Cut through rape myths and one thing remains: no means no

Skirt length and underwear choices rarely come up in connection with other criminal cases. Why do myths persist in the relentlessly wobbly discourse around rape?


This week, Babulal Gaur, a politician from India’s ruling party, came up with a new definition of rape. It is, he said, “a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. Until there’s a complaint, nothing can happen.”

What an absurd, despicable attitude this is, especially when you see it spelt out on the page like that. And yet perhaps it’s everywhere, unspoken in the ether. Statistics released this week showed that the conviction rate for rape cases in England and Wales has dropped by 3 per cent in the past 12 months after five years of steady increases and despite a rise in offences recorded by police. Why? According to Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, it is the fault of “myths and stereotypes” about rape and “preconceptions” about its victims that continue to pervade society and influence jurors.

In other words, many are still not clear on whether wearing a short skirt, flirting or ostensibly asking for it in any other way make rape an inevitable, and therefore unpunishable, consequence. Myths like the idea that it isn’t a crime if it’s a husband doing it to his wife, stereotypes like the rapist as a man in a balaclava in a dark alley when the reality is that most rapists know their victim. Less than forensic assessments of what the victim wore, texted, drank or acted like are frequently brought before the courts. If they make it that far. Take the case of one woman, reported in this newspaper, whose case was dropped by the CPS “because of the type of underwear she had on at the time”. Such are the idées fixes police officers, prosecutors and juries in rape cases have to struggle against, but struggle they must. That is their duty. Myths, stereotypes and skirt length rarely come up in connection with other criminal cases. Why do they persist in the relentlessly wobbly discourse around rape?

The key focus for improvement now, says Saunders, is “consent” – what steps the suspect took to ensure it was there and whether the alleged victim was able to give it. It sounds so simple but this is still murky territory apparently. So blurred are the lines that last month Cambridge University announced that it was considering making “consent classes” compulsory for all freshers, after a survey of 2,000 students revealed that almost half had been “groped, pinched or grabbed”, and 71 had experienced serious sexual assault.

In Oxford, too, this week, there was a protest outside the union by students who were unhappy with the way the debating society has handled allegations made against its president Ben Sullivan, who was arrested on suspicion of rape and attempted rape last month. He is currently on bail and has not been charged, but the episode has sparked a mini-uprising among students including calls for all union officers to attend “consent workshops”.

I admit this is a new idea for me, but these classes and workshops apparently help to define consent and unpick myths such as women often falsely accuse men of rape or men cannot help themselves once they are aroused. If they debunk nonsense like that, then they can only be a good thing, even if university seems a little late to be learning such vital life lessons. The problem is that they appear to put the onus on potential victims, once again, to be clear about what they want and how to ward off a potential attack, when the only lesson anyone really needs to learn is a very simple one: no means no.

This patronising approach to maths doesn’t add up

Shirley Conran, doyenne of the bonkbuster, has written a maths textbook for women. Finally. I’ve been struggling with long division for decades, no thanks to all of those manly maths books with their macho numbers, testosterone-filled fractions and chauvinist sums.

Conran, 81, best known for the racy Eighties novel Lace, and the working woman’s bible Superwoman, which advised readers “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, has now moved on to arithmetic. The Money Stuff is an online maths course for women aged 13 to 70 with the mantra “Life is too short to be short of money”.

According to Conran: “Women don’t know the first thing about making money. A woman’s brain freezes if she sees a large number.” So here she offers such handy tips as “Get into the habit of writing a zero with care so that it doesn’t look like a six”, how to split a pizza bill and the best way to budget for a wedding. “When you know your numbers you will have more money to spend on things you love: your special interests, apps, magazines, ebooks, music and sport, fashion and flowers, shoes and bags, pretty underwear, cakes and chocolates…”

It’s a shame there is so much silliness because Conran also includes plenty of useful stuff about tax and credit card rates. But if maths, and women’s perceived lack of ability or interest in it, really is a “feminist issue” as Conran suggests, I’m not sure that such advice as “Gross is not a dress size and net is not for fish” is the way to start the fight back.

Corridors of power now come with treadmills   There is something quite fascinating about the blurry video that emerged this week of President Obama working out. There he is in the gym, doing his bicep curls, step-ups and a few lacklustre lunges in a dark blue tracksuit, all the while yawning and looking like he is hating every minute of it. “Let’s Move” Michelle will not be impressed.

The video was secretly filmed by a fellow gym-user at the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw during the President’s visit to Poland this week. It looks like a mildly worrying security breach, unless, of course, Obama’s people meant for it to be leaked. There is a long and slightly embarrassing tradition of world leaders showing off their fitness prowess. Vladimir Putin – bareback horse-rider, ice-hockey player, tiger-wrestler, and so on – is the chief culprit, but Obama has his fair share of tracksuited, hoop-shooting moments too.

In fact, at last year’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Obama’s treadmill habit very nearly caused a US-Russo diplomatic incident when he apparently called first dibs on the hotel gym, forcing Putin to take a macho swim in the river instead. It stands to reason, I suppose – powerful men like to flex their muscles at the world at any opportunity.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, this week Nick Clegg invited the media to watch him downing a pint in a pub at 11 in the morning.

The mysterious case of the disappearing on-off switch  

It’s astonishing how far mobile phones have come in the past decade or so. We lucky humans can do everything – message the other side of the world, navigate from A to B, board a flight, pay a bill, find a boyfriend – with a swish of a finger on the device in our pocket. And yet, the simplest of its functions – the on/off switch – still presents a challenge. I don’t mean this in an angsty way; I mean that quite a lot of people do not know how to switch their phones off. You find them in theatres and cinemas mainly, furiously scrabbling in bags, their blushing, surprised faces lit up by the blueish glow of the phone that is ringing away under their seat like a tired old prank they have played on themselves.

This week Kevin Spacey was forced off-script when a phone rang during his play, Clarence Darrow. Though he was playing a 19th-century lawyer at the time, he said, “If you don’t answer that, I will”, and was rewarded with a bout of ecstatic clapping. This sort of thing happens a lot now and audiences always love it. That’s another thing phones can do now – guarantee an actor applause. Like I said, astonishing.

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