In the early 1990s I was working for Age Concern in Norwich. Most of my job consisted of giving advice about welfare benefits, providing support for the various extremely acrimonious and seriously misnamed older people’s Friendship Clubs, and reading a lot of social policy documents. I wasn’t there long and the one thing that has stuck in my mind from that time is my boss, an experienced social worker, coming into the office and telling us that a woman had been raped in Great Yarmouth. I misremembered her age. I’ve been thinking she was in her 90s. In fact, as this extract from an article by Linda Grant in the Independent tells us, the victim was 100 years old. Her assailant, whom I’m pleased to see was later convicted, was a 16-year-old boy. What is most clear in my memory, I’ll spare you. It was about the fragility of the woman’s bones.
Most people reading that – even those who have been celebrating the overturning of Ched Evans’ rape conviction – will be sickened. Despite the nastiness and the appalling misogyny that has been let loose by the Evans case, I believe the discussion is missing the point. Rape is not about sex-gone-wrong. It’s all about power.
That’s not to say the issue of consent isn’t important. It is an important issue and young women (and men) need to be protected by society from the victim blaming/shaming culture that fails to recognise that having sex with someone without consent, and that includes being too pissed, stoned, or unconscious to give it, is rape. Date rape is an important issue and I’m not saying it isn’t.
For me, though, we’ll never solve the problem of rape and sexual assault unless we address the fact that it’s rarely (I’d probably say never) about sex. It’s about power. It’s why footballers, who have partners at home and brag about the number of women queuing up to have sex with them, do the kind of things that happened on that fateful night. Forgive me if I’m being a bit naïve, but I still believe most men prefer intimacy with a conscious, sentient being. The Ched Evans case was never about sex. That’s why the debate about consent is a red herring – important in itself, but irrelevant to this case. Unfortunately, making it about consent also meant his conviction was overturned, thereby giving free rein to every keyboard warrior in the country to opine about how much the woman concerned “deserved” it.
Every woman knows what it’s like to live in a society where it’s necessary to think constantly about your own personal safety. Every woman has a long list of the assaults, from minor to major, that they have to put up with, often from people in a position of trust. Most women will also tell you that other women are frequently not supportive when these incidents occur. That the most common response, even from friends, to hearing about sexual assault is to make the victim feel she is somehow to blame. We are seeing this now with the female support for Evans and also in the fact that Donald Trump, who is the archetype of every sleazebag boss you ever had, is a smidge away from becoming President of the United States. The ultimate power trip.
Rape is about power which is why it is a weapon of war. Mass rape has gone on since ancient times and it continues. While girls and women are seen as property, they will remain the spoils of war.
Rape is about power which is why the victims of rape range from babies to, as we have seen, 100 years old.
Sexual assault is about power which is why every woman knows what it’s like to have to fend off the unwanted attentions of your boss, your teacher, your Presidential Candidate, or any other authority figure in your life.
Sexual assault is about power which is why, even in the 21st century, women’s lives are circumscribed by fear. Fear of making a mistake and being in a position of vulnerability. Fear of missing the last bus or train home. Fear of the landlord who you know illegally has a key to your flat and uses it. Fear of the father of two charming children you babysit for. Fear of your neighbour. Fear of your friend’s granddad.
Yes, it’s obvious that a lot of men and women need educating about consent. We need to recognise that the sexual oppression of women is about more than that though.