Thursday, May 19, 2011

There's no such thing as 'less serious' to the victim

I'm not a great one for political blogging, preferring the immediacy of realtime debate on Twitter. However, I do feel it necessary to write a short piece about Ken Clarke's insensitive comments yesterday on the subject of rape. It's a subject close to my heart as I have a number of dear friends who have suffered the ordeal of rape. I also, while working as a cop, dealt with many rape victims and offenders. I feel that I am qualified to comment on the situation even if it is only to offer my opinion.

The issue revolves around Clarke's comments that no one convicted of a 'serious rape' would be released as quickly as those guilty of some 'date rapes'. The inference was that some rapes are therefore less serious than others. His comments, not surprisingly, caused an immediate furore and immense anger among rape victims, female and male. I jumped on the bandwagon myself, calling Clarke insensitive only to be rebuked by some people who insisted that there were degrees of seriousness in rape cases. This is the issue I'm going to address here. I'm anxious to clarify my position.

There is no escaping the truth that, from a third party perspective i.e. police, judiciary etc. some rapes look nastier than others. Many are accompanied by violence while others happen when the victim is actually unconscious. When it comes to sentencing, the circumstances in which the assault took place should quite rightly be taken into consideration. However, the seriousness of rape has a lot more to do with effect than cause. For the person experiencing it, the degree of seriousness is entirely personal. I've known women spiral into depression and alcoholism after a 'date rape' (I hate that phrase) in which they got so drunk that they were unable to prevent a man taking advantage. I interviewed a woman who was raped by her uncle - by force but without further assault - and she committed suicide just a few days later. Then again, I've met women gang-raped at knifepoint who admit that while it will always leave them with mental scars, they have nevertheless learned to cope with the memory and live reasonably happy lives. So which is 'serious' and which is 'less serious'? Things are further complicated by legal definition. Rape is different from serious sexual assault; rape involves inserting the penis whereas serious sexual assault involves fingers or other items. Rape is seen as the more serious offece in law and yet I've met men and women who have endured the most horrifically brutal sexual assaults sometimes for hours on end without it being technically classified as rape. Is this any less serious than Ken Clarke's 'serious rape' or 'date rape'?

I don't think that Clarke should be sacked. He's one of the few Tories I've ever had any time for. And he is right in that sentencing should be based upon the features of each individual case. Brutality, torture, mental cruelty should all add weight to a sentence. But the starting point must always be that all rape is serious to the victim. By all means bolt extra penalties and punishments on but never suggest that some people will get off lighter for doing a 'less serious' rape. There's no such thing for a victim. As a QC and Justice Minister he must have known this and I'm sure that he personally doesn't view any rape as less serious than any other. If he does, he doesn't deserve to hold the position of public trust that he does. However, to say what he said without considering how his words could be interpreted shows a degree of political naivety that surprises me. His words were ill-considered and insensitive.

I do applaud the fact that he has apologised. Let's hope that he and his colleagues think before speaking in future. Wishful thinking perhaps.

And, as a barrister friend has just commented to me, what gets lost in the whole guilty/discount debate is that these measures are only necessary because we can't fund the prisons.


Paul Campbell said...

Hi Steve

I listened to the various interviews he gave yesterday. Yes, he made a right pig's ear of what he wanted to say. But I defy any male to think clearly when he's just been challenged on live radio on the subject of rape.

And he made things worse by misuse of the term "date rape".

But what I think he was actually trying to say was perfectly reasonable [takes cover].

He was asked about the length of sentence for convicted rapists. And was told by the interviewer that the average sentence was 5 years (I think). What he then tried to say was that the average figures for "rape" include a substantial number of cases which many people don't think of when they think of rape - notably, consensual sex between under-age teenagers. Anyone who has sex with an underage girl is guilty of "rape" and will find themselves herded together with all other rapists in the statistics.

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating sex with underage girls. But I think it is possible to acknowledge in some circumstances that two young people (Clarke talked about a boy of 18 and his 15 year old girlfriend) can have sex under circumstances which might be understandable. It might be inadviseable. It might be illegal. But it is sometimes done with at least as much fore-thought, consent, and love as the average adult bonk.

So, yes, some "rape" is not as bad as other types of "rape." And judges recognise this at the moment when they're sentencing. They also, incidentally, recognise a range of mitigating factors. So, while the average sentence for rape might be 5 years, the kind of rape most people imagine when they hear that word, gets, on average, a longer prison term than 5 years.

That's all he was tying to say.

He did then accidentally use the words "date rape" in the above context, which he later apologised for. And which was a stupid mistake.

I'm not a Clarke fan. But I did think that yesterday's over-the-top indignation and disgust was a particularly nasty bit of political skullduggery. I listened to a Labour MP say that Clarke was clearly in favour of rapists. And Milliband was shameless.

Rape is serious (as might have been mentioned). And to see it used as a political football was fairly unpleasant - even if it was being used to skewer a Tory Cabinet Minister!

Rant over.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Paul - Good points excellently made (I'd expect no less from you). I accept all that you say. The main thrust of my hastily written blog post was to stress that this is a hugely emotive subject - there are few that have such an impact on an individual's life - and people need to approach it with sensitivity for the victims. Clarke is a good man at heart I'm sure. And yes, the use of his mistake as a political battering ram is shameful.

Paul Campbell said...

And I agreed with everything you said, too!

Sorry if I used your blog to let off steam!

I think your point about discussing the subject with sensitivity for the victims is exactly what got my goat about the way he was being hounded yesterday.