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It’s little wonder women are up in arms over Ken’s cold view on rape

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Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has come under pressure to resign following comments he made on radio relating to the definition of rape.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has come under pressure to resign following comments he made on radio relating to the definition of rape.

Matthew Lloyd

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has come under pressure to resign following comments he made on radio relating to the definition of rape.

I don’t believe that Ken Clarke is insensitive to the horrors of rape. But there is much that he could learn from the furore his unwisely worded comments whipped up this week, if he’s not too arrogant to take stock.

Firstly, rape is an extremely emotive subject and cannot withstand the kind of clinical, forensic language Clarke used to discuss it on BBC 5Live on Wednesday. Though many of us have long had a soft(ish) spot for Ken as the one Tory we don’t hate, he’s beginning to look like a dinosaur who just doesn’t get the rules of the modern political arena.

He spoke about rape in the same detached legalese that one might apply in a conversation about haddock quotas, marking him as a member of the old guard who hasn’t kept up with society’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of just what a difficult and emotional subject rape is.

Most politicians these days wouldn’t use a term like ‘serious rape’ under any circumstances because of the obvious implications that there must thus exist a less than serious rape. They would also shy from making any distinction between ‘date rape’ and ‘stranger rape’ because they would understand the dangerous suggestion therein that one is more ruinous for the victim.

When Clarke expanded his point, it became clear that he was referring to legal categorisations — a simple matter of fact, but any savvy politician would intuitively know that such nuances would be irrelevant once the Press got hold of a few de-contextualised quotes.

The truth is that, although Clarke is often celebrated for eschewing media training and talking straight, there are times when people in positions of profile and power need to be careful with their words.

In the current climate of kneejerkism and bandwagon-jumping, there is always an opportunistic hothead ready to call for an instant sacking the moment a public figure speaks with a loose tongue (in this case it was Ed Miliband, doing the Clarke-hating Daily Mail a favour by calling for his resignation within half an hour of the 5Live interview).

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More importantly though, there are times when Clarke’s casual attitude does have grave consequences. Most of his comments were not provably wrong (though he did reveal himself to have a slippery grasp of terms regarding underage sex). But his implication, intended or not, that there are some experiences of rape which might reasonably be regarded as less than severe, plays into the hands of a certain breed of men who quietly believe that there are times when a woman is ‘asking for it’.

Women’s groups often point out the noxious drip drip effect the regular expression of this idea can have on impressionable minds with wayward moral compasses — Clarke’s performance this week was an example of how perilous thoughtlessness can be.

His dispassionate approach to the issue also made him sound cold and out of touch, like too many of our creaky judges. When a distraught caller on the 5Live show told him, through tears and gasps, about the horrific ordeal she had gone through at the hands of an uncaring justice system, he sounded about as emotionally engaged as a gargoyle. He went on to quote statistics and explain policy to her.

It may be that he felt uncomfortable being confronted with such a raw example of a victim of the current system, but for women hoping to hear compassion and empathy from the Justice Minister, it was a disheartening listen to say the least.


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