Monthly Archives: December 2012

The misunderstood crime

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When I was 19 I lived in a house in north Dublin. I’d dropped out of college, but was still living the student life with a friend and our housemates. Our landlord, who wasn’t much older than us, but whose sister we knew (who was a housemate) also lived with us. For the purposes of this post, let’s call him Eamonn, though that is not his real name. I found Eamonn a bit dry and serious, but the girls who shared the house (including his sister) were all lovely, and generally it was a happy home.

One evening, Eamonn had two male friends come to stay with him. They seemed like nice enough guys, and we chatted for a while before going our respective ways to bed. I had already gone to sleep, when suddenly I awoke to find one of the guys on top of me, smelling of alcohol, saying that he could see that I wanted “it”. I told him to get off me, and when he wouldn’t, I aimed my knee in a general groin-led direction, and fled the room. The two girls who shared the room next door had both gone home for the weekend, and their room had a lock, so I locked myself in, and didn’t come out until I knew my landlord’s friends had gone.

I confronted my landlord and told him what his friend had done. He stared at me impassively and told me I must have been mistaken.

There have been a number of times this year when I have had reason to recall this incident, because, it seems, there have been a lot of people in the last twelve months who have had an opinion on sexual assault, and more specifically, rape. In truth, mainly the people who seem to have got the news headlines going have been white middle-aged men. From Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, to George Galloway, and (albeit a couple of years ago), Kenneth Clarke, there seems to be a section of society that is hugely misinformed about what constitutes rape and sexual assault. The best definition I’ve come across was in an article in the Guardian, from Becky John, who was raped aged 15 by a man whose home she went to voluntarily: “No consent equals rape”.

Make no mistake: I realise how lucky I was not to be raped on that night in North Dublin. Rape victims often speak about how they were paralysed by fear; and I remain confident that there is some man out there, like Pavlov’s dog, who remembers my knee to his groin, and will hopefully have been deterred by that memory on trying to assault again. Why did I not take it further than my landlord? It seems bizarre to me now, given that shortly afterwards I was mugged at knifepoint and reported that. In truth, it didn’t even occur to me, or seem like an option. It was taken as part and parcel of a girl growing up that she would get some “hassle” from “lads”. Boys will be boys, and all that. It seemed like boys’ “misdeeds” were all part of them growing up, whereas if a girl had “hassle” – well, there was a good chance she might have brought it on herself. Shortly after, I was accosted late at 9p.m. one night down Dublin’s South Circular Road – the nice end of it – by a man who pretended to be asking for the time, and then waved a £20 note in my face and begged me to have sex with him. I broke away from him, and ran home. Although I laughed it off at the time, it did not cross my mind to report him, so ingrained was it to put up and shut up. Even adverts today propagate theories along similar lines: “Ladies, don’t take that unlicensed mini-cab, there may be a rapist driving it”. Or “Ladies, be careful about how much you drink, you don’t know where it may lead to” sort of scare-mongering. In other words: it is all our fault, and responsibility for provoking men’s libidos.

I’ve seen those adverts, and I find them risible. Statistics show that victims of rape normally know their rapist. So that cuts out the “Don’t be caught down a dark alley way after pub closing hours hailing an unlicensed mini-cab” brigade (although that is probably still advisable). Of all the things that women talk about (and although rape does affect some men, it is a crime where women mainly are the victims), tales of having been raped, sexually assaulted or the victim of domestic abuse are not subjects that women tend to engage each other in. I have two friends who told me about having been raped – one by a friend, one by her boyfriend. A few have recounted about attempts to sexually assault them; and there are a couple who have admitted to being victims of domestic abuse. In every single case they knew their attacker, sometimes intimately.

