Wednesday, May 18, 2011

That rape thing

Showing again how sensitive the topic of sexual violence is, British justice secretary Ken Clarke has caused a fuss there over his distinction between 'serious rape' and other rape:

At prime minister's questions, Mr Miliband said Mr Clarke had suggested there were "serious rapes and other categories of rape" adding: "The justice secretary can't speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that."

What Clarke actually said was pretty reasonable, however:

..."That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds.."

"Serious rape - I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly, the tariff is longer than that. A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that."

When BBC interviewer Victoria Derbyshire interrupted to say "Rape is rape, with respect" Mr Clarke replied: "No it's not, if an 18-year-old has sex with a 15 year old and she's perfectly willing, that is rape. Because she is under age, she can't consent... What you and I are talking about is we are talking about a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn't want to - a serious crime."

He confuses us with the phrase 'date rape' here, since what he is describing is statutory rape. He's right, of course. It is perfectly plausible that a 17-year-old and 15-year-old are in love and have sex within a loving relationship. The 17-year-old is breaking British law however.

Legal ages of consent exist to protect children and vulnerable young teens from being manipulated into having sex by older, predatory adults. The age of consent itself is, however, always going to be a little arbitrary, as individual teenagers may be mature for their age while individual adults may still be vulnerable or immature. Across Europe we have ages of consent spanning from only 13 in Spain to 18 in Malta.

That is, in Spain a 40-year-old man could have sex with a 13-year-old girl and get away with it. In Malta a 19-year-old boy could have sex with a girl just one day younger, and be jailed.

So in individual cases when the couple are actually very close in age, statutory rape could be a very mild crime, illegal on paper but understandable in practice. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juilet is one of the greatest romances in the English language yet Juilet is a child of 13. It's not clear how old Romeo is, but in some European countries he would probably have been jailed for actions, however consensual.

Back to Clarke. Here the opposition leader Ed Milliband sought to depict Clarke as uncaring or out of touch. Instead it shows how opportunistic and dishonest Milliband is. There's no way that consensual sex between confused teenagers is as serious a crime as sexual assault on an unwilling victim.


  1. The case in Ireland at the moment is intriguing. I can't find the article from The Irish Times now but I'll recall it as best I can.

    Two teenagers (I think the boy was 15 and the girl 13/14) had sex in Donegal while spending the summer in the Gaeltacht. The boy is convicted of statutory rape. It is being appealed at the moment. He is guilty of rape (and she isn't) because as she is the one who can become pregnant she has more to lose. It didn't mention if they used contraception and it seems it doesn't matter. It's ridiculous really. Surely it's both parties responsibility to look after their own bodies. But what's even more startling is that he is also charged with 'buggery'. Didn't realise you could become pregnant that way. I have a rhyme from my teen years that explained this point quite colourfully actually. Can't seem to remember it now though.

  2. Sorry, he has not been convicted. His case is on hold pending an appeal.

    He broke the so called 'Romeo and Juliet' laws.

  3. Ah, interesting, Dave, I'm not familiar with the case. (And DAMN he must be a fertile lad if he can get her pregnant through buggery.)

    I just caught the tail end of this story about Clarke on BBC's tv news. Bizarre that such a non-story could kick off like this.

  4. Haha Jeeze! Well... some varients of it perhaps!


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