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Socialism Today 153 - November 2011

Refusing to accept sexism

When a Canadian police officer commented that the way women dress contributes to rape, he triggered an international outcry. Predominantly young women took to the streets in ‘slutwalk’ protests around the world. In Britain, this new generation fighting for women’s rights is also up against coalition cuts and right-wing reaction. ELEANOR DONNE reports.

EARLIER IN THE year, thousands of women, and many men, took to the streets in Canada, the US and Britain to protest against rape. The spark for their anger was a Canadian police officer who, during a safety talk to students at a law school in Toronto, advised women to reduce their risk of being raped by "avoiding dressing like sluts". Students and staff complained, and the officer apologised.

This off-the-cuff remark by a law enforcement officer underlines the huge barriers which women face in reporting rape to the police. Is it any wonder that only a small proportion of rapes ever comes to their attention? The attitude of the police reflects and reinforces a wider reactionary view among a large minority in society that a woman who dresses ‘provocatively’, gets drunk or has a lot of sexual partners is, at least partly, to blame if she is attacked.

But women students in Toronto did not let the matter lie. Turning the sexist comment on its head, they organised a ‘slutwalk’, which over 2,000 attended. The message of the demonstration was summed up on placards: ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!’ The idea spread via facebook, and ‘slutwalks’ against rape took place in London (attended by around 5,000), Bristol, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff and other smaller towns in the UK.

Rape: the Victim Experience Review, commissioned by the Home Office as part of a review of rape and the criminal justice system in 2009, found that some police officers were often sceptical of rape and sexual assault victims. This was for "numerous reasons, such as when the victim had been drinking, had made previous allegations, were from a certain area, had an offending history themselves, or simply because they did not behave in the way they would expect a victim to behave". The review highlighted how the attitude of the officer can affect the case and even a "raised eyebrow" can deter a victim from pursuing the claim.

However, a public display of solidarity and defiance, such as the slutwalk demonstrations, does not only build the confidence of the people taking part. It also has the potential to raise public awareness and consciousness far more than any number of lengthy reports.

Woefully inadequate support

IT WAS NOT just the police who came under fire. On the demonstrations in Britain there were calls for Tory justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to resign after his comments in May, on BBC Radio 5 Live, which implied that ‘date rape’ was not ‘serious rape’. Clarke managed to show both ignorance of the existing laws on rape and incredible insensitivity, in particular to a caller who had been raped. Under pressure from David Cameron, he eventually issued a grudging apology to the caller but refused to resign, saying it was a just a wrong choice of words and he did not mean any offence!

Clarke may have mistakenly been using the phrase ‘date rape’ to describe ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ – ie consenting sex with someone 13 or over but below the age of consent. However, given the importance of language on an issue such as this, and given that Clarke is a highly paid, legally trained representative of the government, this ‘mistake’ was inexcusable. It will only have reinforced the view that ‘proper’ rape means being attacked by a stranger in a dark alley. In fact, the majority of people who are raped know their attacker, and in more than half of rapes the attacker is a partner or ex-partner. (British Crime Survey, 2005/06)

The government has made a big splash about committing £10.5 million over the next three years to rape support services, but this is just to stand still. Support services for rape victims are woefully inadequate. In 2009, only one in ten local authorities had a centre offering support to victims of rape. The Home Office is unlikely to meet their commitment to provide a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in every police force area by the end of the year.

SARCs provide one-stop services, medical care and forensic examination following assault/rape, counselling and sometimes sexual health services. They are acknowledged as ‘victim centred’ and, where they exist, have helped to increase prosecutions for rape. However, with cuts in NHS and police budgets causing pressure on all frontline services, this commitment may be quietly shelved.

Rape is still the most underreported crime in the UK. Only around 15% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. Of these, only a small percentage gets to court. Baroness Stern, who carried out a review of how public authorities handle rape complaints in 2009, maintains that of those that do get to court, around 58% now result in a conviction. However, this includes cases where rape is reduced to a lesser charge of sexual assault. According to Rape Crisis, fewer than 7% of reported rapes result in a prosecution in England and Wales. The figure is even lower in Scotland.

