Thursday, 19 May 2011

Rape Is Rape - DSK, Kenneth Clarke and the Congress of Misogynists

The last few days have witnessed two very telling issues about how women and sexual violence continue to be viewed by the so-called Great and Good in some quarters at least. Depressing is not quite adequate enough a word to describe the misogynist streak that continues to run through the outlook and thinking of policymakers at the highest levels of our allegedly modern society.

First came the admirably fast response of the FBI in arresting the (now former) head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as he waited on a flight out of the the USA, following allegations from a hotel maid that he had locked her in his room, indecently assaulted her, tried to rape her and then departed the hotel in something of a rush. What has followed has been a curious and often disturbing outpouring of Gallic remorse, not about the alleged harm to the victim, but about the damage to the national reputation, followed by a gradual leaking of more and more stories about how this man has behaved extremely inappropriately towards women in both his social and work circles for years.

One allegation, from 9 years ago, concerned his alleged attempted rape of a then-22 year old god-daughter of his wife, who was persuaded by her Socialist politician mother not to make a formal complaint against him for the sake of their political party - and Strauss-Kahn's ambitions to become President of France. A second comes from within the IMF, where a Hungarian-born economist has alleged she found him putting increasing pressure on her to sleep with him after his attempts to woo her with discussions on African economies did not provoke his desired response.

Aside from his own perceptions of what he was doing, however, what is truly disturbing is the behaviour of those around him who, while on the whole not quite rushing to his defence, have at least equivocated, resorting to the old excuses of his being a bit of a ladies man, a seducer not a rapist. Aside from any alleged violence on his part, it is clear his colleagues and peers were aware of his misuse of his powerful position and still they apparently said nothing and did nothing. Instead, they cleared his way to become the leading contender for the highest national office until the rather bold action of some policemen last weekend. (Though would they have been as fast were he not French, who knows?)

The mythical male excuse: Eve the Temptress
Meantime, the British Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke MP, yesterday ran into a storm of protest after comments he made during a radio interview about his proposed reforms of the penalties for rapists. After some confused rambling about underage sex and rape, he declined to agree to the proposition that "rape is rape", suggesting that "date rape" cases, where the woman knows her attacker, were not necessarily as serious as other types of rape. Unable to comprehend the criticism he then came under, he very troublingly commented that those protesting were focusing on rape in order to "add a bit of sexual excitement to the headlines".

He has now apologised, insisting rape is always a serious crime, but the incident raises major concerns about how fit for office he is - his comments at least imply a belief that rape can somehow be non-violent, or that, by their actions, women can somehow be responsible for being raped or, yet worse still, even be willing to be raped. This latter view is not entirely uncommon - predicated as it is on the biblical myth of Eve the Temptress and Adam the Uncontrollable Phallus and crystallised into the old rubbish propounded by predominantly upper-class oiks that when a women says "no" she doesn't really mean it. It is a deep insult to both women and men, creating the dangerous lie that the former is the willing victim of the latter, who, beyond an apparently pretty low threshold, becomes so sexually aroused that he cannot control himself because of the tempting signals exuded by the unthinking woman.

It is, of course, a total lie, a calumny created by miosgynist societies and enshrined in the three main Abrahamic religions via the Eden Serpent myth, and it is utterly appalling that such ancient prejudice should continue to even vaguely inform the thinking of lawmakers and the judiciary in 21st century Britain. And elsewhere - as covered in an earlier post, it is only a few weeks ago that a similar proposal was put to the US Congress by rightwing Christian politicians to make a legal distinction between "forcible rape" and the rather contradictory notion of non-forced rape. It is a view used in all too many societies to alternately exploit and suppress women, to strip them bare in thousands of news media pages or to shroud them in wimples and burkas to prevent them tipping supposedly helpless men over the edge by a glimpse of a lock of hair. By this men are relieved of responsibility for their actions, while women become charged with causing the actions of others in harming them - a pretty unique way of looking at a crime.

So, while he is indeed innocent until proven guilty, whatever the outcome of Strauss-Kahn's case, and whether or not Clarke resigns (which he should, or be sacked), the past week shows more than ever the need for both laws and culture which make much clearer the rights of women to go about their daily business unmolested by the sneering, laddish and loutish behaviour of men who know better. It should not be left to the courage of a solitary, low paid hotel worker to bring a complaint against the highest ranking banker in the world to make the case for change.

But there again, perhaps these different cases from across the western world simply typify the apparent sense of impunity the political and corporate classes hold in their dealings with the rest of society. And just as we need to tackle the dreadful misogyny apparent in these cases, so too we need to challenge the very existence of the power structures that permit and even encourage such stratified views of other humans, female and male, to exist in the first place.


  1. Not to dismiss the rest of your blog, which I broadly agree with, you may need to look at "as he waited on an urgently booked flight out of the the USA", because as far as I was aware, the flight was pre-booked as he was attending a meeting in Brussels? This has been reported pretty much in every bit of coverage I've read.

  2. Point taken, perhaps, as he was due in Berlin on the Sunday - though several newspapers report that he left belongings behind in the hotel, including his cellphone and appeared to have left in a hurry. One paper reported that he did not actually need a boarding pass as he has an arrangement with Air France to board their planes without one. So amended! Though the main point is not to determine his guilt on this particular instance - the courts process is the only way to do so; but the "power play" of the political class in thinking it can treat others with impunity is a striking social parallel with the brutal sexual crime of rape.