Calls for British Justice Secretary’s resignation over “serious rape” comments

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It all started with a proposal for a new sentencing procedure in rape trials. Earlier this week British Justice Secretary Ken Clarke proposed that would make it possible for convicted rapists to cut their sentences by up to 50% if they entered an early guilty plea – currently, the figure is 33%.

People reacted badly, and so Clarke tried to explain himself and, in the words of one UK columnist, made it worse every time he opened his mouth. The most egregious of his statements, and the one that has people calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to sack him, was this one:

Serious rape, I don’t think many judges give five years for a forcible rape — frankly, the tariff is longer than that. A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman — the tariff is longer than that,” he told BBC radio.
When the interviewer interjected, saying “Rape is rape, with respect,” he said: “No, it’s not.”

He went on to say that “date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes but date rapes … in my very old experience of being in trials … they do vary extraordinarily one from another, and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

People are, understandably, not happy. To a rape survivor, whether or not there was violence involved makes very little difference: rape is rape. It’s always a violation, it’s always a crime, and it’s always serious.

Clarke seems to make the mistake that so many other people make when they talk about rape, which is to imagine that “stranger rape” is the more common and more “serious” form of the crime. In fact, as we well know, the majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and do not involve what Clarke might deem to be “violence.” Those rapes are still rapes, and they are serious. Making a distinction between “serious” rapes and “date rapes,” whether it’s a linguistic one or a legal one, ignores that reality, lets rapists off the hook and makes women who have been raped feel that their experiences of sexual violence don’t matter because they weren’t violent enough.

The UK’s Fawcett Society has issued a statement about Clarke’s comments, saying that the Minister’s stance “suggests common misconceptions about sexual violence exist at the heart of government.” The statement continues:

The Ministry of Justice urgently needs to tackle shockingly low reporting levels – almost 90 per cent of rapes are never even reported to the police, and the shamefully high attrition rate – few of those cases that are reported make it all the way to court.

In the light of today’s events, we call on the government to restate its commitment to tackling sexual violence in all its forms and to clarify that rape is always a serious crime, the perpetrators of which should always face the full force of the law.

Today, after pressure from Cameron, Clarke apologized for his comments – to one woman, at least. After a rape survivor called in to a radio show on which Clarke was a guest and began to cry on air in response to his comments, Clarke wrote to her: “I have always believed that all rape is extremely serious, and must be treated as such. I am sorry if my comments gave you any other impression or upset you.” There is now speculation that Clarke will announce a walk-back of the policy changes as early as tomorrow.

All in all, not a great week for powerful aging white dudes and sexual violence. Not a good week at all.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Louise

    Obviously, in this case, the guy has been an ass, but calls for his resignation should be framed within the context of the right wing press calling for his resignation, or looking for situations in which they can call for his resignation, for months now. We’re unlikely to get another dude from this administration who’s been half as sensible as him about community sentences, limited use of prison and focus on rehabilitation for ALL crimes as this guy. The tabloid media would far rather have a more ‘lock ‘em up’ approach to criminal justice than Ken has so far provided. He’s fucked up here, but I’d rather he didn’t resign. He’ll only be replaced with worse.

  • Smiley

    I think you are being a little harsh.

    From what I read, Ken Clarke – a lawyer – is saying that not all rapes are the same, and the differences should be taken into account.

    That does not mean that he thinks that a rapist should be treated leniently.

    He gave as an example a case where an 18-year man has sex with a 15-year old girl/woman. Even if she consents, he is guilty of rape under English law – it assumes that she cannot give consent at that age.

    Maybe you disagree with English law, but that is the way it stands.

    He is a barrister (lawyer) and has much experience of trials. His arguments should be listened to carefully and not dismissed out of hand.

    • Tanya

      Smiley – that isn’t the way English law stands. Clarke got it wrong, which is appalling. Consensual sex with a 15-yr-old is not legally classed as “rape” (section 1, Sexual Offences Act 2003) it is “sexual activity with a child” (section 9). Consensual sex between minors cannot therefore be used to explain away the low average sentences for rape.

      I don’t expect everyone to be an expert on criminal law, I do expect our justice secretary to be. I can’t believe he hasn’t retracted this completely inaccurate statement of the law.

