Rape is Different: Academic Impact Sinks to New Lows

by | 15 Nov 2013

Rape is rapeTwo weeks ago the LSE Department of Law hosted its inaugural ‘Debating Law’ public event, drawing an audience that filled all 400 seats of its largest lecture theatre and working with the LSE’s events team to ensure the debate attracted maximum media attention. The question being put up for debate was ‘Is Rape Different?’, and if the intention of the event was to create a stir then it has certainly succeeded, with a wide range of shocked news media coverage, a Twitter debate that is still raging, and today an editorial from academic journal feminists@law deploring LSE Law ‘for giving a platform to… dangerous and unsupported views and for failing to engage responsibly with the public on such an important and sensitive issue as rape’.

The debate was led by Helen Reece, a Reader at LSE Law who, in an article published this year in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, challenged the idea that rape myths (that is, myths about rape such as ‘women cry rape’ or ‘if you invite a man in for coffee after a date you are consenting to sex’) are widely held, and indeed argued that some rape myths are not myths at all because they are true. Predictably, this article has gained significantly more media attention than most academic publications, aided in part by the LSE Press Office, which published a blog summarising her findings into media-friendly sound-bites, ready for insertion into non-academic forums.

Joining Reece on the panel for the public event were professor and rape law expert Jennifer Temkin, Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, and controversial barrister Barbara Hewson. Prior to the LSE debate, Hewson was probably best known outside the legal world for her regular and often provocative contributions to online magazine Spiked, and her public defence of another barrister’s description of a 13-year old child sex abuse victim as ‘predatory’. Hewson has variously been referred to in the media as a ‘leading’ and ‘prominent’ barrister, but Hewson does not practice in criminal law and it is unclear what expertise she possesses with respect to the issue of rape that led the LSE to deem her qualified to take part in this debate.

Live-tweeting from the event, @LSELaw produced a series of 140 character-or-less snippets, quoting short grabs from each of the panellists’ arguments. While @LSELaw gave roughly equal airspace to all four panellists, it was only Hewson’s remarks that have been grabbing media headlines since the event. The aspect of Hewson’s opinion that has generated the most attention is her suggestion that ‘rape victims should have moral responsibility’ for their fate, and that with regards to victims’ behaviour prior to being raped, ‘we all know if you’re drunk you are more likely to have accidents’.

The @LSELaw account responded defensively to criticism of its decision to host Hewson insisting that she was only one of four panellists and that her views were balanced by the opposing arguments of Temkin and Afzal, and urging critics and the wider public to download the podcast, watch the video and ‘make up your own mind’.1In response to yesterday’s feminists@law editorial deploring the event and LSE Law’s ongoing defence and publicisation of it, @LSEpublicevents this morning continued this response by tweeting ‘#LSEdifferent still generating discussion & debate @feministsatlaw comments http://journals.kent.ac.uk/index.php/feministsatlaw/article/view/80/212 Event podcast http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2081 However, the nuances of the opposing contributions, including Afzal’s passionate indictment of the justice system’s treatment of rape complainants spoken from years of experience prosecuting sex offenders, and Temkin’s resounding refutation of Reece’s scholarship supported by her near 30 years of research experience, and numerous specialist publications in the area, came through in neither the sensationalist headlines following the debate nor the Twitter discussion.

The reasons for this are partially attributable to the medium through which the discussion has been publicised. The LSE is a prestigious institution of higher learning whose public debate series purports ‘to position LSE at the centre of debate in all areas of the social sciences… [and] to enhance the School’s reputation for intellectual, challenging ideas and discussion with a broader public audience.’ But far from opening up a cutting edge debate, the social media promotion, public event and media coverage surrounding Reece’s article in fact closes down and severely limits careful, considered and evidenced-based discussion about rape and rape law, almost all of which contradicts Reece’s and Hewson’s claims. These claims are not new or in any way path-breaking. They are in fact a tired rehashing of long discredited myths and assumptions about rape and about women’s sexuality. Framed as somehow speaking truth to power, the opposite is actually true, with these views resurrected and lent the shroud of credibility via the LSE Law Department.

