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26. May, 2011

So the University year is drawing to close, and I have only one thing left to do. It's quite weird to think that an entire chapter of my life is ending, but sitting right in the middle of it, nothing really seems to be changing, not yet anyway.

When I was younger I used to wonder whether, when I was older, there would be any points where my life would change drastically, and tried to imagine possible times. Starting my first full-time job was the only one I can remember; the recurring problem was that I would get to the point I'd imagined and be unable to recall what I had imagined it would be like, and so not be able to compare. I'm not even sure what I imagined starting work would be like, but (if you call a PhD work...) I can't imagine it will be that much of a jarring transition. And if you don't call a PhD work, then it will be even less of a change to go from there to post-doctoral work or whatever.

Anyway, we shall see whether I do just float gently through the waters of academia, starting in a few months.

In the news recently has been a somewhat mystifying frenzy over Ken Clarke's comments regarding rape. I can't decide whether I am actually in the minority of opinion on this topic, or whether the media is just overburdening the poor horse drawing this bandwagon. Certainly, Ken dropped a few clangers, but to suggest that admitting degrees of seriousness for serious crime makes the crime seem less serious is fairly bizarre. The example Clarke gave was a good one although apparently it's not necessarily rape under UK law, but nonetheless it's not too hard to dream up an example of rape that is, while still well on the serious side of the scale of serious to non-serious, is nonetheless lower than some other example.

Before I continue, perhaps it would be prudent for me to stress that I consider rape a serious crime for which the responsibility always lies with the offender. (although statutory rape, if it turns out to exist, perhaps does not fall into this category. In the eyes of the law, no consent would have been given, but in reality it's a little more complex at least) Further I should probably just apologise in advance in case anyone reading this gets offended or angry. Nonetheless, this is what I think and I'm going to write it down.

Most things I've read have people arguing that admitting this amounts to saying that rape is not serious, which is such a blatant non-truth it's difficult to understand why anyone would say it. No-one supposes that because murder is pretty bad, you can't have even worse murder.

A more interesting contention is that allowing degrees of seriousness, while not actually implying that the umbrella category is overall less serious, might cause people to nonetheless thing that way. This is more of a possibility, but in practical terms I think it is pretty much never worth trying to second guess the public in this way. If, it turns out, it is worth making the distinction — and by all accounts though, it seems the case that a judge will hand out more or less severe penalties to what are being described as more or "less" serious rapes — then it should be done, and it is up to the government or some public body to ensure that this does not do anything to increase crime, decrease the reporting or conviction of crime, and so on. (Perhaps it would be worth getting Orwellian to satisfy people on this subject - we could have serious and doubleserious rapes... hopefully this will be taken as a statement about the camp of dissatisfied people, not about rape.)

At the risk of further enraging people with controversial opinions about a sensitive topic, I find it similarly odd that people are so loath to allow even a proportion of blame with victims, as if we live in a world where blame is assigned to one and only one person for every event. This came to the fore recently with the police officer who told a bunch of students not to dress sluttily (perhaps not his precise words) in order to help prevent rape. Now, it's pretty much a given that you can't make such statements without being explicit about what you're not saying. For example, if you're going to say that, you should make it clear you're not saying that rape is "the fault" of the victim.

But it is still a simple question of fact as to whether wearing revealing clothing increases ones chance of being raped, and if it does then it is arguably prudent to avoid it. Similar but less controversial advice is to avoid getting so drunk that you pass out, and to guard your drink. If one doesn't follow this advice, the chance of becoming the victim of rape is increased and so, in some sense, the victim acquires some measure of responsibility. The fact that the question is never "how much" but rather "whether" is confusing, because if you knowingly act so as to increase the probability of something happening, it seems to follow immediately you take on some proportional amount of responsibility. The fact that the ultimate responsibility can lie with someone else is not in question; only the balance of proportion is.

Of course, in the particular case of the police officer, I don't think the somewhat philosophical question above even enters into it. Advice is advice and should be judged on its practicality, not on its perceived implications. It would not be advisable for a white person (to purposefully choose an uncommon example) to walk through some parts of Zimbabwe, or into some bars in India, where whites are generally seen as signs of colonial oppression and might suffer violence simply for being there. The response we see here would be like rejecting this advice as being racist; it is not racist, it is acknowledging that racists exist and are willing to hurt people, and if you want to stay out of harms way you can and should take steps to avoid it. Acknowledging that rapes happen and advising on methods of avoiding it can coexist with other strategies for preventing rape (for example, locking up rapists) and does not in any way reduce the responsibility of the offender.