Ken Clarke, Strauss-Kahn, Yale and SlutWalks: rape, consent and agency

In recent weeks, one word has dominated the headlines: rape. The events worldwide have shown how rape remains in the bloodstream of our culture, while our language on the crime is distorting and debased

We seem to have a problem.  In the last few weeks, the British Minister of Justice, one of the world’s most prestigious universities and the head of the International Monetary Fund have all been in the headlines for the same reason: the word ‘rape’, our understanding of it, and the continued pervasive misconceptions of what it means.  Meanwhile, protests are taking place worldwide after Toronto police told a group of university students “the best way to avoid getting raped is not to dress like a slut.”  Rape – a crime predominantly committed against women – is in the bloodstream of our culture, stitched into our institutions of power. 

Most of all, these weeks revealed the debased nature of our public language on rape: appropriated for political ends, warped with misunderstanding and victim-blaming, distorted to the point of linguistic nonsensicality. 


The Toronto SlutWalk protests. Image: Anton Bielousov

After widespread calls to resign, the British justice minister Ken Clarke has apologised for his statements, made in a radio interview, where he seemed to attempt to articulate a hierarchy between different kinds of rape.  For all the comment it has already generated, it’s worth re-reading the language he used just to see how illogical his statements were, and how revealing.

In mentioning higher tariffs for "serious rape where there's violence and an unwilling woman”, Clarke presented an idea of ‘serious rape’, which in turn implies that there can also be ‘non-serious’ rape.  Clarke states as the criteria for ‘serious rape’ that ‘violence’ is involved and the woman is unwilling (it’s also worth noting how he implied only women are raped). But violence, and ‘unwillingness’, or lack of consent, is what rape is – non-consensual sex is violence.  Clarke’s comments played into the continued misconception that rape is not ‘serious’ if it’s someone you know, playing into the stereotype of ‘real rape’ being a stranger who attacks you in the park. 

His use of the phrase “classic rape” is also jarring, laden with misogyny and misconception.  He may have meant ‘typical rape’, meaning rape by a stranger, but it’s revealing that not only was Clarke factually wrong (at least half of all rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows) but his use of the word “classic” indicates his blasé, casual attitude to discussing violent crime.  Clarke has since apologised for his statements -- which were quickly turned into a political football between Labour and the Conservatives -- but as Tory MEP Roger Helmer re-ignited the issue this week with his suggestion that some survivors of rape “share some of the responsibility”, it’s clear that Clarke’s comments articulate a wider chauvinistic and factually illogical understanding of rape.

The media treatment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, particularly in his native France, pointed both to the vicious interplay between racism and sexism in dealing with sexual assault claims, the idea that ‘powerful men have powerful urges’ – as though rape is just a small, inevitable by-product of the alpha-male traits rewarded by capitalist and political institutions – and the pre-modern confusion between seduction and sexual assault, which seemed to betray a total lack of understanding of female sexual agency.  As French intellectuals like Bernard-Henry Levy bemoaned that Strauss-Kahn had been treated like, well, any other person arrested on allegations of attempted rape, the survivor of the alleged assault, an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, was named in the press, with the New York Post speculating about her HIV status (presumably that’s less humiliating than the ‘perp walk’ the French Socialist elephants were so distressed to see Strauss-Kahn have to endure). Other French media outlets commented on how the defense lawyers “were surprised…when they saw a young woman who was very unattractive/ not too seductive.” 

Others cited Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a ‘seducer’ whilst insisting on his right to privacy, as though the small matter of sexual consent is insufficiently sophisticated for the French elite, or as though believing allegations of sexual violence to be an issue of public concern is a kind of Anglo-Saxon prudishness.  Together, these comments sent the message that sexual violence is about desire – nothing more than rough seduction – whilst sewing this dangerous fallacy to the norms of how feminine desirability is constructed and commodified in late capitalism – as though only nubile blondes get sexually assaulted (and, if it’s someone they know, then it’s not the bad kind of ‘violent rape’ of which Ken Clarke spoke).  When the news of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infidelity broke in the same week, Strauss-Kahn’s arrest became awkwardly tied into a narrative of “the sexual urges of powerful men”, ignoring the fundamental elephant in the room: consent.

