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The rape of Richard Dawkins

June 2015

The ‘rape’ of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, the biologist and proselytising humanist, used the sensitive subject of rape to illustrate a logical point: that “to judge something bad and something else very bad is not an endorsement of the lesser of two evils. Both are bad.” This proved too much for some, who prefer to think in absolutes, and others for whom sexual crimes must be subject to absolutist condemnation.

Professor Dawkins’s Tweets included, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think,” and, “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”

Few of his critics appear to have read his explanation for choosing sex crimes to illustrate his point: just because they are so often taboo. “Rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical.”

Poor Richard Dawkins. The reaction to his comments on rape quickly turned to angry and sometimes gleeful vilification. The Twittersphere and blogs revelled in sneering condemnation and people will be reluctant to come to his defence because they themselves will be courting trouble and be caricatured as defenders of the indefensible.

The vituperation would have taken aback a lesser man than Dawkins, as it did me when I was rounded on a year ago, plummeting instantly as one writer described it from national treasure to public enemy number one. In my case the Mail on Sunday, having serialised my book on Crime, confected a story which made me out to be a rape-condoning misogynist, and quoted an especially wounding comment from Jo Wood, a highly respected rape crisis campaigner. The media pounced on me as they have on Dawkins. Actually having read my book Jo Wood told me she felt she had been set up, that my words, far from being misogynistic had been twisted into sound bites and that when read in context, they “actually strengthen the arguments for sexual violence crimes to be treated with the empathy and respect that victims demand.” She went on: “I would seriously suggest anyone who still supports the furore that has broken out – takes time out to READ THE BOOK.”

The Mail On Sunday offered a right of reply – which it promptly buried under a repeat of the allegations against me, and no other newspaper bothered to rebalance its portrayal.

This time even the redoubtable and usually thoughtful Shami Chakrabarti allowed herself to be dragged in to the fray. What is disconcerting is that someone of her perceptiveness, sensitivity and intelligence should appear ready to join a chorus of angry abuse. It was a reaction that brooks no argument, and she, of all people, should not seek to close down a debate.

Let’s be clear what Professor Dawkins has been saying: that some crimes can be worse than others and that some victims’ experiences of a crime can be more terrible than others. He is urging us to shun absolutism. Had he illustrated his argument by citing homicide he might have won general assent. Even the law, which sometimes require us to see the world as binary, acknowledges differences between culpable murder, manslaughter and infanticide. But it is dangerous to voice anything outside the new orthodoxy when it comes to rape.

Dawkins used the word “mild” to describe the least intrusive spectrum of paedophilia – perhaps meaning those who yearn but do not touch. Never mind that in the cool logic of a philosophy tutorial his choice of adjective might have been reasonable. In the world of social media, where reflexes are often framed by sound bites, it was tantamount to incitement. It was widely, and wrongly, assumed that he’d used the word to describe penetrative rape. The resulting furore was an ironic illustration of precisely what he was trying to convey: that there are gradations in almost every human behaviour and experience but that such nuances are too often elbowed out.

There are reasons to be especially sensitive in discussing any sexual crimes. For many years victims were discouraged from complaining and if they persisted they were frequently debased by the police and humiliated by the courts. The growth in recorded sexual offences is testament to greater confidence in the system but trial by jury remains as much a trial for the principal witness in rape cases as it is for the defendant. In some cultures victims dare not speak out at all. It is entirely reasonable to be critical of anyone who belittles the crime of rape.

But that does not mean that all rapes are the same. Only those who think in slogans can say otherwise and it is not helpful to anyone to insist on a one-size-fits-all platitude. Abusing Dawkins down does not help us to frame more appropriate ways to tackle what is in reality a multitude of problems. But it is also deeply patronising to many victims with diverse experiences.

In fact it is not just those whom Shami Chakrabarti calls “clunky” men of a certain age who think rape isn’t always of the same severity. Several female commentators have also provoked outrage with similar observations. But above all, listen to the victims. I have met and worked with victims over many years and they do not accord to a simplistic model and did not all experience the same degree of trauma, revulsion, self-blame, or any other standardised emotion that campaigners sometimes seem to want to attribute to them. Nor is the evidence just anecdotal. A large scale survey revealed that around half of women who had penetrative sex against their will did not consider themselves to have been raped. They are wrong, of course, on any definition, but are we to drown out their experiences because they do not comply with the way we think they should think? Are we to accuse them of foolishness, or of letting the side down, or – worse – of not being victim enough?

Some countries take a more sophisticated view, with a graduated judicial approach which recognises differences between sexual assault and, say, aggravated assault with a weapon. We should go further and finally accept that conventional adversarial trials are not always the appropriate way to tackle intimate violence.

For more on this see the thoughtful response in The Times by Carol Sarler, who has been a victim both of date rape and serious sexual assault by a stranger, and who points out that, “they are so obviously different”.

Sexual harassment and predation will not be tackled through shouting down people like Richard Dawkins. If ever there was a subject that should recoil from insults and deserves rational reflection this is it.