‘rape isn’t always rape’, says former TV presenter
Last week, former British television presenter, Nick Ross, sparked controversy when an excerpt of his upcoming book, Crime, was published in the Daily Mail. In the piece, heavily edited from a chapter focusing on crime and sex, Ross argues that ‘it has become sacrilege to suggest that there can be any gradation’ when it comes to rape. Claiming to speak for the ‘real experts, the victims’, he explains that for them, ‘rape isn’t always rape’. According to Ross, ‘half of all women who have had penetrative sex unwillingly do not think they were raped, and this proportion rises strongly when the assault involves a boyfriend, or if the woman is drunk or high on drugs: they went too far, it wasn’t forcible, they didn’t make themselves clear.’
Ross points out that rape victims were treated horribly in the past, as if they were at fault, but wonders if perhaps we have now gone too far the other way. He claims that in the view of some victims, we have. He then crassly goes on to say that ‘we have come to acknowledge it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car. We would laugh at a bank that stored sacks of cash by the front door. We would be aghast if an airport badly skimped on its security measures.’
Not surprisingly, the published extract has drawn resounding criticism from many commentators and sexual violence campaigners. His sentiments, as put forth in the Daily Mail, have been attacked for their misogyny and insensitivity and for reinforcing the notion that rape victims share some degree of responsibility for their attacks.
Ross has responded to the criticism by rejecting outright the idea that he blames rape victims in the least and by asserting his support for them. And although Ross has voiced his satisfaction that the extract published in the Daily Mail is a fair representation of his argument, Dr Brooke Magnanti points out that the complete chapter offers greater context than is evident in the excerpt. Reading the complete chapter, it doesn’t appear that Ross is intentionally or consciously providing an apology for rape, and it seems clear that he sees himself on the side of those who have been raped. In fact his overall argument, if he has one, is explicitly grounded in his rejection of traditional constructions of women as eternal victims.
Unfortunately for him, and far more so for those on whose behalf he claims to be writing, his arguments are poorly constructed, insensitively worded and potentially harmful. Dr Magnanti notes that Ross’s approach is strictly criminological, without any apparent empathy for the experiences of rape survivors. Perhaps most damaging is his clumsy attempt at reassessing the institutional response of the judicial system to cases of rape and sexual assault. In attempting to cut through ‘the red mists of politics and emotion’, Ross quotes figures that show extremely low rates of reporting when it comes to sexual assault (less than 20%) and even lower rates of these cases going to trial, let alone ending with a conviction. He suggests that we should consider that these figures are the result of women choosing not to pursue legal action because either they themselves feel partially at fault, or they would rather not ‘put their life on hold’ whilst legal procedures run their long and often harrowing course. His argument is that perhaps there are better and more sensitive ways to address cases of rape and sexual assault than the current legal system. There are surely improvements that could be made, but rather than propose an alternative, Ross abruptly moves on, seemingly suggesting a non-solution that simply silences those who have been raped. A lack of institutional support for victims is a problem that needs to be fixed and is not a reason to encourage women not to report sexual assaults in the first place.
Ross makes another damaging half-argument when referring to women who feel in part responsible for their own assaults, contending that a tendency to self-blame is one of the sadder and furthest-reaching aspects of sex offences. He again leaves this pronouncement hanging, failing to explore the systemic and social factors that contribute to the internalisation of blame by some victims of sexual assault. In fact, by claiming to be letting victims speak for themselves, his decision not to elaborate further seems to suggest he believes that if victims think they are to blame, then they must be.
This particular section is followed by an examination of the issue of drug-facilitated sexual assault. He cites numerous studies that conclude sexual assaults related to drink spiking are extremely rare and that in the vast majority of cases, loss of memory and other apparent symptoms are the result of excessive self-administered alcohol consumption. He concludes confusingly that ‘the man who took advantage was undoubtedly to blame for most of it, even if he too was high on drink or drugs.
Certainly it is easier to blame him for your amnesia so far as friends and family are concerned. But police should be sceptical even if the media are not.’ Whilst it may be true that drug-facilitated sexual assaults in the form of drink spiking are rare, Ross fails to acknowledge that this is entirely beside the point. Whether a woman is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, self-administered or ingested unknowingly, sexual assault is sexual assault. Rape is rape.
Whilst the controversial extract published in the Daily Mail was a particularly provocative representation of a broader chapter, Nick Ross’s attempt at providing a hard-nosed, evidence-based look at the realities of sexual assault and rape is riddled with incomplete arguments and insensitive language that only serve to strengthen existing prejudices and harmful assumptions about the topic. Perhaps most damaging is that he has done this whilst claiming to be letting victims speak for themselves. In reality, he seems to be talking over them.