Consent was also a key theme in the recent cases against Yale University, which have now brought renewed focus on the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses, highlighting that as many as one in five women will be sexually assaulted on campuses in America, often with few or no consequences for the perpetrator.  Yale suspended the Delta Kappa Episilon fraternity for five years after members paraded around the university campus last autumn, joking about rape with the chant “no means yes, yes means anal”. The university is now under investigation for a possible Title IX sex discrimination violation, after a complaint by sixteen students and alumnae to the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights claimed that the school permitted a hostile sexual environment to exist on the campus. 

Yet Yale hardly seems unique in fostering a cultural climate in which women are unable to feel safe and respected, and sexual assault survivors feel unable to speak out: according to a Time magazine article published in the wake of the Yale case, less than 5% of the one in five women and 6% of men sexually assaulted on American university campuses will report it to campus authorities or the police; the mental health toll of this rape culture meaning that those assaulted often drop out whilst their perpetrators go on to graduate. 

So, here we are in 2011: the highest legal figure in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and the most important economic institution in the world – variously making statements, allowing statements, and causing others to make statements about how rape isn’t really rape.  Or rape is something in which the victim can be ‘partly responsible’.  Or rape is like rough seduction.  Or rape only happens to certain kinds of people.  Meanwhile, in the hot air generated by this debate, the fact that, in 2009, nearly nine out of ten local authorities in Britain did not have a rape crisis centre has gone largely unnoticed, as has the fact that neglect of rape crisis centres and organisations has been a failure of both the left and right: campaign group 38 Degrees are amongst those pushing to hold Boris Johnston to his promise of funding more rape crisis centres in London

This, then, is what feminists are talking about when they speak of ‘rape culture’ – the social licence to operate that we give the small percentage of those who do rape, by upholding conditions, attitudes and useless institutional systems that allow them to do so with impunity. 

Combatting ‘rape culture’ – and asserting sexual agency and the concept of consent – is also at the core of the SlutWalk protests that have been taking place in many cities worldwide, after Toronto police told a group of law students “the best way to avoid getting raped is not to dress like a slut”, indicating that our societies still frequently teach “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape”.  The SlutWalk marches are themselves not devoid of problems.  As feminists have pointed out, their emphasis on reclaiming the word ‘slut’ and the way in which the marches have been distancing themselves from any feminist theory that provides a critique of power-dynamics, risks removing all meaning from the protests. The reclamation of the ‘slut’ word thereby reinforces the palatable, western third-wave consumer-feminism of Sex and the City – the one that implies that the only truly emancipated women are those in short skirts, set free by their consumption of Manolo Blahniks and cosmopolitans.

This mode of capitalist-feminism, all ‘sexual liberation’ and no sexual politics, has generally been to the detriment of socio-economically disadvantaged women, women of colour and women from the global south.  That “slut” is a kind of hate-word that only works in a patriarchal world of sexual double standards also leaves it open – as with other attempts to reclaim ‘hate words’ used against disadvantaged groups – to the criticism that the reclamation will merely be a meaningless gesture.  (As one friend said: aren’t we being a little too sophisticated? Next year the Toronto police would just call us “whores” since “slut” has been reclaimed). 

But despite these problems with the SlutWalk marches, I’ll be attending the London protest on June 11th, if only because it provides an outlet for us to speak out against the rape culture that has evidently thoroughly permeated our institutions of power, our media and our cultural and political bloodstream, not merely through acts of violence but overwhelmingly through the language we use to discuss sexual violence.

In recent weeks, as the SlutWalk protests gathered momentum, a comedy ‘advice’ list began to circulate widely on the internet.  Entitled “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed To Work”, it parodied the advice typically given to women on campuses to have a ‘buddy system’ when you go out; to not leave your drinks unattended lest someone puts Rohyptnol in it; and to not wear your hair in a ponytail because this is something would-be rapists look for.  The list goes like this:

1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behaviour.

2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

6. Remember, people go to laundry to do their laundry, do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.

7. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.

8. Always be honest with people! Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.

9. Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake!

10. Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone “on accident” you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do.


It’s funny.  Because these statements – a parody of the advice lists women are often given – actually make sense. Unlike Ken Clarke’s attempts to make a hierarchy of different types of rape, unlike the French intellectuals unable to discern between seduction and assault, unlike the entitled Yale fraternity boys who publicly chant about rape, this is logical advice – whilst seemingly being completely nonsensical to our everyday understanding of how to talk about and prevent rape.  More than anything else, the fact that this list is so alien to how we talk about sexual violence seems itself to indicate how our current discourse is so debasing to us all. 

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie