Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On rape and personal responsibility

Here's a trick question: part I. When Brits on their summer holiday across (occasionally 35,000 feet above) sunny southern Europe get drunk, hospitalised and possibly jailed, whose fault is it?

Usually theirs, of course, though it's always interesting to hear how keen some of them are to blame the poor old British consul for not finding their stolen passport - or opening the front door at three in the morning.

It's all over page one of the Mail today, based on a Foreign Office reports which records a sharp rise in arrests - 2,032 in Spain last year, 1,415 in the US, 230 in Greece, on average 15% up.

In Spain 1,591 Brits died in 2006-07, which sounds like a lot of pool drownings until you remember the pensioners who live - and die - in the sun.

Junior Foreign Office minister, Meg Munn, was on the radio this morning, sensibly advising travellers to check the law and customs in countries they plan to visit. I often forget the French requirement that drivers must carry a triangle and fluorescent yellow jacket in the boot of the car. They can be very bureaucratic, the Frogs, though they tolerated sensational speeding until recently.

What Munn really meant, of course, was drink, drugs and sex. Apparently, not everyone heads south for sunshine or museums. Some go to get bladdered and laid, so they tell me. It's not just the grown-ups either. Teenagers, free from mum and dad, do it too.

Well, well. Serves them right, says me, if the Greek police take a less restrained view of their misconduct than they do down on the Quays in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In socially conservative countries - as ours was until quite recently - being pissed, aggressively loud and half-naked isn't thought acceptable.

I realise the local boys take advantage of this deplorable phenomenon to get easy pickings, but hypocrisy is a universal trait, even among priests and mullahs, let alone barmen.

Now to part II of the trick question. Who's to blame when someone who's got drunk later gets raped, abroad or at home? Well, the rapist, of course. Rape is a very nasty crime, though a flamboyant Tory politician - Nicholas Fairbairn QC - who later lost his job as Mrs Thatcher's Scottish solicitor general once got into trouble for observing that it was very close to a normal activity. It's one reason among several (no witnesses) why prosecution is so difficult.

But what about compensation for rape victims? Just as today's Mail highlights the holiday binge drinkers on page one today, the Guardian carries a page one report under the headline Rape victims told alcoholic consumption may cost them compensation.

We learned that in the past year 14 rape victims have had their compensation trimmed by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) because they had been drinking before they were attacked.

In the case of Helen - a beauty therapist who has not worked since being raped - she got 25% knocked off her £11,000 standard award. It felt like "a slap in the face", Helen told the paper.

She also gave an interview - read by an actor to protect her anonymity - to Radio 4's Today programme which, so I assume, must also have been given the story. The legal wrangle prolonged her distress, Helen seemed to be suggesting. Her lawyer was outraged.

The twist was that the CICA later changed its mind. It updated its response to the Guardian and BBC to say a mistake had been made in Helen's case: its policy is NOT to reduce awards to rape victims on the basis of alcohol consumption.

Today's Guardian editorial comment endorses that position, calling for a change in the rules on alcohol, in part on the grounds that for many women, those who do not see their attacker convicted, monetary compensation from the public purse is a form of recognition for their suffering.

I'm uneasy about this line of argument. Compensation for injury, civil and criminal, can be a pretty rough old business, with bomb victims sometimes getting much less than some pretty undeserving litigants who tripped on an uneven paving stone.

The Guardian acknowledges that drink "raises the risk of suffering rape, just as it increases the dangers of suffering from other violent crimes. No, the argument is that with rape there can be no divvying up of the blame."

Indeed not. But surely compensation is not about blame, that's a matter for the criminal law. It's about weighing up the injury, what long-term distress, financial outlay or even unemployment, it may cause, and - one factor among several - whether the actions of the claimant may have contributed to his/her misfortune. In sum, it's about personal responsibility.

If I get glassed in a pub during a fight which arose when I was drunk it's not quite the same as if I took the broken bottle in my eye as I soberly walked in, is it? If I wear conspicuously expensive clothes - or accent - and a Rolex watch in a rough part of town, drunk or sober, it's a crime to mug me. But, as the old saying goes, I was "asking for it" a bit, wasn't I?

It's rather like the police saying - as they rightly do - "don't carry a knife for protection, it may get you into trouble."

You put yourself at risk, just as you do by speeding when the idiot coming the other way loses control of the car: his fault, but you were going too fast or (another common one) tail-gating.

Yet I get into a lot of trouble with women friends whenever I suggest they have a responsibility to themselves to think about what they're wearing where they're wearing it. Ditto how much they drink. Ditto what I wear - and drink. Date rape drugs may be a problem, but rather less so than the happy hour, I suspect from the speed-drinking I see in bars.

The fact that people go to enormous lengths to deny this factor seems to me part of the problem, just as it is when bladdered stag party boys get stroppy with the consul when they lose their passport in Riga.

Everyone's a victim, no one's responsible. No wonder we have a discipline pandemic in school, at home and on the streets, not confined to the underclass either.

As for Brits, tourist or ex-pats doing drugs and sex-on-the-beach in places like Dubai, where appearances matter (as they once did here) they must be mad.

It's not Bradford or Barking, surely they can figure that out. For one thing it's hotter. That's why they're there. Or have they forgotten? Wonder why...

click here: On rape and personal responsibility, UK