We must be free to question rape laws

Feminist academics are using slurs and threats to chill the debate on rape. They must be challenged.

The discussion around issues related to rape is now so rife with intellectual bigotry and dishonesty that it is hard to know where to begin dissecting it. It is no underestimation to say that a portion of those contributing to this debate are engaged in a wilful distortion of the truth and a cowardly drive to close down any challenge to their false consensus.

This was evident last month, following the London School of Economics’ decision to host a debate titled ‘Is Rape Different?’. I attended, along with over 300 others. Speaking at the debate was Helen Reece, an academic at the LSE and author of the important article ‘Rape myths: is elite opinion right and public opinion wrong?’. Reece appeared alongside barrister and spiked contributor Barbara Hewson, Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal, and City Law School professor Jennifer Temkin.

The debate has since provoked predictable ‘there is no debate!’ uproar from people with nothing better to do on Twitter. But such is the hysteria around the discussion of rape and rape laws that the outrage of the Twittersphere has been allowed to spill into the world of academia. The journal Feminists at Law, based at Kent Law School, has launched a petition for the LSE to ‘ensure that the ideas disseminated [at the debate] do not feed dangerous stereotypes about women being responsible for the sexual violence perpetuated against them’. The petition has been signed by around 85 people. Another journal published something similar, criticising the decision of the LSE to host the debate and saying it was symptomatic of a neoliberal impact agenda in higher education.

What this reaction reveals is a desire to restrict discussion around rape. We are seeing the cult-like elevation of one inalienable ‘truth’ above all others. This ‘truth’ is that we live in an age where rape is part of everyday culture, and where those in power are doing nothing to stop it. Anyone who dares question this prevailing orthodoxy on rape is guilty of a chauvinistic heresy, attributable to their immersion in a controlling patriarchal society.

It is precisely this climate of ‘you can’t say that’ which universities have traditionally challenged in the name of robust open debate. The LSE took the admirable decision to host the debate entirely in the public realm, even publishing the discussion as a video online. In doing so, it demonstrated a commitment to the traditional role of the university in leading and promoting public discussion.

But the idea that debates like this should be held in public is anathema to contemporary ‘anti-rape’ (as if anyone is ‘pro-rape’) campaigners, who seem to think that certain arguments are capable of turning almost any member of the great unwashed into a ‘rape sympathiser’. In the same way that greens brand those who disagree with them as ‘climate change deniers’, so those who dare to question the prevailing view on rape are dismissed as ‘apologists’ who unwittingly contribute to ‘rape culture’ through their espousal of prejudices against women. In the words of the Feminists at Law journal, the arguments of these ‘apologists’ ‘feed dangerous stereotypes’ that perpetuate a culture which legitimises sexual violence.

What is most worrying about the drive to close down debate around rape is that the prevailing view is so often completely wrong. Consider the often-spouted idea that rape has a low conviction rate. Anyone who questions this holy nugget of truth is likely to find himself called a ‘rape apologist’. But the fact is that rape convictions are at an all-time high: 63 per cent of rape trials end in a conviction. Rape is one of the offences in which a jury is more likely to believe a complainant than not. Even Baroness Stern, whose review of rape statistics in 2010 is usually quoted as the holy bible of rape truth, pointed out that the idea that the conviction rate for rape was peculiarly low was ‘distorting public understanding’ and putting off complainants from coming forward.

Or take the idea that the police and prosecutors do nothing about rape. Wrong again. Recent legal history is awash with laws and policy reforms designed to make the prosecution of rape easier. The introduction of complainant anonymity, the establishment of specialised medical investigation units to recover the best possible evidence as soon as possible and the introduction of pre-recorded evidence are just three examples of a long list of reforms targeted at convicting more people of rape. Yet the idea that the police will ‘ignore’ complainants, or that all rape cases are doomed to fail, is bandied around as an unquestionable truth. It’s completely wrong.

It is in this environment of half-truth and assertion that the true value of academic freedom is revealed. Any attempt by journals like Feminists at Law to limit our access to alternative or critical views should be recognised as more than an attack on those making arguments they disagree with: it is an attack on our right to know. So three cheers for the LSE for staging the debate; three cheers for those who took part; and three cheers for those members of the public who attended and fought hard for the ideas they believed in. At a time when hysteria can enforce false orthodoxies in public life, we need these open, interrogative forums more than ever.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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

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