Joan Smith: Excuses for rape – men and the myths that won't die

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Let's talk about men behaving badly. No, actually, let's talk about rape and sexual aggression, the accurate descriptions of some of the behaviours that have just caused a media frenzy. Most of the myths around the subject have surfaced during the past seven days. I'm going to list them as a small public service.

It wasn't really rape. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, claimed some rape cases are something else, such as consensual sex between an 18-year-old and his 15-year-old girlfriend. This has never counted as rape in English law; Clarke got it wrong, going on to cast doubt on "date rapes"and putting his fitness to continue as Justice Secretary in question.

She's too ugly to have been raped. Sections of the French press reported that lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, were shocked when they saw how "unattractive" his accuser was. Such claims are a further assault on the alleged victim, based on the myth that suave, successful men couldn't possibly have a sexual interest in someone who isn't young and beautiful. Rape is an indiscriminate crime, perpetrated against girls, women and indeed men of all ages, appearances and ethnic groups.

She overreacted. He didn't mean anything by it. When influential men misuse their position to grope someone with less power, their behaviour is reinterpreted as something less culpable. DSK has been known for years in France as a "great seducer" even though his aggression towards women was an open secret. A French journalist, Tristane Banon, broke the silence when she claimed DSK tried to tear off her clothes during an interview in 2007, but she was persuaded not to make a formal complaint.

He can't help himself. He likes women too much. The former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, portrays himself as a red-blooded male who can't resist an attractive woman, but he's been accused by more than a dozen women of grabbing their breasts and bottoms. Schwarzenegger is a serial predator. That he had sex (and a child) with a domestic employee while his wife was pregnant should surprise no one.

It wasn't a serious rape – he didn't use violence. Ken Clarke again, suggesting that rape involves a man "forcefully" having sex with an unwilling woman. Rape is a serious crime whether or not it involves physical force. As with other serious crimes, individual circumstances are taken into account at sentencing.

It's a conspiracy. Sixty per cent of the French public believe DSK was set up. There's a parallel here with the accusations against the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which his supporters dismiss as a dastardly plot to lure him to Sweden andthen extradition to the US.

He's the real victim. It was reported (wrongly, says her lawyer) that DSK's alleged victim is HIV-positive. This is a sneaky way of casting aspersions on a woman's sexual history, while the suggestion that DSK may need an HIV test turns the alleged attacker into a victim.

But after a week in which these myths resurfaced, something interesting has happened: DSK faces serious charges, Clarke is only just hanging on to his job and Schwarzenegger is being divorced. Even Le Monde accused French journalists of dressing up sexual aggression as libertinage and reinforcing toleration of sexual violence. "Libertines" everywhere had better watch out.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde: www.political

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