Posted by September Blue Thursday, 1 October 2009

There was one newspaper headline I saw when I was thirteen. Not only one, obviously; there must have been hundreds in that year, either read carefully or skimmed at bus-stops or, once, cut up to make into a school project (some poster about animal testing I did in a ransom-note style, oh wasn't I cool). But there's only one that I can remember. The story was about men falsely accused of rape, and the headline was 'THE REAL DATE RAPE VICTIMS.'

I couldn't tell you now where I was when I read it; I couldn't even tell you what newspaper it was in, although I do remember, surprise surprise, that it was a tabloid. I can tell you about that headline, though. It was in capitals in a serif font, with the word 'REAL' underlined. On the left-hand side, just underneath 'THE', was a picture of one of the men in question, slightly blurry, looking straight ahead at the camera. He was going bald. I didn't buy that newspaper - I didn't even pick it up - but God damn did it make an impression.

I was fairly naive as a thirteen-year-old, but I knew what "rape" meant. I even knew what "date rape" meant, after a fashion. I understood that the world was full of bad things that could happen to you and bad people that could hurt you. What I didn't know, what I learnt from reading that headline, was that rape was not generally considered a big thing. And of course, nobody ever actually says that; everyone agrees that rape is a very serious and terrible thing, oh yes, we should lock these people up and throw away the key, etc, etc. It's just that most 'rapes' aren't really rape, you see. Obviously, if you are a sixteen-year-old virgin and some troll-like stranger grabs you off the safe and well-lit street you are walking down on your way to run errands for your sick grandmother, well, that's rape. But if you knew the man who raped you? If you'd been drinking beforehand? If you were out on your own late at night on a dark street? If you were wearing skimpy clothes? If there weren't any witnesses? If you didn't physically fight back? If you could, conceivably, be the kind of woman who might choose to have sex with a particular man you found attractive? Oh, well, in that case...

This is what I took from that headline: if you are ever raped, you are on your own.

This started off as a comment to Flavia's post on students and the subject of rape, in light of the Polanski story. Some of the most depressing teaching-related moments I've had have concerned rape, and I wanted to talk about what those students had said, but on reflection, they're not really the issue. If a 19-year-old girl can happily write that in the short story we were reading, one character's rape 'can only be assumed to be partly her fault, as she was flaunting herself a little too much earlier on', the problem is whatever we've been telling them all their lives. Most rapes are not bad. Most rapes are not rape. Most rapes are, at least partly, her fault.

The rape conviction rate in the UK is dismally, appallingly, unbelievably low. For England and Wales, it's below 7%; for Scotland, it's below 3%. And that's only the cases which are reported to the police, which most cases, obviously, aren't. I know several women who've been raped, none of whom reported it to the police. If I was raped, I don't think I'd report it either.

On the face of it, the Roman Polanski case would seem to be the absolute, undeniable, immediately-abhorrent-to-everyone kind of rape that even people who write articles about 'REAL DATE RAPE VICTIMS' would condemn. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, a girl who was crying and begging him to stop. He was initially charged with that crime, but under a plea bargain, pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor. When it looked as if the judge might reject the plea bargain, Polanski fled the country. Surely we're not going to excuse this.

Unless we're the film industry. Or half the Internet. In which case, the 'REAL RAPE VICTIM' was... Polanski, apparently.

They're opposed to real rape! Of course they are! That would be terrible! But, but, in this case, see, it's different, because some of Polanski's friends said she didn't look thirteen. And because she'd had sex before. And because she recognised the drugs Polanski gave her, and as everyone knows, it's impossible to rape anyone who's ever had sex or taken drugs before. And because she wanted to be an actress. And because, hey, we don't know he did it, right, even though nobody involved in the case has denied he did it, even though he's admitted he did it, because after all, women lie about rape all the time. And because the case was mishandled, and obviously the response to that shouldn't be okay, let's have a trial and then let him make any appeals he wants to make, but should instead be the dropping of all charges. Because he's had terrible things happen to him in the past. Because he's been 'punished enough', what with not being able to pick up his Oscar in person. Because he's in his seventies. Because it was a long time ago now. And because he was arrested at a film festival, my God, is nothing sacred?

But they're not excusing rape, oh, no. They're just pointing out that this rape probably didn't happen, or was probably her fault anyway, or probably shouldn't be prosecuted. They're just saying, is all. It's complicated.

There are, I'm sure, a lot of thirteen-year-old girls reading the headlines about the Polanski case now. They're learning that if they ever get raped, we probably won't consider them the real victims. And the worst thing is, they're right.


  1. Autumn Song Says:
  2. Since reading this, I have come across several other posts about Polanski, and in the comments to one of the them was this link:

    I'm disturbed that a woman as potentially influential as Whoopie Goldberg (who has at least one daughter and granddaughter) doesn't see this as "rape rape". The distinction itself between "rape" and "rape rape" is deeply troubling. I'm not entirely sure what she means, but I have a horrible sinking feeling that "rape rape" could be replaced with "real rape" in this context.

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