange etc. were trotted out. Rape apologism apparently joins anti-Semitism as the ‘socialism of fools’ for some.

“When there are no trauma experts to explain that not all people being raped will scream for help or clearly say no, the jury room can easily equate this with consent.”

However, these attitudes are not limited to sexual violence towards women being seen as a natural extension of sexuality. The child rape charges against Jerry Sandusky, a Pennsylvania State football coach, and the attempted cover-up of the incidents, has been referred to as a “sex scandal”. The Catholic Church abuse cover-up is similar in many ways. One similarity was in how child rape was often referred to as “homosexual rape”. There are more insidious implications of this, namely in attempts (including by many in the Church) to link male homosexuality with paedophilia. But rape of adult males by fellow males is again seen as a natural extension of sexuality. Many vain heterosexual men fear all gay men want to rape them. Men raping men is presented in sexual terms, as something gay men do. The blame is shifted far more with the rapist than the ‘accuser’ though, certainly in comparison to men raping women. But it is still normalised as an extension of sex, rather than as a weapon. It can be a weapon used by heterosexual men against heterosexual and homosexual men. Female civilians are made more vulnerable to sexual violence by war. But male soldiers captured or beaten by an enemy become threatened with sexual violence. And as witty as gags about dropping soap in the prison shower are, male prisoners are particularly vulnerable to being raped by other men, regardless of the rapist or the raped individual’s sexuality.

The most damaging aspect is how sexualised rape trials become. If a third assumes flirtation leaves women culpable for rape, it is concerning that a third of a jury room might side against the prosecution for that reason. Subjective interpretations of rape are often relied on in the jury room. If someone underestimates the scale of rape and thinks it is limited to random attackers at night, some will lean towards the defendant if there is no evidence of physical force having been applied. When there are no trauma experts to explain that not all people being raped will scream for help or clearly say no, the jury room can easily equate this with consent. Even ‘rape shield’ laws, designed to prevent the prosecution’s sexual history being discussed, are weak and often unenforced as a 2006 Home Office study revealed. This all leads to rape not being taken seriously. Rape crisis centres face a perennial battle to protect their funding and prevent closure, with only 35 in England and Wales. The Crown Prosecution Service often fails to take a case to prosecution, sometimes dismissing cases before toxicology results have been confirmed. Even when a case is prosecuted, the ‘accuser’ often gets far less access to their lawyers than the defendant, with very little time to prepare their case.

 

Reforms could help boost prosecution of rape. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found a third of ‘no crimed’ cases did not comply with Home Office counting rules. Actually getting the crimes taken seriously in the first place is important. Having the prosecution taken seriously in the court room is similarly important, with trauma experts and proper access to prosecution lawyers needed. Just as racist jurors are judged to be partial, people with views that “flirtatious” or “sexual” women are to blame for being raped should not be deliberating. Most important of all is to actually provide raped people with the support to actually go through with a prosecution, namely ensuring greater access to rape crisis centres. But it is not just a shift in political and legal attitudes that is required. It is also a culture that makes more rational discussion about sexuality a taboo while fetishising and reaffirming sexual violence, that needs to change.

 

 

 Josh Kitto is studying history and political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, United Kingdom. He has been featured on independant media outlets such as Citizen Radio talking and discussing the student protests on the tuition hikes in 2012. An avid Howard Zinn reader and an admirer of Amy Goodman, his motto is, “Go where the silence is”. You can read his blog at Confessions of an autistic boy.

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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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