The Vagenda

Why Rape Isn’t Like Sunburn

A few months ago I got involved in what could either be described as a fantastic achievement or a terrible mistake: I brought a discussion about rape to the dinner table – to the actual, physical dinner table. My parents’ dinner table, to be precise. And when I say ‘discussion’, I mean a frantically heated debate between myself and an elderly female relative, which nearly descended into a slanging match and caused me, at one point, to storm out in spectacular style.
But details first. I hadn’t originally intended to spark such a debate over a perfectly delicious Sunday roast but, at some point between mouthfuls, I mentioned what George Galloway had said in relation to Julian Assange’s rape case. It transpired that my family were unaware of the details, so I told them. I filled them in on the fact that Assange is accused of having sex with the women while they were asleep, and Galloway’s subsequent assertion that this doesn’t count as sexual assault. And to my shock, my elderly relative similarly burst forward with, ‘Oh, well, come on, that’s not rape!’
What followed was a shitstorm of victim-blaming assertions that left me horrified: if you’re in the same bed as a man, you’ve consented; if you go home with a man, you’ve consented; if you’re married to a man, you’ve DEFINITELY consented. Oh, and if you’re unconscious, then it really doesn’t matter. Obviously. This led me to ask my relative whether, if I woke up to find my boyfriend pounding away on me, she see that as rape. ‘Sorry, love, but no.’ This was the moment I walked out.
Coming back to the room, though, I was heartened to find that my mum was engaged in a passionate attempt to explain to our relative why this was Not Cool. Distressing as it was to realise that somebody I loved had decided that my boyfriend now has fully legitimate, 24/7, non-negotiable access to my body, it was also encouraging to hear that the whole thing had sparked a meaningful, if heated, conversation within my family.
The memory of this was sparked when an interview with the usually lovely Joanna Lumley was published in The Telegraph this week. In it, Lumley despairs at the behaviour of young women in our society, who do not know their own minds, but who stumble drunkenly through the streets, vomiting into gutters and leaving themselves carelessly open to rape or robbery. Instead, they should be conducting themselves with more elegance and grace, and definitely longer skirt-lengths. The frankly sycophantic interviewer tries to explain to us, the reader, that Lumley is simply a ‘lioness’ looking out for her little lions (seriously guys. Seriously). But, like, really? This message kind of seems more like it comes from one of those lionesses that eats its cubs out of hunger or confusion than the sort of fierce protector we might want looking out for us on a stormy night. And nobody likes a cannibal.
Firstly, let’s all step back and remember that rape isn’t something that just happens to women. In a Guardian column back in December, Zoe Williams identified that rape is often talked about as if it were a natural disaster that just happens to women, rather than a calculated crime committed against one individual by another; the rapist becomes ‘so invisible, so faceless, that he is not so much a man as an act of God. You would no more address him than you would address a tsunami and ask it to spare the major towns.’ This seems to be a cornerstone of both Lumley’s and my elderly relative’s understanding of rape: it is not a crime that men commit, but a tragic occurrence that women leave themselves open to – much like getting sunburnt if you’re too lazy to put on sun-cream.
Secondly, being a ‘good’ girl will not keep you safe from rape. Lumley (and the relative, who, with no previous knowledge of the Assange case at all, instantly assumed that the women involved were prostitutes) are also under the impression that there is a ‘type’ of women who gets raped, and if we can only persuade women not to be that type, then they’ll be safe. But obviously, it’s not true. It’s not just drunk women, or women in short skirts, or women out late by themselves. You might get raped when you’re drunk, or you might get raped when you’re stone cold sober, sleeping in your own bed next to your husband. And the truth is, women aren’t EITHER pissed and falling all over the pavements OR respectable, dressed appropriately and taking pride in themselves, as Lumley suggests. We’re all of these things, at different times, in differing quantities. Almost all of us have drunkenly fallen off the sofa/dancefloor/kerb performing a tone-deaf rendition of ‘All By Myself’, Bridget Jones style, but most of us also get up the next Monday morning and behave sensibly in the office.
Women are people, and like all people they’ll make mistakes, do things they’re less proud of, or engage in behaviour you personally might not approve of, but it in no way makes them culpable for someone else’s crime. In other words, the ‘good girl’/'bad girl’ dichotomy has more holes in it than a crocheted sieve.


