Michelle Wright thinks the Government has the wrong priorities when it comes to protecting British citizens from terrorism. Women are under attack, she argues; not only from the abusers and rapists, but from the institutions and systems that are supposedly there to protect us.
Our Government is intent on protecting us from terrorist attack – the kind that comes from a fanatic minority. But why are they not taking the private acts of terror committed on a large number of women every day – rape and domestic violence – as seriously?
You know those feelings of exasperation and despair you can get when you tune into the evening news or read a newspaper? That come from hearing a politician’s inane proposals or seeing the bloody effect an unjust war can have on innocent people?
Those feelings have been stirred in me lately after seeing the news march out an army of stories loaded with reduced sentences for rapists; rehabilitation courses for domestic abusers; and a rise in the number of cautions instead of prison sentences given as punishment for rape. The underlying message seems to be that women are under attack; not only from the abusers and rapists, but from the institutions and systems that are supposedly there to protect us.
Hearing that those who abuse women are no longer subject to such severe punishment is unnerving. Then realising that the Government, the police, the criminal justice system is failing to take the physical and sexual – and accompanying mental – exploitation of women seriously is downright disturbing.
How can we accept that the crimes committed on women and their bodies are being dealt with in the female victims’ interests, when the we hear the following issues reported in the in the news…?
Punishment for rape
The number of cautions given as punishment for rape has increased substantially in the past decade – 40 cautions were given in 2004, up from 19 in 1994 (Home Office figures, 2006; BBC report)? Not all reported rapists face trial and a prison sentence. When this made the headlines, the Home Office defended itself by saying these cautions were given in “exceptional” cases and where the rapists admitted to the crime. They were given criminal records and placed on the sex offenders register.
But what kind of message does this send out about the severity of rape in the eyes of the criminal justice system? That physically violating a girl or woman is a crime not worthy of severe punishment is contemptible.
One of the reported “exceptional” cases involved a boy aged 13 given a caution for raping an even younger child. Punishment in the form of a trial and time in a young offenders institution was not pursued. However, the criminal justice system deems children to be responsible for acts of crime from the age of 10. The child murderers of Jamie Bulger were locked up and made to serve time. On what basis are judgements made as to which crimes young boys should be punished for and which not?
A caution as punishment for rape does not fit the crime. If someone is not punished severely enough for something, where’s the disincentive? If the message is being sent that to rape does not necessarily mean a prosecution and prison sentence, where’s the deterrent?
Punishment for domestic violence
Domestic abusers who plead guilty and ‘show remorse’ for what they have done, could- as suggested by the Sentencing Guidelines Council – avoid prison and instead will be made to attend rehabilitation courses (BBC report).
One in four women will be victims of violence at the hands of men they know at some point in their lives (British Crime Survey, 2004). Such an epidemic of abuse should not be cured – cannot be cured – by letting the perpetuators off lightly. For starters, how can it be ascertained that a domestic abuser is truly sorry? Standing before a judge, will he put on the same sorry face he has honed from apologising to his partner time after time- after all he said he was sorry after each beating too, only for the fists to be raised again? Believing a remorseful face, but then getting it wrong could have dire consequences.
Most importantly though, why should a man who has committed acts of terror – maybe over many years – be given a second chance? Would we allow other terrorists to be given a second chance? Would we accept such light punishment for child abusers? So why for those who abuse women? Rehabilitation should only come alongside a prison sentence in cases like these.
Consent for sex
A Home Office publicity campaign launched in March aimed at men encouraging them to seek consent before having sex, misses the point. While the ethos of the campaign seems promising, the imagery and accompanying message of the publicity posters soon puts paid to that (BBC report).
Crude is an understatement for the image of women one poster in particular portrays. It shows the lower half of a woman, her midriff, underwear and upper thighs the only parts of her visible. The underwear is white with a No Entry sign emblazoned on it. Yes, that’s right women have been reduced to their genitals, not to be trespassed. They are represented as nothing more than this- not as human beings with a face, a mind, a voice that says no. It’s frustrating to see even in Government-endorsed publicity, women are seen as nothing more than sex objects.
As for the message, it focuses on the consequences of rape for the rapist – don’t rape or you’ll go to prison. Not, don’t rape because you are hurting and exploiting a woman; not don’t rape because it shows absolutely no respect for the female human race.
Reduced sentences for rape?
Pathetically, just a few days after this campaign was launched it was announced that the Sentencing Guidelines Council is considering reducing sentences for rapists by 15 per cent. (BBC report)
What is most disturbing is this recent wave of proposals are washing over and threatening to erode the walls of defence built by second-wavers’ campaigning efforts to take rape and domestic violence seriously. In 2006, the picture being painted depicts a society that is closing its ears to the demands made by these feminists to acknowledge that abuse in the home is akin to abuse on the streets; that husbands can rape their wives and should be punished as such.
This becomes obvious when we look at the rape conviction statistics. In 1977, one in three reported rapes resulted in a conviction. Today that has fallen to one in 20. The overall conviction rate in England and Wales is at its lowest for 30 years at 5.3 per cent. Yet, reports of rape are increasing (Home Office figures, 2005).
Where’s the real war on terror?
The Government, police and criminal justice system are not taking seriously enough the private threats and acts of abuse committed on a large number of women every single day. Instead, they focus their energies on protecting the country from potential, large-scale public terrorist attacks by religious and ethnic outsiders.
This is where the Government are enforcing the law – by introducing draconian anti-terror laws which infringe on free speech; take up police time and resources; and threaten our civil liberties with the introduction of identity cards. All cumbersome, expensive and unworkable measures, but which our Government insist upon all in the name of protecting us from that so-called real threat to our lives- that of religious fanatics and suicide bombers.