Obviously, there are particular factors which make a rape conviction difficult. Usually, the only witness is the alleged victim. Even the best forensic evidence gathered at a state-of-the-art referral centre cannot always confirm if consent was given or not. And giving evidence in court can be extremely traumatic for the rape victim as intimate details about her private life may be laid bare. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 helpfully clarified that consent to sex cannot be given if you are asleep or unconscious (!), and put the onus on the accused to show not only that they believed that the women consented but that this was a reasonable belief in the circumstances.

However, lawyers, judges and juries are not immune from the prejudices in wider society. Given that the Crown Prosecution Service will have even fewer resources to prepare every case fully, women are rightly concerned that they still will not get a fair hearing and feel on trial themselves.


SINCE 1976, THE media in Britain have been prevented by law from identifying a person who makes a rape complaint. This safeguard has been important in persuading women to pursue a case to trial, without the trauma of having details about their personal lives revealed in the press. Fear of this added humiliation was a huge barrier to women reporting rape to the police.

However, some tabloid papers, upholders of truth and justice that they are, have alleged that this leads to women making false accusations of rape with impunity. In fact, false allegations are rare, and no more common for rape than any other crime. Women withdraw rape allegations for a number of reasons, mostly when they come under intense pressure, either through threats and intimidation or emotional blackmail from the perpetrator or their family.

This is not the same as a false accusation but often the figures are conflated to give that impression. In 2007, more than 30% of rape cases recorded by the police as ‘no crimes’ were found to be incorrectly recorded. As the report states: "There is no incentive for the police to record a crime as it looks like failure if they don’t then prosecute".

Support for lifting this anonymity for victims also comes from an unexpected quarter. Naomi Wolfe, the American writer and journalist who describes herself as a feminist, said that the need for anonymity stems from a bygone era when rape was seen as a ‘fate worse than death’ and that it is no longer necessary. She argues that it is patronising and leads to rape victims not being taken seriously.

Women’s legal rights, expectations and status in society have certainly changed since the mid 1970s and this has probably been just as significant as the right to remain anonymous in encouraging women to come forward. Women are now more likely to recognise rape and sexual assault by a husband, partner or boyfriend than in the past – it was not until 1991 that the law lords finally ruled that rape within marriage was illegal. The numbers of rapes being reported to the police have increased over the years because of this. But in a society where, sadly, 37% of rape victims never told anyone at all that they were raped (British Crime Survey 2000), how is it possible to argue that there is no longer any stigma attached to being a victim of rape?

The rights of the accused

UNDER CURRENT LAWS, the alleged victim’s details are not withheld from the accused and their legal team, the judge or the jury but are just not to be published outside the court. To remove an existing legal right to anonymity would put even more women (and men) off reporting rape as they would fear massive press intrusion into their lives, digging the dirt on their sexual history, etc.

Protecting women’s anonymity in rape and sexual assault cases was one important measure to try to redress the systematic disadvantages they face in the criminal justice process. There are others, such as being able to give evidence behind a screen or via video link, under certain limited circumstances, and the right not to be cross-examined by the accused (if he is defending himself). All of these have been criticised by some as undermining the rights of the accused.

Socialists take the rights of defendants in any trial seriously and are acutely aware of the need for openness and accountability in the legal system. However, most of us do not inhabit Wolfe’s ‘post-feminist’ world. We cannot rely on an abstract ‘equality in law’ which takes no account of structured inequality and prejudice in society at large, and effectively denies proper access to justice. This abstract ‘equal treatment’ argument was used by the coalition government which was considering changing the law to introduce anonymity for those accused of rape (a Liberal Democrat policy, incidentally), arguing that potentially innocent defendants need to be protected from the stigma of being accused of rape.

The government was not proposing to allow anonymity for those accused of other crimes, such as child abuse, which would carry even more stigma. To do so in rape cases sends a damaging message that rape complainants are to be trusted less than others and could undermine their credibility still further with juries and the police. It could also be a barrier to proper evidence gathering. John Worbuys, the taxi driver convicted of raping several women in London, had his details made public when charged, and several of his previous victims realized who he was and contacted police. The government may have thought that this would be a ‘populist’ act but, faced with opposition from campaigners and scepticism from the police, has backtracked.

Deep-seated inequality

IT WAS STRIKING and impressive that many of the organisers of the slutwalks were in their teens, a new generation of young women prepared to challenge reactionary attitudes. These were the women, born towards the end of the 20th century, who were told by media pundits and even veterans of the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s that they were living in a post-feminist world, with equality just around the corner. Socialists argue that this is not the case.