The positing of these arguments as worthy of public engagement by LSE Law is enabled and encouraged by a higher education sector in which institutions are required to compete for funding and prestige by delivering maximum ‘output’ and ‘impact’. Submissions to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (‘the REF’), which assesses the research of British higher education institutions over the preceding 5-year period in order that the government can direct funding accordingly, close at the end of this month.

Consistent with the neoliberalisation of universities into commercially driven knowledge and training factories, the REF’s ‘impact agenda’ promotes academic work that produces demonstrable economic and social impact outside the academy. There has been great uncertainty over what impact is and how universities are supposed to prove it, but the work of the LSE Press Office and Events team in blogging, tweeting, debating, podcasting and videoing Reece’s work with the aid of a guaranteed tabloid headline in Hewson, probably make a good case study. This work has at any rate produced a high level of public engagement with an academic ‘output’. What is lost, in this case, is decades of rigorous feminist scholarship in undoing the genuinely dangerous impact of rape myths in law and society. That and the voices of countless rape victims whose glaring absence from this debate serves to entrench the ‘ivory tower’ of LSE that the impact agenda purports to challenge.

Sarah Keenan is a lecturer in law at SOAS and Yvette Russell is a lecturer in law at Queen’s University Belfast


  1. I watched the debate several times – and find this article unpersuasive.

    Apparently, we are now in a neo-Victorian, post-Foucauldian era – in which the uneasy relationship between forms of knowledge and power – are simply dismissed from discussion. What is truly important is preserving the Manichean dualism between “victim” and “sexual predator”, innocent and guilty, good and evil. Yet, whose interest does this really serve?

    In America, more than 750 out of every 100,000 people are in prison (that is five times more than in Britain). 14 million people are arrested every year. Is it a coincidence that the prison system has expanded, starting in the 1980’s, at the same time as the victim’s rights movement has burgeoned? Is it a coincidence that victim’s rights groups – who promote a polarized view of crime that serves the interest of those in authority – receive a billion dollars a year in government subsidies?

    The policing of polarized categories has the consequence of creating institutions that reflect a polarized world view. It advances Britain further down a pathway to possessing a prison system like the one in America.

    The only way to have an “evidence based discussion” is to do precisely what was done in the debate – examine critically the issue under consideration from a variety of angles: psychological, political, historical, rhetorical, and legal. Just listening to the Crown Prosecutor – whose job depends on his upholding of the orthodox view – is not enough.

    I will say that it would have been helpful to have an attorney present who specializes in defending people accused of sexual crimes – so that the Crown Prosecutor could have been taken to task for his many assertions based upon his professional experience. This gave the illusion that opinions he related based upon his experience as a prosecutor were unassailable – and no position is invulnerable to scrutiny.

    Hewson offered a historical and rhetorical perspective that was absolutely relevant to the discussion. It is also specifically relevant to your article arguing for the elimination of academic freedom in an issue of public interest.

    More, though you complain about what you regard as the media’s one sided reporting of the event, you have also addressed almost none of the salient points in the discussion.

    It is dangerous to exercise academic freedom of speech, but the attempt to police a pure orthodoxy strips away the only power that the individual has against the overwhelming authority of society. If the academy is no longer place where these issues can be examined, our own freedoms are significantly curtailed.

    • My apologies for posting twice. I just wanted to clarify some of my original ideas on this topic.

      No one would argue that there are not harmful myths surrounding sexual violence. However, ‘no’ discourse is innocent. Every discourse is complicit with power – and when a discourse is polarized into “good” and “evil”, orthodox and blasphemous, “goodie” and “badie”, such as this one is – it is very easy for those in authority to exploit it in order to consolidate and expand their own power. The slavish devotion given to the Crown Prosecutor in the article above – without a hint of suspicion as to his own self-interest (and the state’s) in his rhetoric – is a perfect example.

