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Home > Culture and Society

It Was the Skirt, Your Honour

25 November 2005

Where rape is concerned, there is never much you can call good news. It happens often, is reported rarely, and convictions are few. The best that can be hoped for is a crawl towards greater enlightenment and care on behalf of the justice system, and on behalf of ordinary people. You hope that at least things can be stopped from getting any worse; this is why when newspapers start hollering that one in three people believes the blame for rape rests with its victims, you start to fear for the fragile advances in attitudes that have seemingly been made to date.

Amnesty International's report, whose findings were released this week, was pretty depressing. It found that around one in three people believes flirtatious behaviour on the part of a woman makes her partially responsible if she is subsequently raped; same applies for drunkenness, and a greater percentage of people (both sexes) surveyed think that revealing clothing also confers a degree of responsibility. This sad but not unpredictable perspective translates nicely into shrieking headlines along the lines of 'victims to blame, say surveyed bastards' and of course 'rotten swine accuse women of asking for it'. Unfortunately, all this really does is whip up the sort of hysteria that contributes to rape rates remaining high and conviction rates remaining low.

The issue of leading questions aside, and forgetting for a moment that Amnesty are a very worthy and worthwhile organisation, a survey of this sort achieves little, if anything. It's unlikely to infuriate any potential rapists to the point at which they go out and look for a victim, but what are we to do with its information? Papers don't have a problem - they can trumpet their disgust at the lack of compassion and understanding it seems to display (the more confused and hypocritical the organ's attitude towards women, the louder the trumpeting, obviously). But the rest of us are nowhere. It's infuriating to think that perhaps the people we know would shuffle their feet and say 'well, she *was* pretty pissed, and that dress didn't leave much to the imagination, sooo... cough...' if someone else we knew was attacked. But what do you do with said fury? If you're a woman, you might decide not to wear what you were going to wear tomorrow night after all; in which case you might feel afraid, pre-emptively guilty under the judgemental eye of the one-in-three, or just incredibly cross that other women might feel these things. Or incredibly cross that, seemingly, you should have to censure your own dress and social behaviour in order not just to protect yourself from harm, but to insulate yourself from blame for that harm.

The problem - one of the problems - is that we have no idea of the pejorative-quotient of the survey answers. The difference between 'I would blame you in this instance' and 'I would consider you partially responsible under these circumstances' is vast, but you wouldn't know it from the coverage of the survey. Surveys of this kind are meant to raise awareness and influence opinion; in this case, there seems to be hardly anything left to do.

People are aware that rape often occurs in situations involving booze and short skirts and uninhibited behaviour; women are aware that they can take steps to protect themselves; judges are aware that it is often very difficult to reach a conclusion as to whether or not consent was given, or implied. This week a rape case was thrown out, when the woman alleging rape told the court she had been too drunk to recall whether or not she consented to sex. Also, two 16-year-old girls were jailed for perverting the course of justice after falsely alleging rape and kidnap. These are not likely to be the last such instances; both were taken very seriously up until a certain point, and while there's no arguing with the latter decision, there is doubt as to whether in the former case a decision should have been allowed to be made. People form opinions as to the effects of female inebriation and flirting based on the reporting of cases like these - a survey like Amnesty's is just a summary of what we already figured.

Leaving a laptop bag on the front seat of an unalarmed car makes you partially responsible, in your foolishness, for its theft; you could have put it in the boot and greatly decreased your chances of being a victim of opportunistic crime. Showing your legs while getting a bit pissed and making saucy comments isn't really comparable; vulnerability does not equate to culpability. You can only take responsibility for your own actions, not for the actions - violent or otherwise - of others. You might think someone is rash for walking down a darkened alley at night, but you wouldn't think of blaming them if they were mugged or stabbed - that rape is seen differently speaks volumes about how people still mistake it for an extension of normal sex in all cases.

You may make yourself more vulnerable to a certain type of rapist if you wear something skimpy, but that doesn't make skimpy clothing an irresponsible thing in itself. The suggestion that it is - that every drink, each bared centimetre of flesh and fluttered eyelash amounts to another point in favour of a rapist's partial exoneration - is a disgusting one, but not a surprising one. This is the public we're talking about, after all. And don't forget that Amnesty might not be above phrasing their questions in such a way as to produce the kind of survey that makes headlines. The intention is good, of course - raising an important issue once again, working to change noxious and backward views - but sadly the main result of the survey in the short term will probably be to make women more afraid. As such, it's little better than the endless forwarding of a hoax email about a new date rape drug that makes you sterile.

Amnesty want to use the survey to pressure the government. 'It's up to the government to change these attitudes,' says spokesman Neil Durkin, 'and look at to what extent they permeate the criminal justice system.' That would be nice, but attitude change takes a long time, and requires much more than mere governmental say-so. At least we are far enough away from women ever being charged with incitement to rape for such attitudes to remain toothless, if angering. In the meantime, you can do your bit by slapping anyone who suggests women are to blame, and then admit that you are wholly responsible for slapping them. Just to make the point clear.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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