One reaction would be to see all men as potential rapists; however, that is not one I would advocate or condone, simply because I don’t believe it. But it is foolhardy to think that everything possible is being done to prevent rape and sexual assault, and one has to wonder whether this is because this crime predominantly affects women (according to the Rape Crisis centre, 5% of women experience rape, as opposed to 0.4% of men; a whopping 23% of women experience sexual assault as opposed to 3% of men), and our legislators are pre-dominantly men? Or is it because rape is still a hugely under-reported crime? A UK government report from 2007 estimates that between 75-95% of rapes are not reported to the police; so it is hard to condemn the police for not acting on a crime that is not reported officially. However, according to a news report on the BBC in that same year, although 230 women were being raped on average daily across the UK that were reported, equating to 85,000 women in that year, only 800 were convicted: in short, the conviction rate was less than 1%. This year, it was also revealed that Ryan Coleman-Farrow, a former police officer in the Met’s Sapphire unit, which investigates rape and other serious sexual assault, failed to investigate rape cases properly and falsified records, for which he was later convicted. Is it any wonder that women do not want to relive their ordeal if the outcome has little consequence?

In a crime blog in the Guardian this year, rape and sexual assault doesn’t even merit a category of its own, whereas bicycle theft does: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/14/crime-statistics-england-wales. Somewhere, in this mix, the statistics clearly show that women in general do not feel confident enough to report when they have been raped, because it is not treated as a serious crime by either society or the judiciary. An article from IoS, which investigated Britain’s record on rape in light of the Savile cases, makes for a sobering read (please see articles recommended below). Here is a pertinent extract from it:

“Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist at Gloucestershire University, said: “I absolutely do despair that the police haven’t learnt more lessons. The biggest reason is our incredible reluctance to believe women who come forward. It’s all down to culpability. The more culpable the women is perceived to be, the less she is believed.”Dr Monckton-Smith, a former police officer, added: “We’ve got the wrong picture of what a rapist looks like in our collective imagination. We think they’re monsters, but they’re not. They’re ordinary people. We haven’t got rid of the idea that most people are suspicious of a woman making a claim of rape if she doesn’t present as extremely traumatised. If she’s not screaming and crying, it makes her less believable. We look for a stereotypical jump-out-of-the-bushes rapist to substantiate a story. If it’s just some guy in a suit, then people can’t see it as a straightforward case.”

We have heard this week of the horrendous gang-rape in India, which led to the death of the unnamed victim. There have been several articles on how it is indicative of a patriarchal society, where men think they can (and often do) get away with anything. But this problem is not India’s alone; and at least Indian citizens, both male and female, have been outraged enough to protest and demand change from their government – can we say the same? Clearly not. Although most other crime has fallen over the last ten years, sexual and violent crimes have risen in the UK. Which brings me back to the question that has been plaguing me over the last year or so, every time there is an inane-comment-about-rape article in the news e.g.:  “serious rape” (Kenneth Clarke MP, May 2011), “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (try telling that to the woman in the “X” case please, Senator Todd Akin, August 2012), “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that’s something God intended to happen.” (clearly the fact that you were not re-elected is also something God intended to happen, Senator Richard Mourdock, October 2012), and clearing Julian Assange of being nothing more than an ill-mannered little boy, with his “bad sexual etiquette” (the quote from the leader of now ironically monikered “Respect” party, George Galloway MP).

The answer lies, I believe, in the re-education of men. In his podcast on “How Liberal Women are building a shameless society”, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson stated: “Women cannot handle power. It is not within them to handle power. … The real and true power comes from God and God is the one that gave man the power and the authority over the wife.” Although this man is a right-wing fundamentalist Christian boor, I would hazard a guess to say that within this quote is the flame of a still flickering myth that lurks within the psyche and across the gamut of male society: women need, and like to be dominated. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and I have yet to come across the woman who has extolled the virtues on non-consensual violent sexual assault. Until now, the Mad Men have got it very wrong; as my own story at the beginning illustrates, one doesn’t have to be drunk, out clubbing, or in an unlicensed mini-cab for someone to attempt to assault you. So applying scaremongering tactics and targeting women is merely attacking the symptom, not the cause. But there is another, and more interesting approach being tested.

