Tom Sutcliffe: Rape should not just be an issue for women

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I wonder whether the Haven rape centres will feel that they got value for money with the online opinion poll they commissioned to mark the 10th anniversary of the support service they offer for rape victims? On the one hand, "Wake Up To Rape", the report that resulted from the survey, did get quite a lot of coverage in the media – which is always part of the point of such operations. On the other hand, the findings appeared to suggest that social attitudes to rape remain hopelessly confused, despite decades of campaigning on the issue.

The headline figures were these: more than 50 per cent of the female respondents believed that rape victims should take some responsibility for what had happened to them, and more women than men (71 per cent as opposed to 57 per cent of men) believed that getting into bed with someone counted as a kind of contributory negligence. What was perhaps more significant was that these findings came from a survey of 18- to 50-year-olds; in other words, they excluded what you might characterise as the "old-fashioned" views of an older generation. This is, if the survey is at all accurate, a "new-fashioned" attitude to the crime – and one that seems to suggest that "she was asking for it", that long-standing apologia for rapists, remains depressingly inextinguishable.

It may not be as bad as it looks, of course, and it's certainly not as bad as some overexcited headlines have made it look. "Rape? It's the fault of the victims, say 50% of women" read one on one website. Well, not quite, actually. Quite a few women felt that some victims should take some responsibility for what happened, which may be a very long way indeed from saying that any kind of behaviour is a green light for violent sexual assault.

You'd have to look at the exact wording of the questions. I have a feeling that if you asked a question such as, "Are there circumstances in which it is reasonable to force a woman to have sex against her will?", you would find very little equivocation in the responses. And there is another possible explanation for the apparent hardening of attitudes towards victims which would see it as a direct consequence of women's increased equality, rather than a failure of such ideas to take root.

Crudely speaking, the argument would run like this. Until about 50 years ago, sex was something done to women by men. Now it is something they do themselves with men. And while the old formulation was never actually true to the reality of individual sexual encounters – it was a kind of legal fiction that society maintained, and which made it easier to think of women as victims pure and simple. In owning some degree of responsibility for how sexual encounters play out, younger women may not be stigmatising themselves through false consciousness (as the rhetoric would once have it). They may just be assuming they move through a complicated world as responsible adults – on a level with men.

Which still leaves a problem. How do you prevent this more complex and more honest approach to the complexities of sexual engagement from being distorted into a licence for male sexual predation? The only real way I would have thought is by concentrating not on women's attitudes and behaviour but on men's – and in pressing home to them the fact that rape is always wrong and always a humiliation, not just for the victim but for the perpetrator too.

Women are entitled to take the view, in the abstract, that their behaviour might contribute to tip an evening the wrong way. Men, I would suggest, are not. The next time such a survey comes round, the figures we should be concentrating on are not those for female respondents but male ones – and we should be hoping, in this respect at least, that the gap between the sexes has opened up even further.

What about the person next to Kevin Smith?

Film director Kevin Smith's angry tweets about being bumped off an airline because he was too fat provoked a flurry of supportive responses from heavy-set travellers. "Don't let them muzzle you," read one. "Time to make them burn for all the fatties out there without a voice." Others pointed out, with some justice, that Southwestern Airlines would hardly be falling over themselves to apologise if the big bones in question had belonged to a less celebrated traveller. Yet another suggested that Smith should start an airline catering exclusively for the broad-beamed (good luck raising the finance for that).

The unheard voice I was interested in, though, was the poor person who'd been allocated the seat next to him. Interestingly, Smith's podcast about the affair (an interminable, self-regarding ramble that could lose a bit of weight itself) did record her one contribution. "Are you squished?" he'd asked the woman next to him after he was asked to get off the plane. "It's only an hour flight," she replied. In other words: "Yes, actually ... but I'm too polite to say it to your face."

Quite often, in these circumstances, there's a thinnie without a voice, too – mutely surrendering any hope that they'll be able to let air get at their armpits for the duration of the flight. Perhaps they should weigh passenger and baggage as a job lot and charge by the kilogram – to cover the costs of a couple of rows of wide-load seating somewhere around the balance point.

And now for my theory about Francis Bacon

The problem: you are an academic at a minor university whose public profile is not quite what you'd want. The solution: come up with an outlandish theory about a dead celebrity. You may remember that the method was effectively deployed a while ago when two German academics surmised – on next to no evidence at all – that Gaugin had sliced off Van Gogh's ear in a street brawl, the crime subsequently being covered up with the story of self-mutilation. But that scholarly bit of grand guignol has been put in the shade by the suggestion, from an academic at the University of Erlangen, that Descartes was murdered by a Catholic priest to prevent him from infecting Queen Christina of Sweden with unsound theological ideas.

"It is very likely that he saw in Descartes an obstacle to the Queen's conversion to the Catholic faith," Theodore Ebert says. What's a tiny bit less likely – I venture to suggest – is that this defender of the faith should decide to do Descartes in by means of an arsenic-poisoned communion wafer, a method that doesn't seem to sit well with a reverent defence of the dogma of transubstantiation. Again, the evidence advanced is so flimsy that you couldn't even dignify it with the word "circumstantial" – but it's a great story and will no doubt provide a lot of media citations for the CV.

I offer as still available to the publicity-hungry academic the true story of Francis Bacon's death – which had nothing to do with experiments with frozen chickens and everything to do with the need to cover up a gay affair with King James I. Not a jot of proof for this theory, of course, but that shouldn't limit the headlines.

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