Joanna Bourke: Why is Rape So Difficult for Some to Understand?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College and the author of Rape: Sex, Violence, History.

RAPE is painful, demeaning and destructive. Why is this so difficult for some people - including some influential men - to understand? People who have survived sexual assault and rape are right to be appalled to hear the British Minister for Justice minimising the effect of rape when the attacker was well known to them. In a discussion about whether criminal sentences should be reduced if the accused pleaded guilty, Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke made a distinction between ''serious rapes'' and ''date rapes''. He later retracted this distinction, but the implication that ''date rape'' is not ''serious rape'' is extraordinary for a man in charge of the criminal justice system.

This tendency to minimise the effect of sexual violence has also been seen in the furore over the arrest of the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted sexual assault. It turns out that a great many people suspected that Strauss-Kahn had a dark side. The media and other politicians seem to have turned a blind eye.

It is well known that most rapes and sexual assaults are carried out by people one knows. Indeed, Tristane Banon, the novelist and journalist who has claimed that Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her in 2002, chose not to report his alleged violence to the police because he was a family friend. He was also incredibly powerful....

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