Socialist Worker

After Ken Clarke's rape comments - we must defend the right to say no

by Viv Smith
Issue No. 2253

Justice secretary Ken Clarke’s comments about rape rightly caused an outcry last week.

He was talking about a proposal to cut sentences for rapists in cases where the accused admits their guilt.

On BBC radio, when asked about the lowering of rape sentences, Clarke replied, “A serious rape where, you know, violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff’s [sentence] much longer than that.”

When the interviewer responded by saying “Rape is rape”, Clarke contradicted her saying, “No it’s not… they include date rapes which, eh, date rapes can sometimes be very confusing.”

His attempt to distinguish between “serious” rape, and “other kinds” like date rape, and his use of words like “unwilling”—implying that some women are raped willingly—sparked outrage.

Alongside these comments there is the ongoing campaign by Tory bigot Nadine Dorries MP to blame girls and women for teenage pregnancy, rape and abuse.

And both follow the emergence of the SlutWalk protests—with one to be held in London on 11 June—which were launched in response to a cop advising students in Canada not to dress like “sluts” if they want to avoid rape.

Suddenly the question of a woman’s right to control her body and life has sprung centre stage.

For decades women have fought for the right to say “no means no”, no matter the circumstances—whether we had dinner, or I gave you my phone number, or I was wearing a short skirt.

And while the personal experience of rape may vary, it is a profoundly traumatic experience.

There is more at stake here than changes to sentencing laws.

The comments by Clarke, Dorries and the cop in Toronto reflect women’s oppression and inequality in society.

We are told that violence that against women is unacceptable, but around 2,000 women are raped every week in Britain. As many as 95 percent of rapes are never reported, according to government figures.


Only around 6 percent of rape cases that make court result in a conviction, compared with 34 percent of criminal cases in general.

It wasn’t until as late as 1991 that rape within a marriage was even accepted as a form of rape at all.

Nothing a woman does can get a rapist a higher sentence, but her behaviour can get the sentence reduced

And last year, leaked police documents showed that officers breached rules in several rape cases, writing off allegations in a bid to improve their “clear‑up” rate.

The reality is that the state—from the police to the courts, from national to local government—fails to take the oppression of women seriously.

Violence against women is one of the most extreme expressions of oppression that exists.

The system we live in, far from tackling this, alienates and destroys people to such an extent that they are capable of rape and violence.

Tory funding cuts are making life harder for women.

In London, despite promises to fund four Rape Crisis Centres long-term, Boris Johnson has only funded one, and only half that money has appeared.

One in four local authority areas offer no support to women suffering violence, and more are cutting their services.

The proposed changes to sentencing are crucial to the Ministry of Justice’s cost cutting plans. The department will save some £130 million a year by 2015 if they are implemented.

As socialists, we don’t believe that longer prison sentences will prevent crime—or that prisons are the answer.

But the government’s proposals on sentencing will mean nothing to victims of rape while the “blame” culture still exists.

Women who are victims of rape or violence should be provided with support, safety and the justice of having their case taken seriously.

The Tory cuts expose the class nature of the system. Their cuts target the most vulnerable and oppressed, while the government protects the interests of the rich.

There should be a demand, taken up by every anti-cuts group, for more resources to support women suffering violence.

Come and discuss women’s liberation and more at the Marxism festival, 30 June to 4 July, London. Meetings on women include Women and class with Judith Orr & Nina Power, Socialism & feminism and Raunch culture & sexism today. For a full timetable go to

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Article information

Tue 24 May 2011, 17:59 BST
Issue No. 2253
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