Rape has been in the news more than virtually any other single item over the past weeks. First because a businessman who raped a girl escaped prison, then because three men in Glasgow escaped trial when the woman they allegedly raped was too ill to give evidence against them, and finally after the screening of a horrific tv documentary on the police which showed them questioning a raped woman about her sex life and mental history.
Each incident caused a flurry of protests, editorials and questions from MPs. Everyone from Len Murray to Margaret Thatcher condemned the incidents yet anyone who has been raped, or had any contact with someone who has, knows what these cases highlight in such a dramatic way. Women who are raped get a rough deal from the law.
It starts when you report the rape, and are subject to lengthy and often unsympathetic questioning. Even if the police believe you, there is still the repeat performance at least one in court, where unless the accused pleads guilty you have to go through cross examination.
Your credibility usually hinges on how many men you have slept with, or how late at night you were walking alone. This description of police reaction to rape is fairly common. ‘VICTIM: I rang the police and they showed up very casually about ten minutes later. They sauntered in and one of them produced a flick knife when I asked him to untie me. They started saying things like ‘ Well, I don’t think you have been raped. This was obviously someone you met last night. It got too heavy and you decided to call the police this morning’. They kept suggesting it was a casual affair gone wrong. They said, ‘ if everything you say happened had happened you would be completely hysterical by now you would have thrown yourself out of the window to get away’, ‘They obviously didn’t believe me.’ (‘The Facts of Rape’ by Barbara Toner, Arrow).
Many women prefer not to report rapes because of this sort of attitude, believing they can cope better without this ordeal on top of the actual rape. They see the law as something which doesn’t offer them much protection.
This fact now seems to be seeping through to people who have never been concerned with the issue. The head of Thames Valley Police has promised that their interview procedure will be reviewed. Margaret Thatcher wants stiffer sentences for rapists. William Whitelaw is backing a bill to guarantee jail sentences for rapists.
But will any of it really help? Of course it is better for women to be decently treated by the police, but tightening up the law presupposes that men will stop raping women if they will get longer prison sentences. That seems unlikely.
Rape is a product of the way women are seen in society. In some societies rape has been a sign of possession. In periods where society is in upheaval, such as in war, rape can be used to subjugate the defeated population. In capitalist society, rape is a product of women being seen as objects, as things which can be bought and sold.
When nude women fill the pages of newspapers and magazines, with the express purpose of selling more copies, it is hardly surprising that some men see them as something they can steal.
Long sentences won’t change these attitudes. If they are a product of society, it is only by changing society that rape can become a memory of the past, instead of the grim reality of the present.
That doesn’t mean that even within capitalism things always stay as they are. In the boom years of the fifties and sixties women’s role changed. They went out to work, many entered higher education, ideas of women’s equality were on the agenda. New laws on equal pay and sex discrimination were introduced, even if they were very feeble. People expected to see women outside the home, often challenging the idea that their only role was as wives and mothers.
The crisis and, especially in Britain, the Thatcher government, has changed a lot of that. Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister, who worked throughout her life, even when her children were small, now tells us that may be fine for a few women, but isn’t running a home and family the most fulfilling thing a woman can do? Women are encouraged to cope with cuts in services – no school dinners, looking after sick relatives, living on unemployment pay.
As education and job opportunities disappear, women no longer have the chance to challenge their roles. They are forced back into the family and into the image of themselves as either page three pin-ups or good wives and mothers. It is not unexpected therefore that along with a breakdown in the fabric of society in other areas – increases in prostitution, street theft, the crimes of poverty and unemployment – so too we should see an increase in the crime of rape.
The cries of Thatcher and Whitelaw are cosmetic. They are precisely the people who create these conditions, yet are the first to cry for law and order. Just as they are the people who caused riots by making life in the cities so intolerable for young people, especially for blacks, then call for a short sharp shock treatment to stop them.
Of course there are a few rapists who decide to go out and rape as many women as they can. Some like the Boston Strangler even have films made about them. But most of the statistics show – as do these recent cases – that rape by someone known to the woman and often as a once only thing is much more common.
It is more likely to be the men who think that because a woman hitchhikes, or wears a low cut dress, or is out alone at night, she is offering sex, who are the most common rapists. That is to do with the particular ideas in those men’s heads, of course. But it isn’t simply badness on their part. It is interesting how these ideas really coincide with the image of women as passive willing sex objects. And that image isn’t one which individual men dream up. It is a product of the people who package sex and use it to sell everything from fast cars to Turkish Delight – which is what the world we live in is all about.
There isn’t any halfway house we can talk about getting rid of rape, because it is so obviously a product of society. That is why legal reforms solve very little – we have to fight for a transformation of the world of commodity production which produces such attitudes and acts towards women. Which is why the fight for women’s liberation is at the centre of the fight for socialism.
Lindsey German, February 1982
Woman’s Voice, February 1982 – Issue 60