Of course, there have been significant changes in the workplace and in the family over the last 30 years. ‘Traditional’ values have been undermined to some extent and women feel freer to acknowledge and express their sexuality. In the context of a capitalist society, however, women, and young women in particular, are under huge pressure to conform to a limited idea of sexual attractiveness which is plugged relentlessly by multibillion-pound cosmetics companies, the music and entertainment business, and an increasingly mainstream porn industry.

Women may have achieved ‘formal equality’ in terms of legal rights but, for the majority, this has clearly not brought actual equality in the workplace or the home. Even those women who have succeeded in economic terms, breaking into more highly paid, skilled, ‘male’ careers, are not immune from other aspects of women’s oppression.

The fact that rape and domestic violence are still so common has reinforced the mistaken and pessimistic idea that men are sexual predators because they evolved that way – it’s their natural state. This is a view put by evolutionary biologists Randy Thornhill and Craig T Palmer in their book, The Natural History of Rape. Their advice to women includes how to dress so they do not give off ‘receptive signals’ to men. But what evidence there is from very early human societies and surviving hunter-gatherer societies shows that they were based on co-operation not coercion and that aggression is rarely seen among men or women, still less sexual coercion.

Oppression of women is socially constructed, not natural, and came much later, as society became divided into classes. The family as a social and economic institution developed to serve the interests of a system based on private property. Over time, women lost power and status in society and they and their children became the property of the husband. Men got ‘conjugal rights’ on marriage. This sense of entitlement to sex still prevails, hence the level of rape and sexual assault by partners and ex-partners.

Demanding change

WHETHER THE SLUTWALKS were a one-off event, or the start of a longer running campaign against rape, they reflect a growing anger and frustration among women and, particularly, a willingness to take to the streets to demand change. Many women are facing increasing material problems in all areas of their lives. Cuts in housing benefits, tax credits and pregnancy benefits have hit women hard. Domestic violence support services are under threat of closure as the government and local authorities implement austerity programmes.

With the abolition of education maintenance allowance, massive hikes in tuition fees and cuts in funding, especially for arts courses, many young working-class women in particular will find further and higher education closed to them. Jobs in the public sector, up to 70% of which are currently filled by women, are being cut to the bone. In a blatant ideological attack, existing abortion rights have been threatened, with attempts by Tory MP, Nadine Dorries, to reduce the time limits and, more recently, to make pre-abortion counselling compulsory and to hand it over to Christian anti-abortion groups.

However, at long last the trade union movement is moving into action. On 30 November, local government workers, health workers, civil servants, teachers, lecturers and fire-fighters are likely to strike together to defend their pensions. Hundreds of thousands of women will participate on picket lines, marches and rallies. This action will send shock waves through a weak and unpopular coalition government. The trade unions have a vital role in defending jobs and public services. They have rightly taken up wider issues, such as abortion rights, domestic violence and rape (supporting the ‘reclaim the night’ marches). To make real progress on these issues, the movement must also take up the challenge of political representation for the working class.

On issues such as rape and domestic violence that affect women of all classes, there is the potential for women to come together in campaigns across class lines. However, if these campaigns are to be far reaching and effective, they must link in to the wider struggle to change society. A genuine and permanent end to women’s oppression, including rape, is only possible after fundamental changes in the way society is structured. This requires a conscious movement of the working class, women and men, and drawing in layers of the middle class, to get rid of the current system based on exploitation, class privilege and inequality.

What’s in a name?

THE NAME ‘Slutwalk’ was chosen by the Toronto organisers as an ironic twist on the police officer’s comment that sparked the protest. They have also said they want to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘slut’, seeing this as a way of challenging sexual double standards and misogyny. The use of ‘slut’ has been the subject of debate among feminists and some in the wider movement. London Feminist Network and Julie Bindel, from Justice for Women, for example, acknowledge the success of the slutwalk protests (although Bindel chose not to participate), but are critical of the name. Bindel and others have argued that it reflects a lack of consciousness about women’s oppression. However, while language is important, taking action is the key for socialists. The slutwalks have brought a new layer of women into activity and challenged some of the reactionary ideas of the press, judiciary and police.


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