The moral crusaders who confuse sex with rape

Today’s relentless awareness-raising about an alleged epidemic of rape speaks to officialdom’s suspicion of interpersonal relationships.

It is precisely because rape is such a serious violation of a person’s human dignity that the political exploitation of it today is so reprehensible. Numerous moral crusaders now make promiscuous claims about an ‘epidemic of rape’. Sitting in a carriage on a London Underground train recently, I saw a poster that said: ‘REAL MEN GET RAPED… Talking about it takes real strength.’ Just as I was getting my head around that alarmist message, I read a report about how the parenting website Mumsnet has discovered that 80 per cent of women who are allegedly raped or assaulted do not report it. Mumsnet also wants people to ‘talk about it’.

Britain’s Lib-Con government wants to ‘raise awareness’, particularly about sexual violence among teenagers. Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced that the Home Office will shortly launch a new advertising campaign explaining to young people just what constitutes rape. The government believes teenagers have a ‘false’ idea of rape, and the campaign is designed, in the words of the equalities minister Lynne Featherstone, to ‘dispel the myths that can lead to acceptance of rape in relationships’.

According to the promotional material put about by various moral crusaders, rape is a ‘hidden problem’ and the majority of its victims are too humiliated or scared to speak out about it. Apparently many of them – especially teenagers – are not even aware that they have been violated or what it means to be violated. The key message of these campaigns is that the problem of rape is far worse than we suspected, and despite the sturdy work of moral entrepreneurs our awareness of rape is still dangerously low.

Pathologising human relationships

The moral crusade against rape is underpinned by modern society’s intense suspicion of the way human beings conduct themselves in their relationships. It communicates the morbid idea that abuse and sexual violence are normal, and that children and young people in particular are in grave danger from their intimates. Indeed, since the late 1970s the theme of abuse has become one of the most distinctive features of Western culture. The frequency with which that term is now used, and the growing number of experiences that have been redefined as abusive (there’s child abuse, elder abuse, granny abuse, peer-to-peer abuse, animal abuse, and so on), really shows how abuse-obsessed contemporary culture has become.

In line with today’s misanthropic climate, sex has been recast as an activity that involves intense peril. Increasingly, sex is looked upon as a risk. The idea of sex as fun now competes with the idea that it frequently involves violence and rape. The reinvention of sex as a profoundly risky affair is inextricably linked to the idea that human beings are damaged, that men are innately violent.

One of the ways in which the culture of abuse is maintained is through expanding the definition of harm. This can be seen very clearly in the conceptual inflation of rape. Back in 1985, Ms. magazine published an article by Mary Koss which claimed that one-in-four American women had been raped. Through Koss’s methodological exaggeration of male violence, the idea of an ‘epidemic of rape’ became established. Since that time, discrete acts of rape have been so denuded of meaning that they have become indistinguishable from the normal ambiguities, tensions and pressures involved in everyday sexual encounters. Thus the American feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon has pointed out the alleged similarities between the ‘patterns, rhythms, roles and emotions, not to mention acts, which make up rape (and battery) on the one hand and intercourse on the other’. In other words, MacKinnon can only see passion, violence and force in the ambiguities of sexual encounters. Others, too, have absolved themselves of the hassle of interpreting each encounter on its own terms, prefering instead to talk about a ‘continuum’ of sexual misdeeds that begins with pressure and culminates in rape.

Clegg’s Home Office campaign is a good example of how intimate relationships between young people have been pathologised; indeed, the campaign effectively erases the conceptual distinction between pressure and rape. This is a campaign designed to redefine young people’s experiences. It is based on the premise that teenagers cannot distinguish being loved from being raped. As Clegg stated, ‘The campaign will give teenagers the facts and support they need to recognise abuse and form healthy relationships’. It appears that the Home Office and other moral crusaders are worried that young people associate rape with violence rather than with ‘unwanted pressure’. ‘This hard-hitting campaign shows that rape is not just about violent attacks by strangers’, says Clegg.

Yet pressure – unwanted or wanted – is integral to every attempt to strike up a sexual relationship. Such relationships never occur spontaneously; they always involve someone taking the first step and putting the other person under pressure to respond. Sometimes such pressure mutates into clumsy and confused behaviour. But only in the very rare instances where the people exerting pressure refuse to take no for an answer should terms like sexual violence and rape be invoked. Unfortunately, however, the Home Office campaign is so obsessed with ‘raising awareness’ about an alleged epidemic of sexual violence that it wouldn’t recognise a healthy teenage relationship if it bumped into one.

Once rape has been redefined as a normal feature of human relationships, it will end up being ‘discovered’ everywhere. So last year, two boys, aged 10 and 11, were put on showtrial for being naughty and were convicted of attempted rape at the Old Bailey in London. That these children were tried and convicted is bad enough; that they were convicted despite the fact that the eight-year-old defendant admitted in court that she had made up the story of her ordeal is even worse. It exposes today’s disturbing obsession with seeing rape everywhere, including in the most unlikely places.

An invitation to fantasy

A common argument made by moral crusaders is that rape is far more prevalent than we imagine. From this perspective, what is really important is what people do not report and what the public does not see. ‘The hidden’ is more important than the visible. That is why Mumsnet’s claim that 80 per cent of women do not report rape or sexual assault can be interpreted as hard evidence of a pandemic of sexual violence. ‘The devastating scale of sexual violence against women in Britain is exposed today by new research which indicates that the vast majority of victims do not report perpetrators to the police’, said a report in the Independent. The process through which this fantasy was concocted is fairly typical of the modern pathologisation of sexual relations. First, an online poll carried out by an advocacy group is miraculously transformed by a journalist into ‘research’. And of course, there is no need to raise any questions about how the poll was conducted or how representative was the sample on which it was based. Then, by the time the story hits the rest of the media, it is yet another case of ‘New research shows…’ – a phrase we hear all the time these days, and which should always set alarm bells ringing. Finally, the 80 per cent claim is magically converted into fact.

For moral crusaders it is very important to elevate ‘what we do not know’ above what we do. Because promoting ignorance of the real state of affairs has the effect of marginalising reasoned argument in favour of promoting fantasy. And it is precisely because we are ignorant about the hidden epidemic that they, the authorities, are entitled to raise our awareness!

The mission to pathologise human relationships through normalising rape is a very worrying development. It fuels suspicion and makes people unnecessarily wary of intimate encounters. Through presenting a caricatured idea of sexual violence, it also trivialises the horrors of real rape. As a society we should of course deal with sexual predators and protect their victims. But just now, we should be worried about the moral crusaders who prey on our worst fears.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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