In an excellent article by Catherine Scott in the Independent in July 2012 entitled: “Hey women, stop getting so drunk”, she writes:

Sensible anti-rape campaigns are possible – Thames Valley Police produced an excellent‘Don’t Cross The Line’ campaign which crucially acknowledged that most rapes take place between people who know each other, and urged men to abandon their belief that ‘I can’t be a rapist, I don’t lurk in dark alleys’. Lambeth Council also did a great job with their Do You Know The Difference campaign, telling men that “a woman saying yes to a drink doesn’t mean yes to sex”, and putting the onus squarely on men “ to make sure that she consents and agrees to sex. If you don’t, then it’s rape.”

I would also add that we need to take a leaf out of India’s book, and start to name and shame convicted rapists. While there will be arguments about the legalities of this with regard to the rights of the rapist, I would contend that (a) it is more vital that the half of the population that are female have their right to live unviolated and protected, (b) in my opinion, a convicted rapist waives the right to anonymity when they commit the rape and and impose their will non-consensually on another human being and (c) it is a given that anonymity would be lost after a conviction, when judicially we can assume a rigorous process has taken place that assesses the right verdict has been reached. Currently it seems that, because of laughably low conviction rates that there is no deterrent for this particular crime; so it makes sense to at least try a different tactic. To quote Albert Einstein, the very definition of “insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. My hope is, that in a few decades time, instead of seeing infuriating articles with idiotic quotes by men in positions of more power than sense and understanding, that by doing something differently, we can create a better and more harmonious society for all the people who live in it – no matter what their gender is.

Wishing you all a very happy (and safe!) 2013.

A few interesting articles relating to this blog:

http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/07/26/anti-rape-campaigns-hey-women-stop-getting-so-drunk/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/30/india-gang-rape-un-call-action

http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/mythsampfacts2.php

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2012/10/richard_mourdock_rape_scandal_spot_the_difference_between_the_christian.html

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0812/79864.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19323783

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13436429

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/ios-investigation-britains-record-on-rape-shows-shocking-new-failures-8200806.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/ios-investigation-britains-record-on-rape-shows-shocking-new-failures-8200806.html

Suffer the little children….

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On Friday morning, I received a phone call from my mother to tell me that my niece (who is also my god daughter) had been taken to Dublin to the national children’s hospital in Crumlin for an operation, as her pacemaker was infected. To explain: my niece was born with a very serious heart defect – so serious, in fact that after three heart operations in the two weeks after she was born, the doctors said they could do no more for her, and she was taken off the life-support machine and left to die. However, her will to live was strong that she defied the odds and is our little miracle child. On Friday morning, I was naturally upset, as she had not had to go through any procedures in the last six years; but by Friday evening, I was thankful that she was still here with us.

Thankful especially because of the horrific news coming out of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where 20 little lives, all around my niece’s age, and their teachers, have been lost. Horrific news – but not surprising. How could it be surprising in a country where there are almost enough firearms for every man, woman and child that lives there? Apparently there are 90 guns to every 100 citizens in the US. They are owned by a very vocal 20% of the population, mainly white, middle-aged and male, which must mean that there are a lot of families and/or individuals that own a pretty sizeable arsenal of weaponry. According to John Avlon, writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, gun control laws have actually loosened under Obama’s presidency, to the extent that someone can feasibly carry a firearm on an Amtrak train, or in a national park. Granted, Americans do not tend to use trains in the same way that we do in the UK; but it is the equivalent of carrying a firearm on South-West trains, or on one’s Sunday walk on Hampstead Heath. When it is brought home in very tangible terms like that, the mind boggles.

There is also the issue, which Avlon talks about fleetingly, about the myth of the pioneer and “founding fathers” in the American psyche. There is even a holiday dedicated to the latter: Thanksgiving. What these myths tend to omit is the truth of what actually happened. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the genocide of thousands of Native American Indians which started in 1637 under the Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop. In essence, what Americans celebrate every year is nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of the native population. The myth of the pioneering, brave cowboy is equally pernicious, and was embedded firmly in the national psyche, again spinning the tale erroneously at the expense of the native population via a variety of methods, ranging from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of growing up in the Mid-West, to the cowboy movies and spaghetti westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.

