We need to talk about rape. It is a serious crime that harms millions of people. It is a crime that is currently the focus of public concern.
And it is a crime that has seen significant changes in how it is investigated and prosecuted in recent years, as well as there being further proposals for major changes to the law to ensure more convictions; such as the plan to abolish corroboration in Scotland which is on hold for the moment but which will probably be revisited in 2015.
Given all these factors, we need to be able to discuss it. We need to be able to ask: what is rape and what makes it so serious, as well as question whether changes in police practice, government policy and legislation are sensible and fair, without this being taken as trivialising the act, or somehow letting rapists off the hook. The trouble is that it is increasingly difficult to say anything on the subject without offending someone and being told to shut up.
Rape has become such a sensitive topic that even raising questions about the problem or our response to it can result in something akin to hysteria and the questioner being accused of being a rape apologist. Raise a note of concern about any of this and you could well be accused of rape denial – rhetoric that compares raising questions about the definition and prosecution of rape to the act of Holocaust denial.
The latest person to proffer a few thoughts on the rape question, if indirectly, and to be subject to an unhelpful frenzy of unreason, is Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of the book The God Delusion. This week he tweeted a few remarks on rape and was the butt of, in his words, a “tsunami of hate”, in response. This is what Dawkins wrote on his Twitterfeed:
“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn to think.”
He followed these tweets, by saying: “Mild pedophilia [sic] is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn to think.”
Ostensibly he wrote these tweets to illustrate the issue of syllogisms – logical argument where comparisons do not indicate any approval of either. Earlier he had tweeted about syllogisms, saying: “X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically.”
What Dawkins was doing was showing that it is possible to differentiate between the seriousness of two different crimes while condemning both of them. He condemned date rape and he condemned stranger rape with a knife, but he also made the point that stranger rape with a knife is worse.
Dawkins was instantly condemned in outraged reaction.
One critic wrote: “What the hell is mild rape?!?! Ugh just … stop. Rape is rape. One is not ‘worse’ than the other.”
Another tweeted: “You are a monumental idiot sometimes.” Another said: “@RichardDawkins you have no knowledge of the issue, no experience, no evidence, no facts. You are a fool. Not once.”
Dawkins is well-known for speaking out beyond his expertise in a pontificating and intemperate manner. And social media is hardly known for being a place of rational discussion, so it should come as no surprise that he has received a bit of a Twitter slap in response. But even so, the reaction he received was disproportionate to his offence, and it missed his point about syllogisms entirely. Even more importantly, Dawkins was right: there are different degrees and kinds of rape. And most importantly of all, someone saying so should not be demonised.
The reaction to Dawkins’ comments amounts to more than being just this week’s social media spat. Others before Dawkins – white men of a certain age, it has to be said – have had a similar, troubling experience which should give us cause for concern. When he was justice secretary, Ken Clarke said not only that some rapes are more serious than others, but that some rapes are not all that serious and rightly attract a reasonably short prison sentence. He was hounded by shocked feminists, some of whom argued that middle-aged men “must not pontificate about rape”. George Galloway got the same treatment when he said that having sex with someone while they were asleep and without a condom, “did not constitute rape”. Arguing that it does, he said, bankrupted the term rape “of all its meaning”. Galloway was accused of rape denial for these sensible, if difficult to say, comments.
Without question the same criminal acts can impact the victims differently. The victim brings to the experience their own specific experiences and personality which will influence how they react to what happened. It’s entirely possible that someone could be raped by a friend and never get over it, and that someone else raped at knifepoint by a stranger could get over it quickly – people are different. And both acts are wrong, of course.
But this is a different point to how we – collectively – judge these criminal acts. As a society we make distinctions between the severity of criminal acts. Making these distinctions is about saying that particular acts are wrong and that there is a commonly agreed basis for saying so. And this is the basis of law and for prosecution. Before setting the appropriate sentence for pretty much every crime, judges take into account all the circumstances of the offence, mitigating and aggravating. In doing so, the impact on the victim is not as important as the act and the intention of the perpetrator to commit that act – this is because it is the act that is wrong, regardless of what impact it did or did not have. Judging the criminal act is about assigning gradations in culpability and holding people to account for what they did. On this occasion, Dawkins, Clarke and Galloway all have a point and should be heard. We need to be able to talk about rape.