While I was in bed last night, trying to fall asleep and being irritated back to consciousness by Stephen Nolan but still feeling too tired to reach out and turn the radio off, I heard something so intensely depressing I wished I’d been listening to Radio 4’s platitude half-hour Something Understood instead. Stephen was interviewing Jill, a rape victim who now campaigns against sexual violence, on why more women don’t report and prosecute rapes – by way of following up on the appalling Worboys case.
Listen to the interview (begins about 2:33, available until 22 March 2009)
Jill spoke very clearly and affectingly about her attack, the trauma it caused and the way that the investigation and prosectution compounded her distress. She made a very good spokesperson for herself, and an admirable advocate for coming forward. But Stephen Nolan was presenting her as an expert and asking her to comment on issues way beyond her individual experience. The answers she gave ranged from powerful to naive to offensive, and while I don’t feel especially good about criticising a rape victim for talking about rape, it bothers me enormously that the BBC selected her emotional response as a survivor over the analysis that a criminologist or sociologist could have given on some of these issues. This is how Jill describes what happened to her:
I was at home in my father’s vicarage. I wasn’t very well, I was watching TV with my boyfriend, my dad was working in his study, and four men broke into the house. Two of them… well, one of them raped me, the other committed sexual assaults on me.
Then Stephen asks Jill if she felt that she wouldn’t be believed, and Jill says: “I never had that doubt in my mind,” and explains that building the case against her rapists was her way of coping with the attack. “But that’s not true for very very many people,” she adds. What she doesn’t mention – and I wish she or Nolan had – was that her rape sounds unusual in that it was committed by (apparently) strangers who invaded her home rather someone she knew, and it was witnessed by two people. Assisting the prosecution probably did help her a lot, but most rapes aren’t so amenable to prosecution. Most rapes don’t involve extreme violence in a vicarage and eyewitnesses, and many attacks can be presented as something much more equivocal in the courtroom: for women who are raped by acquaintances, or after they’ve been drinking, or when they’ve gone into a rapist’s home or car, remembering all the details would simply be pointlessly reviving suffering.
Jill forcefully knocks backs Nolan’s questions about false allegations (rates no higher than any other crime) and the issue of confusion over consent: “Sex is very different from rape, which is an unwanted invasion of somebody. To say that sex and rape are the same thing seems to justify in a man’s mind why he’s doing this.” And then, having made that clear, Jill talks about why juries might be reluctant to convict rapists. And this is where it gets sort of unpleasant:
In this country we tend to believe that women ask for rape, that realistically they have some deep down desire to want to be taken. And some women portay that, and some women have no understanding of the damage that they’re actually doing to the rest of the people who don’t want to be treated in that way. […] There are some women who seem to feel that it’s their right to do whatever they want to do sexually and don’t see that what they do has an impact on how men perceive women and how men perceive how they can treat women. […] One thing that you could talk about that’s been hitting the news quite a bit recently is the spread of lapdancing clubs. […] We are eroding any kind of sexual rules in this country. […] We’re clouding the issue so much, and we’re giving so many mixed messages, that people think they have a right to go out and get what they want.
It shouldn’t need saying – and it’s painful to say it to someone who’s actually been raped – but portraying yourself as sexual doesn’t take away the right to say no. Lapdancing, prostitution or even “doing whatever you want sexually” doesn’t place you in a state of perpetual consent. Jill should have stuck to saying that sex and rape are different, because here she seems to be saying that there are some women who are so sexually available they’re inviting rape on every female. (I guess if you get raped in a lapdancing club, that would be your lookout.) And of course, this long assault on the nation’s morals isn’t backed up any study of the correlation between lapdancing clubs and incidence of rape – it’s just what Jill feels to be true.
There’s a lot that could be said about how rape is prosecuted in this country. “I blame the lapdancers” shouldn’t come into it at all.