These myths are important in understanding the debate about gun control, as they tend to evoke an irrational emotional response in the pro-gun lobby, and a sneaking disquiet in the hearts and minds of those who abhor the killing of innocent children, but who also are afraid of being seen as that most heinous of criminals: the un-American. Fear has been a huge determining factor in the success of the pro-gun lobby, and indeed within the political history of the USA itself. It was used to great effect in the McCarthy era, which still has resonances today; I have to stop myself guffawing with laughter and disbelief every time I have heard Obama described as a “socialist” on news items/blogs/interviews. It seems that to be described as a Liberal/Communist/Socialist is still the worst insult one could hurl at an American; however, I would hazard a guess that if asked, anyone hurling those “accusations” (and I do put that word in inverted commas, as an out-and-proud Liberal, with a capital L) would not be first of all, able to describe what a Liberal or a Communist or a Socialist was; and secondly, if Americans did have access to some more of that “Socialist” healthcare (which in more progressive First World countries, is seen as a right, not a luxury), there is a possibility that its disturbed young men would be diagnosed earlier, and given the healthcare they needed before they got their hands on assault rifles and slaughtered innocent people.

There is also a problem politically, as the NRA and their supporters seem to have, given their numbers, an unhealthy stranglehold on Washington. Given the fact that 20% of the population own 100% of weaponry privately in the US (in short, it seems like there are private militias being armed), I would say that the NRA has enough funds to target those that disagree with them politically, and that cannot be ignored in this debate either. It is unseemly that such a minority should exert such a voice in this issue; it is the very antithesis of true democracy. It is akin to the National Front in France, who recently gained around 20% of the vote, being able to dictate public policy. Although there is a case to be made for citizens having access to firearms in the more remote areas of the USA, or if they need it for labour purposes i.e. farming or ranches, by and large there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with, and access to guns in the USA. The killer’s mother herself was apparently obsessed with guns, and shooting, and had several weapons purchased legally, which, sitting here in London, seems to be very odd. I know one person of my acquaintance in the UK who has a gun license; and even though he only has that for shooting clay pigeons, I find it hard to comprehend the usefulness of it. I myself have only once held a gun, for a show I did; and although it does give one a feeling of power to hold something like that, that can determine life or death, for me it was not a thrill. As the saying goes, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”; and although gun apologists will say that they are beautiful things when used properly, I would contend that if you have a gun, you must be prepared for it to be used, and not always with your permission. They also contend that the answer is having more guns; and if you look at the statistics from the rest of the world, that is utter nonsense. Teachers should not have to carry firearms into their classrooms to appease a neurotically paranoid minority; the laws need to be changed for the safety of the majority. The UK is a shining example of how to react in the face of massacre, as it did after Dunblane in 1996: tighten gun control laws. The result, 16 years later, is that the UK has one of the lowest rates of death by firearms in the world.

The NRA also have a saying, made famous by the actor Charlton Heston, that their Second Amendment rights would be taken away from “their cold, dead hands”. The problem is, the context of the Second Amendment is wildly out-of-date. So essentially Americans are hanging on to an Amendment that lost any validity in real terms possibly after the Civil War, but definitely after the Second World War. It seems to me as an American citizen who has never really lived in the US that America’s problem with its image of itself, is that it has remained rooted in a Disney-fied version of a Norman Rockwell painting, which the modern world does not, and should not, accommodate. We have moved beyond that as a global society; and it is for that reason, the rest of the world looks at America with bemusement and incomprehension when the issue of gun control and young men massacring innocents arises as it has again, and again, and again. The NRA may say that their guns will be taken from their cold dead hands; the thing is, it is never their cold, dead hands that are at stake here, but the cold dead hands of moviegoers. And Sikhs praying. And teenagers in Columbine. Shoppers in an Oregon mall. And most recently, teachers and their students, none of whom were older than seven.

What America has to ask itself is this, as basic as it is: What do we value more? The right to own a deadly bit of metal, or the right of our children to live beyond their seventh birthday? This debate has come too late for the innocent victims of Newtown, Connecticut; but to honour their memories, the debate must happen so that it is not too late for others. If it does not happen, America will have condemned itself and its citizens to another Groundhog Day massacre, to be repeated ad nauseam.