The war on rape: the logic of the lynch mob returns

Five ways in which today’s feminist war on rape echoes the KKK’s war on rape.

We are in the midst of a war on rape. From American campuses to British courthouses, from newspaper op-ed pages to the weird world of online petitions, ‘zero tolerance’ of rape has been declared. And who could possibly be against it? No one is ‘pro-rape’. So surely everyone will cheer a war on rape. Not so fast. Wars on rape have been declared before, and often for deeply reactionary reasons, having the effect of harming society rather than helping women. Consider the ‘war on rape’ declared in America’s Deep South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the KKK and other racists likewise declared zero tolerance of rape – rape committed by black men, that is – and signalled their determination to wipe out this ‘ultimate transgression’. There was little positive in that crusade. And here are five ways in which today’s non-racist feministic ‘war on rape’ echoes the lynch-mob logic of yesteryear’s racist ‘war on rape’.

1) Always believe the accuser

The rallying cry of today’s apparently liberal crusaders against rape is: ‘Believe.’ They always believe the accuser. To doubt the accuser is to risk being branded a rape apologist. Campaign groups with names like We Believe You and I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault speak to the readiness of campaigners to accept every accusation of rape as good coin. Even in the wake of the Rolling Stone scandal, where an allegation of gang rape at the University of Virginia has been exposed as a tissue of lies, a writer for the Washington Post insisted we must ‘automatically believe rape allegations’, because ‘incredulity hurts victims’. From Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen to various women’s accusations against Bill Cosby, the cry ‘I believe!’ has rung out, as activists have rushed to declare, without the benefit of a court case, that these women were raped.

Automatic belief of rape accusations was a central principle of the KKK’s war on rape, too. This was one of the things that most shocked Ida B Wells, the early twentieth-century African-American journalist and civil-rights activist. ‘The word of the accuser is held to be true’, she said, which means that ‘the rule of law [is] reversed, and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the [accused] must prove himself innocent’. Wells and others were startled by the level of belief in the accusers of black men, and by the damning of anyone who dared to question such accusations, which was taken as an attack on the accuser’s ‘virtue’. The great nineteenth-century African-American reformer Frederick Douglass was disturbed by the mob’s instant acceptance of accusations of rape against black men, where ‘the charge once fairly stated, no matter by whom or in what manner, whether well or ill-founded’, was automatically believed. Wells said she was praying that ‘the time may speedily come when no human being shall be condemned without due process of law’. No, rape suspects aren’t lynched today. But, as we can see in everything from the destruction of Bill Cosby’s career to the demand to banish from campus students accused of but not charged with rape, they are often condemned on ‘the word of the accuser’ and ‘without due process of law’. Now, as then, ‘I believe’ is the rallying cry of crusaders against rape, and now, as then, such ‘automatic belief’ reverses the rule of law.

2) Saving women from cross-examination

One of the key claims of today’s non-racist crusaders against rape is that the cross-examination of rape claimants is too tough and we need softer, less combative ways to establish the guilt of rape suspects. The Guardian says rape claimants who are subjected to a rigorous trial process feel like they have been ‘raped all over again’; cross-examination is ‘humiliating and needlessly gruelling’. The UK Labour Party says ‘cross-examination is too harsh for rape victims’ and has promised to change the law to restrict cross-examination in such cases. There are already special measures in place to protect rape claimants. In the UK, rape claimants enjoy anonymity, and a recent Court of Appeal ruling said courts must rethink how they question ‘vulnerable’ people. On campuses in the US, special academic courts with a single investigator rule on allegations of student rape: the aim of such extrajudicial, unfair courts is to avoid the ‘adversarial, evidence-gathering criminal-justice model’ and ‘spare complainants from cross-examination’.

The KKK was likewise obsessed with sparing women from cross-examination. It also justified its extrajudicial activities — in its case, mob-delivered capital punishment of suspected black rapists — as a way of saving rape claimants from being publicly questioned. As Crystal Nicole Feimster says in her book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, lynchings of rape suspects were justified as a way of ‘spar[ing] the female victim the humiliation of having to appear in court to testify before her alleged assailant, an all-male jury, and an audience of courthouse rowdies’. Deep South racists depicted women as too fragile to cope with cross-examination in court. In 1899, a racist correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution said he was repelled by ‘the very thought of a delicate woman being forced to go into the publicity of a court and there detail her awful wrongs in the presence of the brute who had inflicted [them]’, arguing that lynching was a better form of justice for the woman. Also in the 1890s, a Southern newspaper singled out rape as a special crime that should not be tested in court in the same way as all other crimes. It is wrong, it said, to force a ‘delicate woman’ to ‘[testify against] her ravisher’. ’Let every other crime be dealt with by law’, it went on, ‘but do you see now why lynchings are the only way to deal with this [crime]?’. A Southern editor said it was wicked to make a rape claimant ‘face a staring public’.

So the arguments of today’s crusaders against rape – about women being too delicate to cope with cross-examination and society therefore needing less rigorous procedures to rule on this crime – are not new. Their effectively extrajudicial measures might only be special campus courts or restrictions on cross-examination, rather than the lynchings preferred by the similarly women-pitying KKK, but in both cases the logic is the same: women are vulnerable, rape is a special crime, and thus we need parallel systems of ‘justice’ to deal with it.