Most importantly, Lumley’s views are a very powerful example of how misogyny can be ingrained into women themselves. If you keep telling women that sluts get raped, short skirts mean you’re asking for it, and other such bullshit, then women will begin to believe it. And may then pass on this advice to other women, purely believing that they are doing their best to keep these women safe. It’s not a problem that only resides with older generations (I was pretty astounded recently to hear a 17 year old girl ask her teacher what the problem was with Constable Michael Sanguinetti telling students not to dress as sluts if they don’t want to be raped; ‘it’s just good advice’, she memorably stated.)
Lumley’s views are the sad result of what can happen if a women is given a lifelong exposure to these myths, and we should learn from it. Because in the case of rape, every stale breath wasted telling young girls to cover up could have been used to make genuine progress in the investigation of a very serious crime.

29 thoughts on “Why Rape Isn’t Like Sunburn

  1. I didn’t understand rape culture until very recently. When I was younger I assumed that ‘consent’ was a strange myth, equivalent to leaving the house wearing anything other than a paper bag over my head.

  2. I was researching gender and feminism from 1910 to 2013 as part of my English Literature A Level coursework at the weekend and was HORRIFIED to discover that it wasn’t until 1994, yes that’s only 19 YEARS AGO that rape in marriage became illegal, and that was after 15 years of serious campaigning by women’s rights organisations. It is both tragic that this particular legislation wasn’t brought in until 1994 but even more worrying that there are still women out there who don’t believe there’s anything wrong with it. Caitlin Moran actually wrote a very impassioned speech on rape and all the luggage which comes with the term in her Saturday column in the Times Magazine. She emphasises the fact the people view rape not as an act of violence, like, say murder or ABH but as something that the woman is responsible for, almost as if it’s her own FAULT she’s the victim. As a teenager it makes me so, so angry. This piece expresses all that I’ve been thinking lately. These kind of attitudes need to change.

  3. I love Joanna Lumley but my estimation of her has just slipped a notch. This coming from the mini skirt model from the 60′s. Disappointed. And so appalled by your relative and her views

  4. Is it so difficult for some people to understand that the common denominator in all cases of rape IS the rapist?! People of every gender, age, color, occupation, etc have been abused.
    I for one, can assure you that what you wear does not increase likelihood of rape. I’ve gone back to a guy’s house after a night out and I was wearing a leotard with tights (fancy dress). Not saying he didn’t want to, but once I made it clear I wasn’t gonna, he didn’t. And I left!

  5. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’re wearing, or what kind of state you’re in: no consent = rape. It’s not difficult to understand.

    Men aren’t evil baboons who can’t help but pump away if they spot a bit of lady flesh, they’re are fully functioning, conscious and (hopefully) responsible human beings. In fact, you don’t even have to be a man to be a rapist, or a woman to be a rape victim. And people seem to be forgetting that rape isn’t about sexual pleasure, it’s about domination, violence and degradation. Mini-skirts and a few gins are not what attracts them.

    • I remember a discussion about this with a woman who thought that rape was an expression of attraction. Very casual at that as well. No outrage about it. In fact, she thought that ‘because the system has been in place for thousands of years and its worked in keeping order so why change it? Men are here to rule and keep women in order.’ Needless to say I hated her even more than usual and blasted her back but I suspect she has blocked me as though not to read anything I write. The reasoning behind her thinking is heavily influenced by the submissive BDSM lifestyle she lives with her husband as her Master. So apparently rape can be acceptable because its not about power at all but attraction. Because sex is all about attraction and that’s according to human nature, according to her. I may be wrong in thinking it but I’m thinking it, I want to shoot people like this, men and women

    • That is a horrible, horrible perversion of the BDSM culture I know and love. Consent above ALL is the backbone of sex play of all kinds. What this woman consents to when she and her husband are alone together is her business; the material point is that she CONSENTS. Where on earth does she get the arrogance to suggest that the sexual element of her relationship with her husband respresents a workable model for every facet of all relationships between lovers everywhere? Honestly, I despair of some people.

