Thursday, 19 May 2011

Serious and impossible


1. Kenneth Clarke used the word 'serious' about rape, with the implication that there is less serious rape. Naturally that was met with a storm of protest with calls for his resignation, surprisingly enough from The Sun (for whom, I suspect, Clarke is the wrong sort of Tory, so best get rid). We know - everyone knows - what Clarke meant because he explained it. He wanted to say that violent rape against any woman draws a much heavier sentence than does, say, illicit sex between a seventeen year old boy and a willing fifteen year old girl which is also termed rape because the girl is considered to be below the age of consent. If the two crimes were equal then presumably the seventeen year old boy should receive exactly the same sentence as the man who, with violence and threats, forced a woman to sex.

I am not sure if anyone is proposing this. If they are they can argue it, but I haven't heard it argued so I don't think so. The furore then is about Clarke's choice of word, which is deemed to represent a bad way of thinking about rape. Whether or not it does represent such a way of thinking is impossible to answer without having a reasonably long record of Clarke's pronouncements on the subject. It was, however, a stupid word to use, and I imagine he was needled to it by the suggestion that rape crime generally receives sentences of a year or so. Most rape crimes do not, he wanted to say, but then used the word 'serious', which was a serious mistake.

2. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who may or may not have committed rape, but is assumed to have done so, and been treated accordingly both physically and in that his career has been declared to have ended. It is one of those ironic things that Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, is also a Socialist, and might have been a serious (that word again) challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy. Two interesting strands of the arrest have been, first, the conspiracy theory that Strauss-Kahn has been somehow stitched up by Sarkozy's people and, secondly, the line of thought that the French have long been far too tolerant of the sexual lives of their public figures, and that this is where such things have to stop.

As with Clarke, I don't know the truth, I only note the events and the effects. There has not been a trial yet in the Strauss-Kahn case so there has been no verdict. But his life is over, as may Clarke's public career be. In other words, nothing needs to be certain: suspicions and accusations are enough. This is mined territory even to think about, the signs clearly say, and you enter at your risk. It doesn't help that Strauss-Kahn is very rich and the chambermaid, like any chambermaid, is poor. It doesn't help, especially in today's climate, that Strauss-Kahn is a banker, nor that he is head of the IMF. And most certainly he may be guilty of the crime of which he is accused. I was going to say, 'He probably is' but then I stopped. On what grounds am I suggesting 'probably'? I don't have grounds. If he is guilty he deserves all he gets. But he's got some of that already.

3. Then Anne Atkins does her Thought for The Day in which she compares the language of sex with the language of religion and finds similarities. She says that a male acquaintance - a rather naive acquaintance, I imagine - once asked her why, if the sexual act was the same whether it happened by force or by seduction, rape was considered as 'serious' a crime as it is generally held to be. Her reply to him talked of the opposites of disgust and terror on the one hand and pleasure and trust on the other. The crime, she suggested in effect, was only partly of the body: it was a crime against being, in that it deprived the victim of choice, and that this choice lay so deep in the psyche that it resonated through the whole being.

Maybe then, it is a matter of autonomy. Autonomy, choice and control might be at the heart of it. And that might lead us into another discussion. But it's not easy having a conversation in a minefield.

So to Fulke Greville, from Mustapha Act V, Scene 4 1609:

Oh wearisome condition of Humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound,
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound:
What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason self-division cause.
Is it the mask or majesty of Power
To make offences that it may forgive?


Anonymous said...

As a female I don't don't have the same feeling of wandering into a minefield as you do when discussing issues surrounding rape. In British culture it feels like even the hint of sexual scandal can be very damaging to career and personal life. If a celebrity is accused of rape then the bad whiff never goes away. Rightly or wrongly depending on circumstance.
The Strauss-Kahn story has made the Polanski scandal come to the surface again and be re-examined in the public eye. The French do seem to have a different attitude to sexual transgression, I like to think that if a British film maker were accused of drugging and raping a 13 year girl, that we would not harbour them, but send them off to stand trail.
Does anyone remember Gerard Depardieu and his astonishing PR disaster some years back, when he spoke freely of committing some rapes and even described prowling around at night waiting for some woman to be alone at the bus stop before he pounced.
The chances of getting a rape conviction in this country are pretty slim, I should imagine the statistics in France are even worse.

George S said...

I wouldn't dispute any of that, Anon. The convictions might be rare because often it's the word of one against the word of the other, and if time has passed the physical evidence must be harder to produce. I do think it is, rightly, one of the gravest charges to be laid against someone. I don't remember the Depardieu case but I certainly remember the Polanski.

As a side note, 'transgression' is a strange word. Artists everywhere were priding themselves on being transgressive. I suspect the sexual arena is extraordinarily difficult to handle in terms of legislation. Drugged and raped at thirteen, however, is not difficult. Nor is the charge - if proven - against Strauss-Kahn.

But the social gravity of the charge is demonstrated in his case by the consequences before any trial.

Anonymous said...