      Reece is an LSE academic who published the article she presented in a prestigious, peer reviewed journal, the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. If that doesn’t qualify her to “posit arguments worthy of pub­lic engage­ment” on this topic, what does? Rather than systematically addressing the arguments made and the sources presented by Reece and Hewson, this article would like to forgo the peer review process entirely. What, then, would be the alternative to peer review? Perhaps self-appointed censors who deem which ideas are morally acceptable for the public and which are not!

      One theme that was repeated in the debate was the supposed idea that, by debating this difficult issue, we would be going back in time. Well, what this article makes clear is that some so-called “academics” would like to erase the last forty years of intellectual history – with its careful work analyzing the relationship between discourse and power – so that they can promote a morality play view of an issue, regardless of the consequences.

      As I said, ‘no’ discourse is innocent. Every single one needs to be subject to robust critique and scrutiny. If it is regarded as so sacrosanct as to be “above” scrutiny, then it is even ‘more’ important to examine it – to examine, specifically, what its origin is and who benefits from it. These are ‘basic’ questions that every academic should be committed to asking. If they are not, they should be asking themselves why they are not – not condemning those who are.

  2. I went to the debate. Hewson and Reece were very persuasive. Hewson took the old fashioned feminist position that women are autonomous individuals, responsible for their behaviour.

    This article seems rather self absorbed. If only it were true that the REF was encouraging academic diversity and rigorous debate! I get the impression the authors have tagged together two things they find threatening 1) the REF 2) Hewson’s rejection of victim feminism and thrown in some fashionable references to neoliberalism and po.mo. keywords. The word ‘critical’ always rings alarm bells for vacuity when it comes from the mouth or pen of an academic.

  3. This is a rather shameful conflation of issues. It is a pity the authors did not understand that the event was held after the 31 July cut-off and so is not eligible for inclusion in the 2014 REF anyway.

  4. It’s hard to see how a barrister and an academic are underqualified to participate in such a debate. I’m sure you wouldn’t query their standing if they agreed with you. As it happens, I don’t agree with either of them but I’m worried about tortuous arguments which seem to be aimed at stifling any dissenting opinion at all. What about decades of rigorous non-feminist scholarship? You demand the inclusion of victims in the debate but I wonder what you feel about the emotive use of the victim perspective elsewhere (eg.victim impact statements in court). And it’s notable that you seem to presume what the victim’s perspective will be (we are capable of being objective,you know).In short, this seems to be an elaborately reasoned version of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying ‘Na,na,na,can’t hear you’.

  5. I think you make a good point about the REF, but I’m not so sure this is the best example. I see nothing in Helen Reece’s opinions to suggest she didn’t deserve a part in the debate. I completely disagree with them, but that’s a different question.

    I do think there is a bit of a problem with issues like this in that we seem to take unquestionable principles (e.g. being anti-sexual violence, anti-racism) and conflate them with quite contestable positions (e.g. anti-lads mags, anti-immigration). All it really amounts to is a somewhat unconvincing debating tactic – i.e. trying to present marginal views as universal principles that it’s abhorrent to quibble with.

  6. It is testament to the backwardness of some academics that they think there is not a place for public debate on this, or for that matter on any, issue. It seems that Keenan and Russell think that only feminist scholars are qualified to speak on this issue, and then only those refelcting one aspect of feminist thinking. Where are we when a balanced debate like this is seen as beyond the pale? I certainly don’t want Keenan and Russell or anyone else to tell me what can and can’t be discussed in public forum.

