The neoliberalisation of the university could be undermining decades of progress in combatting rape myths.
Two 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