3) Spreading panic about a ‘rape culture’

The buzzphrase of our age is ‘rape culture’. Fearmongering feminists claim women are surrounded by the threat of rape, as evidenced in everything from the Sun’s Page 3 to the continued existence of raunchy rock music, and are drowning in what one melodramatic columnist calls ‘a sea of misogyny’. Activists make videos of themselves being catcalled in the street to demonstrate that a ‘culture of rape’ is all around. Even as the statistics suggest that actual incidents of rape are declining — the US National Crime Victimization Survey records an 85 per cent decline in the per-capita victimisation rate of rape over the past 35 years — still the panic about rape is stoked up. Magazines like Rolling Stone run graphic stories about grotesque rapes, publishing houses churn out rape memoirs, and online forums are set up for women to tell, in as much detail as possible, their stories of being raped – all contributing to a feeling, however unfounded, that women are at risk from lustful men.

So it was in the Deep South, too. One of the main ways in which racists there maintained social divisions and social order was through the spectre of rape. They promoted the idea that white women were under constant threat from ‘lustful black men’. Even though the black rape of white women was not a major problem, still the idea that there was a menacing culture of rape was indulged. As one historian of the South put it, crimes of black-on-white rape ‘gripped the white imagination far out of proportion to their statistical significance’. Such was the fear of a black culture of rape that ‘rape and rumours of rape became the folk pornography of the Bible Belt’ — just as they have today, in the ‘folk pornography’ published by Rolling Stone and memoir houses, in these often unhinged, rumour-fuelled rape stories designed to shock and titillate readers. Some will say that today’s ‘awareness raising’ — modern parlance for fearmongering — about a culture of rape is at least not racist. It is true that modern feminists are anti-racist, but sometimes they rehabilitate old prejudices. The New York City catcalling video that went insanely viral two months ago, and reignited the debate about ‘rape culture’, featured what Slate called ‘a young white women [being] harassed by mostly black and Latino men’. The notion that white women are at risk from ‘lustful black men’ survives.

4) No redemption for rapists

Deep South racists lynched black men for all sorts of crimes, including the ‘crime’ of disrespecting a white person. But they peddled the myth that most lynchings were for rape because rape was seen, in their words, as the ‘ultimate transgression’ and thus they knew there’d be little blowback for lynchings that punished this crime. The finality of death was justified for the black rapist of a white woman because there could never be any earthly redemption for such a heinous crime, they argued. They depicted their lynchings of suspected rapists, their destruction of a rapist’s life, as a means of cleansing society of evil. In 1909, one pro-lynching newspaper described the destruction of a black rapist in the following terms: ‘Almost like the lifting of a fog when the morning sun bursts forth was the change in spirit in the city today after vengeance had been claimed and justice meted out to the negro.’

Today, too, feministic crusaders against rape claim there can never be redemption for rapists. Of all crimes, the committers of this one alone apparently can never be rehabilitated and returned to normal life. The online campaign to stop footballer Ched Evans from getting his old job back shows that rapists are once again considered beyond redemption. At the weekend, The Times’ resident feminist Caitlin Moran, a square person’s idea of a cool person, explicitly insisted that rapists can never be redeemed. In a chilling piece headlined ‘The limits of redemption’, she said even rapists who have served their time should have their lives made ‘publicly, endlessly awful, unrelentingly humiliating, without prospect of absolution’. Perhaps ‘men who have raped do need to see their lives reduced to ash’, she said — the use of the word ash speaking to the stake-preparing, fire-wielding sentiment behind much of the modern crusade against rape. Moran says ‘perhaps the only way society can be good… is to stop believing in redemption for a while’. Moran is not a racist. Yet there is a striking similarity between her demand that rapists’ lives be made ‘unrelentingly humiliating’ as a way of renewing society and that old racist’s justification of the humiliating public destruction of a rapist as a way of ‘lifting the fog’ and ‘changing the spirit’ of society. In both cases, punishing rape becomes less about justice and democracy and more about vengeance, humiliation, spectacle, the destruction of a man’s life, either through death or permanent exile from normal life, for committing the ‘ultimate transgression’. At least the KKK had the courage of its convictions — if Moran really believes there can be no ‘prospect of absolution’ for rapists, then she will surely want to kill them, too.

5) Infantilising women

In the old Deep South, there were some brave female voices, including white ones, which challenged the panic about a black rape culture on the grounds that it both victimised black men and patronised white women. Jessie Daniel Ames was a Texas-born well-off white woman, a Suffragette and an anti-racist, who in 1930 founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. She argued that the lynching of rape suspects was fuelled by ‘assumptions as degrading to white women as they were oppressive to blacks’. She believed that the hysteria over rape and the war on rape were carried out under the ‘guise of chivalric protection of white females’, which ‘actually demeans women and reinforces the myth of female vulnerability’. She called on women to throw off ‘the crown of chivalry which has been pressed like a crown of thorns on our head[s]’. So it is today. Today’s war on rape also heightens the myth of female vulnerability, depicting women as incapable of negotiating work life, university life and street life without assistance or special rules and regulations to protect them from men. Ames launched what one historian calls a ‘revolt against chivalry’. Where are today’s female revolters against chivalry, challenging the myth of a ‘rape culture’, a myth that simultaneously demonises men and infantilises women?

Mercifully, no one is lynched in the modern West, for rape or any other crime. But the logic of those old lynch mobs is making a comeback. From the instant acceptance of the word of rape accusers to the demonisation of fair and rigorous criminal-justice procedures, from the spreading of panic about a ‘rape culture’ to the depiction of women as vulnerable creatures at permanent risk from ‘lustful men’, all the prejudices that fuelled the old racist war on rape are being rehabilitated on the back of the new non-racist feministic war on rape. Both men and women should fight back against this new poisoning of the relations between the sexes and stand up to the fear, hysteria and elevation of vengeance over justice that lie at the heart of the modern public debate on rape.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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

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