What does this amount to? Outside the home, a 10-year-old boy makes racist comments to a classmate in the school playground and is hauled in front of a judge (BBC Report). In the home, a grown man rapes his girlfriend- the case doesn’t even make it to trial.
The way I see it, the verbal indiscretions of a young boy – while they should not be condoned – is subject to more severe punishment than physically abusing and violating a woman. Should this be the case?
I’m not suggesting that the threat of terrorism should not be dealt with- but it needs to be kept in perspective. All the rhetoric spilt from the mouths of politicians regarding the terrorist threat is just that – it rests on threats and potential attacks.
But for a large number of women in this country, acts of terror are being committed on them right now, in their own homes. Physical and very real acts of abuse, exploitation and violation are a daily reality for thousands of women. Two women a week are killed by a violent partner/ex-partner in this country (Women and Equality Unit, 1999) and every minute, the police receive a call for assistance for domestic violence (Stanko, 2000).
It’s a famous fact in feminist circles, but one worth repeating – violence causes more death and disability worldwide amongst women aged 15-44 than war, cancer, malaria or traffic accidents (Womenkind). We might as well add terrorist attacks to that list.
And what makes this a real epidemic of abuse is the fact that its victims cut boundaries of race and religion. While the ‘war on terror’ is visible by the lines it has drawn between those of a different religious and racial background, this is not true of the terror being perpetuated on women behind closed doors.
Women of all ethnic backgrounds and religion face abuse in the home. ‘Honour crimes’ are disturbingly common in British Asian communities – London police receive two calls a week reporting such incidents which include the threat of murder of women and girls by members of their own families and forced marriage. Around 1,000 British Asian girls are forced into marriage each year (NUT, 2005).
So why isn’t there a war on this very real kind of terror?
Perhaps there isn’t one because it happens in the home, and- dare I say it- to women. A domestic abuser and rapist do not pose a threat to national security- just a woman’s personal sense of security; they are not going to attack the financial landmarks of the capital- just a woman’s body; they are not going to infiltrate and brainwash others into religious fanaticism- they just brainwash a woman into believing the beatings she takes are her fault.
Another reason could be because the image of woman as object- specifically sex object- is so endemic, so ingrained in all facets of our culture. Our society is unwilling to punish men who rape, because all around us our popular culture is perpetuating the idea that women are supposed to be up for it at all times anyway. A woman who wears a short skirt and gets drunk is ‘asking for it’ because of course by wearing a short skirt she is subscribing to that model of femininity that leaves men unable to control themselves. Of course this is rubbish, but it seems these myths have taken on a logic of their own in the minds of police officers and juries across the country.
Images of women as sexual commodities are sold more pervasively and more fiercely than ever before. No longer is porn something relegated to the top shelf and bought by furtive-looking men. Lad mags shelved at eye-level in newsagents and the pages of Sunday tabloid newspapers confront us all with images of soft porn and the most popular image of woman there currently is- that of sex object. Even women and young girls are supposed to view pornography as a bit of fun and a path to sexual liberation. This can be seen in Pussycat Dolls videos and the Playboy bunny logo stationary aimed at young girls in a family high-street store near you.
This obsession popular culture has for women as sex objects communicates the myth that women should enjoy offering their bodies up to men and being sexual commodities. So how can they be being raped and abused?
Our society only seems to take the physical and sexual abuse of female bodies seriously up to a certain age. Paedophiles preying on girls below the age of consent and stories of young girls being raped in their local supermarkets are – rightly – reported in horror and condemnation. But once the young girl reaches the age of 18, she’s fair game.
This contradictory attitude is summed up in one of the country’s best-selling newspapers- the News of the World. They have campaigned fiercely against paedophiles and the sexual abuse of children. Yet the pages of this newspaper are also awash with soft porn images of women. The message seems to be young girls should be protected from sex up to a certain age, but after that they should be all too willing to bare themselves for men.
Defendants of porn may say the images of grown women are those featuring consenting adults and therefore should not be compared to child sexual abuse and pornography. However, images of pornography- if not directly perpetuating a culture of sexual violence- certainly numb us to its reality.
This could be seen in a recent Dispatches programme on Channel Four which brought to light the extent of sexism in the police force, as experienced by an undercover female police officer. The fact these male police officers had soft porn posters adorning the station’s walls and got off on violent porn downloaded on their mobiles went some way to explain the nonchalance and contempt they displayed towards rape victims and their female colleagues.
The fact that not enough is being done to protect women from rape and abuse, that this culture and these attitudes create such a loud decibel of noise, means that ultimately the voices of the women who are raped and abused are not heard.
Young women are being fed the lie that to drink too much and wear a short skirt is asking to be raped. When she is raped, she is too scared and too sceptical to report the crime for fear of being cross-examined and ridiculed in court and now with the knowledge that her attacker may escape serious punishment, why would she even bother to report the attack?
Similarly, with domestic violence if a woman knows that the beatings she takes are only going to be punished in her husband by means of a rehab course, how likely is she to report him?
If women are being told that they are either asking for it or that the crimes committed on them are not subject to severe punishment the real danger is that women will not say anything and men will continue to abuse women because they know they will get away with it.
A woman goes out for the day with her husband, travelling by train. On the train and at the station she sees and hears warnings to keep her luggage with her and report any suspicious activity. Protecting herself and others from a potential terrorist attack is of paramount importance.
But the potential attack isn’t going to come from that stranger in the next carriage – it’s going to come from the terrorist sitting next to her- her husband, the abuser. Where’s the incentive to report him? Can she be sure that if she does, it will taken as seriously, punished as severely as if she were to report a suspect package on the platform?