  7. Yet again feminists do themselves no favours at all by assuming that their particular viewpoint gives them the moral authority to declare which opinions and scholarship are deserving of space in the public domain. Full marks to the LSE for putting on such a debate in the first place and for defending their decision to do so once the ‘silencers’ kicked into gear. As for Mr Afzal, his salacious use of victim’s stories was nauseating – he used one anecdote from a trial for multiple rape and murder in which he repeated what he claimed were the last words spoken to the victim by the perpetrator. He displayed a noticeable lack of interest when asked about justice for defendants and seems to have set himself up as the ‘hero’ prepared to unearth the sexual violence he hints is entrenched in Asian communities. Meanwhile, Jennifer Temkin sneakily alluded to Reece having an ‘agenda’ but failed to spell out what she thought this might be, other than the arguments Reece has put forward in her journal article and in her willingness to put herself on the line in a public forum. Reece and Hewson were measured and honourable in comparison.

  8. I think this debate sounds like a great idea. the more we prize open feminist debate to alternative view points the better. I am currently studying men’s attitudes and vulnerabilities to false tape claims and I welcome anything that might open up our questioning to include men’s views on gender. As part of my research I attended a debate held by the metropolitan police on rape, which included many non police groups who work with victims and they all agreed the police are bending over backwards to help victims and increase conviction rates, a distinct change from ten years ago. I learned then that rape conviction rates are similar to most violent crimes and more than some like murder.

  9. The point about the REF is complete nonsense. The REF is not measured by column inches in newspapers, but by contributions to refereed journals. ‘Critical’ in the context of Critical Legal Thinking seems to mean ‘making stuff up to meet my prejudices’.

  10. It’s a shame when Universities start pandering to misogynists who try and thwart and silence the progress of feminist scholarship, the voices of actual rape victims.

    What does taking responsibility actually mean? It’s just another blast of rhetoric supporting the same rape myths these people were supposedly arguing weren’t ‘real!’

    This is just evidence that feminism is still needed and we must carry on, especially in the traditions of the second wave, to challenge the ever-present backlash from Conservatives and Men’s Rights groups.

    • I am sometimes amazed how one can use a “good cause” as an argument to do harm. Some individuals were basically throwing the basic principle of freedom of expression out of the window for points in a debate, calling for censorship to hinder other individuals stating their opinion. These individuals would have been right at home when the “index librorum prohibitorum” was devised – well done.

      And as for the legal part of the argument. Most legal systems are guided by some basic principles, one of which is “in dubio pro reo”. The prosecutor has to prove without doubt that you are guilty – otherwise you go free.

      Adhering to that principle is often difficult in the face of a horrific case, where there is no proof and lots of opinions. But it has to be done to ensure a fair system for all.

      The problem with exceptions to the rule is not the one case they were introduced for, it’s the precedent. If one topic gets special treatment, why not some other topic, too. And this time it might something that might benefit someone else and harm you. So careful what you with for – these types of erosions are dangerous to the whole system.

      If I may refer you to one important document that should be considered before stating opinions on censorship:

      EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline:

      Freedom of opinion and expression are fundamental rights of every human being. Indispensable for individual dignity and fulfilment, they also constitute essential foundations for democracy, rule of law, peace, stability, sustainable inclusive development and participation in public affairs.
      Freedom of opinion and expression are essential for the fulfilment and enjoyment of a wide range of other human rights, including freedom of association and assembly, freedom of thought, religion or belief, the right to education, the right to take part in cultural life, the right to vote and all other political rights related to participation in public affairs. Democracy cannot exist without them.


      Free, diverse and independent media are essential in any society to promote and protect freedom of opinion and expression and other human rights.



  11. I for one applaud any effort to undermine the outdated, easily debunked nonsense that comes from the Spiked clique; all of these commentators trying to strawman all criticism of Reece’s & Hewson’s drivel as censorship somehow fail to remember that neither of them produced any solid evidence to back up their claim (I also note that some of them written nigh-identical comments to another article criticising these two, but that’s another matter entirely…)

    I am sick to death of the idea that we should give equal credence to a lie as we do to the truth, and no amount of fallacious invective will change the fact that Hewson & Reece are both wrong.


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