The idea that there are degrees of rape – as suggested on Twitter by Richard Dawkins today in a discussion about syllogism– is a popular and enduring rape myth. It’s based on the idea that rape by a partner – otherwise known as ‘date rape’ – is less violent than rape by a stranger.
But this is simply not true. All rape is violent. If we take the lowest statistics recorded by the MOJ and ONS, every one of the 1,100 rapes committed in the UK each week is a violent crime. It doesn’t matter if you know the perpetrator or not (and chances are you do – research by Kelly suggests 89 per cent of rape victims know their attacker), the violence remains.
But ‘stranger rape’ is more likely to be reported in the news. As a result, an impression is created that these rapes are ‘more serious’ because they are more newsworthy. These stories fit our narrative of what rape looks like: a man with a knife hiding behind a bush. It’s familiar, and – importantly – it allows us to label the rapist as a freak or monster, someone who is not like anyone we know. It distances us from the fact that most rapists aren’t lone monsters roaming the streets terrorising women. They are husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, colleagues and friends.
Despite decades of activism raising awareness of rape and tackling rape myths, we still live in a victim blaming culture. As a society, we still struggle with the idea that a woman or girl is not at least partially responsible for the violence committed against her. This is particularly clear in cases of partner rape or date rape. A 2010 survey by Haven found that over 50 per cent of respondents believed a rape victim should take responsibility if she got into bed with her attacker. From Roger Helmer claiming that women are naïve to think men just want to cuddle in bed, to Galloway saying that once a woman goes to bed with a man she has entered the ‘sex game’, a belief still exists that having said yes once, women lose the right to say no.
These attitudes encourage the belief that rapes can be seen in varying shades of grey. They encourage questioning of the victim’s behaviour, and seek to absolve the attacker. And once we have started blaming the victim, once we have started saying she should take responsibility because she flirted with/kissed/married him, then we minimise the violence of the rapist. We move the focus away from his behaviour, and instead examine hers. Suddenly, the conversation is not about the violent crime he committed, but about what she did. And this is simply not ok. Because no woman is to blame for the violence committed against her. The only person to blame for rape is the rapist – whether he is someone’s boyfriend or a stranger in the street.
The idea that partner or acquaintance rape is less severe than stranger rape also has a huge impact on women’s access to justice. Is it any wonder that only 15 per cent of rapes are reported, when 89 per cent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and those victims are told that their rape only counts as ‘mild date rape’?
In the end, it’s not up to men to try and define women’s experiences of violence for them, or to tell a woman raped by her husband that the crime committed against her was less severe than another woman’s. Women define their own experience of male violence.
What Dawkins needs to realise is that, in his exploration of logical argument, there is one group of people who will have listened appreciatively to his words. They will have heard the description of date rape as ‘mild’, and they will have gone away feeling reassured that the crime they committed wasn’t that bad, wasn’t that violent, was only ‘mild’. And those people are rapists.