A couple of months ago, when the Matthew Johns/Clare/gang rape/group sex scandal was all over the media, I wondered what circumstances would be required for the general public to give a rape victim the benefit of the doubt.
In Kyle and Jackie O, it seems, we have our answer. The Australian public has, quite rightly, responded with disgust to the breakfast radio duo’s on-air questioning of a 14-year-old girl about her sex life, a questioning which culminated with the revelation that she’d been raped when she was 12.
Like Johns before them, Kyle and Jackie O have been stood down from their roles (temporarily, at least). But unlike the Johns case, this time everyone is on the victim’s side.
Now, as some of the people I’ve spoken about this to have pointed out, these are quite different cases. In one we’re talking about a girl in her early teens, who was questioned about her sexual history on a high rating radio program by an unsympathetic mother who knew she’d been raped. In another, we’re talking about a woman in her twenties who spoke out about her experience at the hands of a popular football and television star in her late teens, seven years after the event (she also spoke out about it at the time - to both the media and the police - but no one listened and most people don’t know that).
Matthew Johns and his Cronullla teammates were accused of sexual assault; Kyle Sandilands and Jackie Henderson were accused of being insensitive, exploitative dickwards. Matthew Johns was quite - his support groups suggest very - well liked; Kyle Sandilands is pretty widely despised. We have audio evidence of Kyle and Jackie’s offence; for the Cronulla players, it’s essentially one person’s word against another’s.
But those factors aside, I think the public reaction to the two incidents reveals a lot about our treatment of rape survivors, and who is and is not permitted to wear the mantle. Most people are sympathetic to rape survivors in the abstract (or at least, I hope they are!), but the proportion of people who implicitly trust the victim seems to go way down whenever we begin to deal with specifics.
In these two cases, part of the discrepancy comes from who’s delivering the message. The girl on the Kyle and Jackie O show was a child, was presumably a virgin at the time, and was cajoled by her mother and a pair of media celebrities to talk about it on one of the most popular radio programs in the country. It’s almost impossible to shame her. Would we have seen the same response if she was five years older, if she wasn’t a virgin, if her rapist wasn’t an anonymous figure but someone she already knew.
Why is it that the only sexual assault victims we, as a public, trust are those who have been most obviously, black and white, wronged? The virgins, the children, the young women attacked by strangers while jogging at night.
Sydney Morning Herald writer Lisa Pryor touched on the “gray rape” issue in a recent column, responding to a South Australian judge’s comments that a man who “continued sexual activity with a woman after she passed out drunk” had committed only “technical rape”.
“I would put this offence at the lower end of the scale because the sex act began as a consensual one before the victim passed out and became incapable of consenting,” he said.
“To mark this man with the grave offence of rape for the rest of his days will stop him travelling to some countries and prevent him getting jobs.”
Lisa argued that “ghastly as it is for the victims”, some rapes were worse than others; and “[that] the public clamour for higher sentences for certain types of crimes - higher for gang rapes compared to other rapes, higher for murders of police officers compared to other murders - also suggests the public recognises the need for nuanced sentencing.”
I understand what she’s getting at, but it deeply disturbs me that, as a society, we seem to consider any rape bar the most brutal as “gray” or ambiguous. For woman to be “rapable” she has to be considered capable of inspiring lust (think the treatment of Diane Brimble by her attackers), and simultaneously lacking in desire herself. As soon even the possibility of desire enters the equation - if she was on a date, if he was famous, if she was drunk or wore a low-cut top or had engaged in casual sex before - we cast doubt upon her claims.
It’s great that the Australian public has so clearly communicated that Kyle and Jackie’s behaviour is unacceptable. But it’s a shame we can only muster that empathy for the most uncontroversial of victims.