Why Rape Isn't Like Sunburn

A few months ago I got involved in what could either be described as a fantastic achievement or a terrible mistake: I brought a discussion about rape to the dinner table - to the actual, physical dinner table. My parents’ dinner table, to be precise. And when I say ‘discussion’, I mean a frantically heated debate between myself and an elderly female relative, which nearly descended into a slanging match and caused me, at one point, to storm out in spectacular style.

But details first. I hadn’t originally intended to spark such a debate over a perfectly delicious Sunday roast but, at some point between mouthfuls, I mentioned what George Galloway had said in relation to Julian Assange’s rape case. It transpired that my family were unaware of the details, so I told them. I filled them in on the fact that Assange is accused of having sex with the women while they were asleep, and Galloway’s subsequent assertion that this doesn't count as sexual assault. And to my shock, my elderly relative similarly burst forward with, ‘Oh, well, come on, that’s not rape!’

What followed was a shitstorm of victim-blaming assertions that left me horrified: if you’re in the same bed as a man, you’ve consented; if you go home with a man, you’ve consented; if you’re married to a man, you’ve DEFINITELY consented. Oh, and if you’re unconscious, then it really doesn't matter. Obviously. This led me to ask my relative whether, if I woke up to find my boyfriend pounding away on me, she see that as rape. ‘Sorry, love, but no.' This was the moment I walked out.

Coming back to the room, though, I was heartened to find that my mum was engaged in a passionate attempt to explain to our relative why this was Not Cool. Distressing as it was to realise that somebody I loved had decided that my boyfriend now has fully legitimate, 24/7, non-negotiable access to my body, it was also encouraging to hear that the whole thing had sparked a meaningful, if heated, conversation within my family.

The memory of this was sparked when an interview with the usually lovely Joanna Lumley was published in The Telegraph this week. In it, Lumley despairs at the behaviour of young women in our society, who do not know their own minds, but who stumble drunkenly through the streets, vomiting into gutters and leaving themselves carelessly open to rape or robbery. Instead, they should be conducting themselves with more elegance and grace, and definitely longer skirt-lengths. The frankly sycophantic interviewer tries to explain to us, the reader, that Lumley is simply a ‘lioness’ looking out for her little lions (seriously guys. Seriously). But, like, really? This message kind of seems more like it comes from one of those lionesses that eats its cubs out of hunger or confusion than the sort of fierce protector we might want looking out for us on a stormy night. And nobody likes a cannibal.

Firstly, let's all step back and remember that rape isn’t something that just happens to women. In a Guardian column back in December, Zoe Williams identified that rape is often talked about as if it were a natural disaster that just happens to women, rather than a calculated crime committed against one individual by another; the rapist becomes ‘so invisible, so faceless, that he is not so much a man as an act of God. You would no more address him than you would address a tsunami and ask it to spare the major towns.’ This seems to be a cornerstone of both Lumley’s and my elderly relative’s understanding of rape: it is not a crime that men commit, but a tragic occurrence that women leave themselves open to - much like getting sunburnt if you’re too lazy to put on sun-cream.

Secondly, being a ‘good’ girl will not keep you safe from rape. Lumley (and the relative, who, with no previous knowledge of the Assange case at all, instantly assumed that the women involved were prostitutes) are also under the impression that there is a ‘type’ of women who gets raped, and if we can only persuade women not to be that type, then they’ll be safe. But obviously, it’s not true. It’s not just drunk women, or women in short skirts, or women out late by themselves. You might get raped when you’re drunk, or you might get raped when you’re stone cold sober, sleeping in your own bed next to your husband. And the truth is, women aren’t EITHER pissed and falling all over the pavements OR respectable, dressed appropriately and taking pride in themselves, as Lumley suggests. We’re all of these things, at different times, in differing quantities. Almost all of us have drunkenly fallen off the sofa/dancefloor/kerb performing a tone-deaf rendition of 'All By Myself', Bridget Jones style, but most of us also get up the next Monday morning and behave sensibly in the office.
Women are people, and like all people they’ll make mistakes, do things they’re less proud of, or engage in behaviour you personally might not approve of, but it in no way makes them culpable for someone else’s crime. In other words, the 'good girl'/'bad girl' dichotomy has more holes in it than a crocheted sieve.

Most importantly, Lumley’s views are a very powerful example of how misogyny can be ingrained into women themselves. If you keep telling women that sluts get raped, short skirts mean you’re asking for it, and other such bullshit, then women will begin to believe it. And may then pass on this advice to other women, purely believing that they are doing their best to keep these women safe. It’s not a problem that only resides with older generations (I was pretty astounded recently to hear a 17 year old girl ask her teacher what the problem was with Constable Michael Sanguinetti telling students not to dress as sluts if they don’t want to be raped; ‘it’s just good advice’, she memorably stated.)
Lumley’s views are the sad result of what can happen if a women is given a lifelong exposure to these myths, and we should learn from it. Because in the case of rape, every stale breath wasted telling young girls to cover up could have been used to make genuine progress in the investigation of a very serious crime.