      • Smiley

        Thanks for the correction.

      • David Godfrey

        Actually it can, to a degree at least. Because “sexual activity with a child” is a penetrative act it is included within the rape statistics. Currently the average sentence is five years. Five years ago it was seven and a half, as mentioned in this article. I find it difficult to understand why the change in statistics gathering was made by the last government, but it was.

        Of course that then begs the question as to whether 7 1/2 years is adequate. I think we can agree that it isn’t, but as I know very little about sentencing I’m not sure I’m qualified to discuss it further.

  • Patrick

    It’s a fair point though. Just as some forms of murder or assault are less heinous than others, some rapes may not have the physical or psychological effects as others. I think that’s all he was trying to say. I could be wrong.

  • Dan

    I don’t like the implicit assertion that there is no such thing as an especially heinous rape. Follow the same logic that allows ‘aggravated assault and battery’ to be legally treated differently from a heated argument with shoving: Misdemeanor convictions for some infractions, and varying degrees of felony for crimes that are qualitatively or quantitatively different.

    For example, there could be a 10 month maximum sentence for summary convictions of sexual assault, involving nonconsensual sexual touching, and up to a life conviction for nonconsensual penetration. Just like there already is.

  • jv

    Feministing’s criticism is misconceived.

  • Luisa

    I’d agree with louise, in that he’s the best of a bad bunch and honestly, he’s better than Jack Straw was, who still hasn’t moved past his ‘prison works!’ mantra, despite the abundant evidence that it’s not that simple. And I do happen to agree that sentencing needs careful consideration and reform. I also understand what he appear to have been trying to articulate in the interview; although there are no degrees of rape, there are aggravating factors, and sentencing does, and I think has to, reflect that.

    However, smiley is incorrect – the example he chose, of a just legal boy with a consenting not-quite legally able to consent girl is not rape under English law, it’s unlawful intercourse (1957 Act) and the penalties are different. If consent wasn’t present it’s charged as rape (2003 Act). Statutory rape which is the American name for the offence he was gesturing towards, is penetration of a child under 13, and again is penalised differently.
    And that’s partly why the outrage – he conflated something that is not rape with rape and then, however unintentionally, in multiple interviews, he contrasted those with ‘serious forcible rape with an unwilling woman’ which does diminish the seriousness of date rape.
    He further mired himself by a) suggesting the outrage was manufactured to create “sexual excitement”, b) has as yet failed to respond to the fact that these proposals would see rapists serving less than year in some cases, c) it still hasn’t been clarified as to why rape was chosen as belonging to the category of crimes which might attract a 50% discount (as opposed to the current 30%), and d) has not admitted that he was in fact wrong on the law, merely saying he needs to chose his words more carefully.
    Overall as a minister, like any other, he’s not going to be judged on what he meant to say; he will be judged on what he does say, and what he did say was ill advised in the extreme. It further behoves him, if he is going to bring his experience as a barrister into it, (which he did) to get his facts right, which he did not. I was particularly amused by his suggestion that the law on rape hadn’t changed since he moved into politics – twenty years ago, when he was practising, marital rape wasn’t a crime. He won’t lose his job but rightly, he’s getting a barracking.

  • David Godfrey

    It should also be noted that the discussion was originally about plea bargaining, and the option of reducing a sentence in exchange for an early guilty plea was to apply in all crimes, not just rape. Its also entirely at the discretion of the judge in the case- they can take it into account, but they don’t have to act on it.

    The interviewer chose rape as a particularly emotive example. Its also deeply unfortunate that Clarke chose to confuse the terms “date rape” and “statutory rape” (which isn’t the name used in the UK- here its “sex with a minor”/”unlawful sexual intercourse”- and prosecutions are rare) which he seemed to think it meant. Because that shows him up as uninformed and arrogant- not something you want in the Justice Secretary, but not exactly unusual in politicians.

    I can’t quite believe I’m defending the guy, but as Louise points out, anyone who replaces him from the Conservative Party is likely to be a good deal worse.

    • Tanya

      Ah few. So pleased to see here at least there are other people flagging his misstatement of the law!