I was using transgression to cover all crossed boundaries in the sexual landscape. It seems that Strauss-Kahn was transgressive and even earned himself the title of 'hot rabbit' for all his extra marital affairs. Although applying the term 'hot rabbit' to a 62 year old man accused of rape makes me uncomfortable. Sorry to be squeamish. Of course just because Strauss-Kahn had sexual appetites that led him to have affairs and encounters does not mean he is more capable or guilty of the accused rape. Although if we go along with the conspiracy theories for the briefest moment, it would make him that much easier to set up.

George S said...

I suppose the French have been more tolerant of hot rabbits of either gender, or at least acknowledged their existence, shrugging in that typically gallic way, as if to say, Well there is no denying there are rabbits and some are hot, or as Blake put it, One law for the lion and the ox is oppression. To which the rider may be added that being oppressed by a lion is also oppression.

Mind you, sometimes the gallic shrug seems preferable to the sudden shocked splurges of ketchup in the Brit press. Don't you think that the Brit press idea of sex is derived from Benny Hill? I can just hear the background music.

Anonymous said...

But that is just it, French privacy laws don't permit journalists to write about what they discover about the bedroom antics of their politicians and celebrities. Which on the one hand is good and tolerant in a culture were having a mistress or lovers outside the marital situation is perfectly permissable but I suppose on the other hand it could allow the odd individual with more illeagal tastes to slip under the radar.
The press in this country is a bit old seaside postcard and does frown on the extra marital relations of celebrities and politicians. But as far as the politicians are concerned, they usually set themselves up for criticism by taking an antiquated stance on morals and family values and end up looking like glorious hypocrits.
The same goes for the celebrities who sell their wedding photos and various happy ever after stories for millions, then when the almost enevitable affair or transgression occurs, of course the papers are going to leap all over it.

George S said...

Yes, quite so. Though the odd individual slipping under the radar is the case in every human enterprise, isn't it?

Celebs and politicos must take more responsibility of course if they want to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Though those who expose them are no less hypocritical.

I just like to feel that we know, as much as we can, what we are talking about and that we talk about things honestly, all the while knowing that odd individual matters will continue slipping under the radar, if only because we too are part of human affairs. But then that too is part of the honesty.

Favourite phrase: I don't know but I seem to think that...

George S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
panther said...

An interesting case. But I don't think I can be the only person who was ill at ease when the story broke to hear DSK's affairs and seductions talked about in the very same reports that reported his arraignment on charges of attempted rape.

Plenty of womanisers (a tricky word ) wouldn't dream of raping anyone, much less actually doing so.

Being a hot rabbit should only be of concern to the hot rabbit him/herself, the hot rabbit's spouse/partner and the other people with whom the hot rabbit is hot-rabbiting. Unless said hot rabbit is setting him/herself up as a guardian of public morality.

George S said...

It is indeed a tricky word 'womaniser', panther. The Don Juans of the world must have some quality besides a fixed determination to have their way. So charm, so talk, so flirtation, so sheer pleasure in company, so romance, and so it goes. Even Casanova preferred seduction to rape. Seduction is so much more a compliment to the seducer.

Hot rabbits are in many ways the simplest part of the deal. Isn't there a new film based on the premise that husband goes off hot rabbiting while wife falls in love with someone else and each is trying to figure out which is worse?

In DSK's case (thank you for the acronym) I do completely share your unease. That is prejudicial reporting. Though it might be compared with reports of women's previous sexual experience or with being accused of being 'provocatively dressed' on previous occasions when reporting rape.

Nor is that altogether simple either. One day when I am feeling braver I'll try to think my way through it.

Shuggy said...

But he's got some of that already.

As have his accusers. I'm interested in the way people seem to think that the presumption of innocence somehow means everyone is to pretend they have no opinion on whether he did it or not. Obviously the arresting authorities have an opinion on the matter, otherwise they wouldn't have arrested him.

I'm also interested in what this shows about people's attitudes to power. Do all these commentators share this 'discomfort' when someone lower down the social hierarchy is presumed guilty by the press?

George S said...

Fair point on power, Shuggy. But it's a difficult balance. On what basis do we form 'an opinion', as you put it?

An arrest is not a charge, and I doubt you would want to go far down that road. In that case anyone arrested might as well be guilty. (I myself suspect he might be guilty, but don't consider that suspicion particularly valuable.)

The police might well have an opinion, but we - meaning you and I and other opinion mongers - don't know what the police knows. Nor has what they think they know been tested. It's not a bad idea for those who are not the police to bear that in mind.

Shuggy said...

An arrest is not a charge

That he has now been charged won't have escaped your attention. I don't mean to say that it follows from this he is guilty, only that the presumption of innocence is an obligation that falls primarily on the court. I don't see how other people speculating as to whether he did it can be shown to compromise this.

George S said...

I expected him to be charged though it doesn't make any real difference whether I expected it or not. wo points here:

1) Compromising a case would depend on the amount, kind and degree of assumption of guilt. It is not always easy to keep the court and public speculation apart. There seemed to be a lot of assumptions in this case. But I freely admit that doesn't necessarily prejudice an outcome: it only might.

2) My opinion, or any other less then fully informed opinion of the case, such as we don't have, is worth no more than, 'I bet the bugger did it.' That doesn't seem like an opinion particularly worth articulating: in fact it seems to me to open the door to witch-hunts of various kinds. But again, I grant you that it is the nature of people to speculate and have opinions. But that doesn't stop me not liking it.