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.