No, Loose Women shouldn’t apologise for that rape poll

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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This week, we have seen precisely why open debate about rape and sexual violence is more needed than ever.

On Sunday, rock star Chrissie Hynde’s interview in The Sunday Times, in which she said that she ‘took full responsibility’ for a sexual assault she suffered aged 21, sent the chattersphere into overdrive, with people telling Hynde she was variously wrong, ignorant, potentially negligent and emotionally damaged.

And yesterday, the TV panel show Loose Women launched a poll in response to Hynde’s remarks asking whether it is ever a woman’s fault if she is raped. Twitterers responded demanding the cancellation of the show. The charity Rape Crisis tweeted that it was ‘angry and hurt’ by the question. Loose Women eventually apologised for the poll, telling the Guardian that it was ‘ill considered’.

The poll was unhelpfully worded. Few people would argue that it is a woman’s fault if she is raped, or that any victim of a crime is to blame. Of course, all blame and fault lies with the attacker, who makes a conscious decision to commit an awful act of violence. No behaviour on the part of a rape victim can detract from the moral culpability of the perpetrator.

But the Loose Women poll actually hints at a more nuanced discussion about responsibility, rather than blame. While blame suggests that a woman’s actions caused what happened to her, responsibility merely suggests that women should be aware that their own behaviour can put them in potentially dangerous situations. The problem with silencing the issues raised by the Loose Women poll is that most women today appear to agree with the spirit of the question, albeit not its wording. Research has shown that a majority of women believe that rape victims ‘bear some responsibility’ for what happened to them, and that if a woman got into bed with her attacker she shares some of the blame for being raped.

This is an important discussion. On the one hand, there is no evidence that a woman is more or less likely to be raped because she wears a short skirt or gets drunk. Rape is most likely to be committed by someone close to the complainant; whereas ‘stranger rape’ is comparatively rare. On the other hand, the expansion of the legal definition of rape has meant that a far broader spectrum of human behaviour can potentially be caught and regulated by law. While many argue that the burden should be on men to establish whether a partner is consenting, there are others who argue that the organic and human processes of intimacy mean that both parties have to ‘bear some responsibility’ for what takes place in the bedroom. There is an important debate to be had about women’s autonomy and responsibility in the context of rape and sexual violence. At a time when the law about rape has expanded so significantly, these questions are arguably more important than ever before.

This is why it is a shame that the Loose Women poll was pulled, even if it was worded badly. We have to be grown up enough to address these difficult questions. Of course, some victims of sexual abuse will find such conversations difficult. They deserve support to deal with reintegrating into society after an attack. But society at large cannot ignore such an important issue on the basis that it makes people uncomfortable. The issues that the poll attempted to address are important and should be talked about far more than they are now. At a time when a social-media site is capable of shutting down even the most pressing debate, it is worth asking: how can women in wider society be expected to engage in discussion about rape and sexual violence when the Twitter-outrage brigade demonise and silence anyone who fails to follow its script?

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon. He is the author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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