      All you vanillas reading, please don’t take Selina’s nemesis’s deeply offensive opinions as respresentative of the BDSM community as a whole. I assure you, she does not speak for all.

    • She thinks that men are natural leaders and women are followers and it is biological fact so that mindset doesn’t surprise me. But she was far too casual about the issue of rape. I wanted to punch her through the computer screen

    • I adore BDSM (I particularly enjoy the submissive element) AND am a vociferous feminist! BDSM sex is consensual every minute of every time – if it is not then it is not BDSM at all, it is rape. My male partner is also my lover – our rough sex is an expression of our love which we both consensually enjoy. There are subtleties involved in the power exchange which are easy for anyone with a brain and morals to decifer. My female best friend is also a BDSM fan – though she is dominant and her husband is submissive… would you shoot them too?

  6. Hey, I would just like to say, this article sums up everything I’d like to say, thank you very much for that. And I would also like to add, for anyone who is angered by the picture at the top, the Original artist did post a statement saying her viwes had changed since making that artwork. I just thought I’d add that.
    But I love this blog and it definitely makes me realise that I’m not wrong to think and say the things I do against the oppressive men around me, even though they continue to verbally beat me down because of it.

  7. Hi girls I agree with a lot of what you say, but the waking up with sex I don’t agree with I’m afraid. I don’t think I know a single person who has not woken up soemone by doing something dirty to them, I have done it with nearly all the guys I’ve been with, and they have with me. The vast majrity see this as manners or etiquette as opposed to rape.
    Julian Assange had unprotected sex once, and woke a girl up with sex, and neither even cared about it, neither of them wanted to press any charges. It seems very unfair to label him as a “rapist”

    Also, Joanna Lumley isn’t necessarily saying that all girls are asking for it with how they dress, she is saying that in dangerous situations people need to take care. I tell my daughter to cover up and not get blind drunk, but that’s not me stopping her empowerment, it’s me not wanting her alone, sexy, vulnerable and drunk, in a town full of drunken neanderthaals.

    So distinctions definietly need to be made, but of course I agree with the majority of what you say.

    • Being asleep and being unconscious is the same thing when you can’t say yes or no. And since when does it make it right because everyone’s done it at some point? And while Joanna Lumley is giving practical advice, it still doesn’t address the issue. It never does unless you aim information at men and boys. That’s missing the point

    • You’re right in that a majority is never right by definition, and of course I agree it can be rape, but I am saying that most of the time it just isn’t.
      If the vast majority of people don’t see it as rape when it happens to them, it’s not rape and you can’t tell them it is.

      The rapist is always to blame – always – but they are not always men and boys, and just targeting men and boys won’t address the issue. We need much more intelligent dialogue without people (men or women like Ken Clarke or Joanna Lumley) getting leapt on for semantics.

    • up until 20 odd years ago, rape within marriage wasn’t recognised by law and now it is. If that can be, what’s to say that this will also be considered in the future?

    • Yes, maybe in 20 years they will, but it’s far more likely they won’t. Women do this just as much as men, and if I’m completely honest, my female friends talk about it more. BJs are most popular way, but certainly not limited to that! The guys do it a lot less.
      So if that’s not rape when I do it, it’s not rape if my boyfriend does it back. It’s manners, it’s etiquette, but it’s not a clear case of sexual assault or rape. That’s the angle this article seems to have gone for and it’s grossly unfair to both sexes.

