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Trigger warning for discussion of rape and violence

Without going into the specifics of Ken Clarke’s statements and proposals, I want to make an observation about a related talking point I have frequently encountered:

“But surely,” people say, “you cannot believe that being raped by a partner/date without other violence is as serious as being raped by a stranger at knife-point/gun-point after being dragged into a dark alley/into some bushes and beaten.”

The problem with this sort of comparison is its conflation of too many unrelated things. It is easy to agree to parts of it. Being beaten is worse than not being beaten. Being threatened with a weapon is worse than not being threatened with a weapon. Being abducted is worse than not being abducted.

But it is an error to collapse all aspects of the situations into “the rape”. Rape is a specific act: the act of non-consensual penetration. If one regards rape as a crime against a person – a violation of bodily integrity – then such acts cannot possibly be distinguished in seriousness on the basis of the identity of the perpetrator or any pre-existing relationship with the victim, including previous sexual contact. The crime is against a person’s autonomy, their ownership of their self, an ownership which we should never regard as diminished or ceded through consensual human relations.

As I have argued before, the identity of the rapist, and their prior relations with a victim, can only mitigate a rape if we regard rape as a crime against “purity” – a quality for which a rape victim’s body is merely a vehicle, and in relation to which she or he stands as a guardian, thus potentially culpable for its loss. The wrongness of rape inheres, in this perspective, not in the violation of a human being’s autonomy, but in the destruction of purity, a destruction for which both rapist and victim can be apportioned blame.

If we are talking about the rapes themselves and not additional acts, there is simply no distinction that can be made between stranger rapes, date rapes and partner rapes, which does not implicitly rely on the dehumanising logic of purity. The sheer variety of human psychology makes a nonsense of any arguments that people will always experience any one of these acts as a greater victimisation than another. Rape is a crime against a person, not against some abstract value for which the person is only a vessel.