    • When talking about sex with a sleeping person, I like to give people a handy rape prevention tip – ask about it. Pick a moment when you are both conscious and say “hey, how do you feel about being woken up with sex?” If zhe says it’s fine, all is well. If not, don’t do it. If zhe changes zir mind at any point zhe should tell you, and you don’t do it again. Manners and etiquette come into it when say, zhe’s stressed out or ill or wants a lie in and you don’t, etc. etc. But initiating sex on an unconscious person without any prior communication is a very, very high risk behaviour for rape. Why take that risk? Just take the 30 seconds to ask zir about it

      Funnily enough, this advice doesn’t tend to go down well. What amuses/horrifies me is that the people who get up in arms about this tip are the EXACT SAME PEOPLE who expect me to let the fear of rape rule ~everything~ from my wardrobe to my friendships to my drinking habits to the route I take home of an evening, despite it having zero bearing on whether or not I get raped, and despite it not being responsibility not to get myself raped, etc.

      But taking 30 seconds to ask their sexual partner a question which would ~actually~ minimise the risk of accidentally raping them is, of course, far too much to ask. Hurrah for rape culture.

  8. It seems to me that there are two things being conflated here: who is to blame for rape and how to limit your chances of being raped.

    If somebody robs your house when the door has been left open, the robber is still to blame for the crime being committed, but people are also going to say that you put yourself at heightened risk of the crime by leaving the door open.

    I’d hasten to add that the open door here isn’t short skirts, but certainly drinking to a state of helplessness would fall under that umbrella.

    Much as I dislike Joanna Lumley in general, I think that she’s just giving sensible safety advice to women, not giving a Get Out of Jail Free card to rapists.

    • It’s all very well to give practical advice but if the robber didn’t do it there would be no need to feel unsafe. There are loads of drunk women in short skirts stumbling back home every night and not all of them are assaulted, the only difference is that there is an attacker who targets them. That’s the thing it comes down to in the end. The only thing that makes someone a victim in this kind of case is if someone targets them. That is what makes a drunk woman in a short skirt, just that, instead of a victim. It’s the perpetrator that changes everything by doing so. They make the decision to assault, even if you are dressed modestly and have car keys in your hand. That’s when practical advice doesn’t work because it will never keep you safe if someone makes you into a target. Only luck can save you in that situation

    • That’s not a good reason to not offer advice about safety, though. Yes, there are situations where advice won’t ever help – practical advice doesn’t work 100% of the time, but that is not a reason to not offer it. There are lots of situations where it will work, and lots of reasons why it is perfectly good common sense. I just don’t see the harm that common sense will do? We can work on root causes, issues and how they are dealt with while giving practical, decent advice to people. Surely that’s the way forward?

    • Women have been given this advice for hundreds of years, how is this news? We hear it all the time, what’s different about Lumley saying it over anyone else?

    • Because you were the ones who started slating Lumley for saying it! You implied that she was a dangerous, backward thinker who had been adversely conditioned by men and would spread this to young women by telling them to be careful and avoid danger??? Whether is classifies as “news” is a different argument.

      I love a lot of your articles but you guys do go for the throat a bit too quickly

    • Thanks for the links! You’re right, it doesn’t completely address the topic, but the topic is many so one answer is probably an impossible task.
      There are so many types of sexual assault and so many types of perpetrator that there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Lumley is just offering a solution, not the solution.

      Some people who don’t fit the regualr profile of a rapist but do commit sexual assaults – lads on holiday, drunken guys in nightclubs – and although it is still rape 100%, they are different to other rapists because they do it for the sexual kick instead of dominance or power.
      That doesn’t mean that it’s the victim’s fault for looking good, of course it isn’t and will never be. It just means that you need to take care when flashing your valuables in front of thieves – like said above, you don’t leave all your doors and windows open because it’s the burglar’s fault that you got robbed?

      It’s such a tough question, I agree, but we need lots of dialogue and lots of solutions and at the moment it feels that the subject is still off limits to many people (mostly men, I admit, but it appears women like Lumley, too)

    • For me, its not a solution unless it can be solved. It’s just something to pass the time until we find a solution. It’s not that I don’t agree with the information but that alone will stop it from happening or even reduce it that much. The real solution takes a lot more work. It’s easy to tell someone to do something but it doesn’t mean it’s the solution. That is why I am angry about it

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