We need to talk about Helen…

Thanks to Kev for pointing this out to me. I dimly remembered reading in the MEN the other day that Helen Mirren had done an interview with GQ in which she’d mentioned having been date-raped when she was much younger; what I didn’t realise was that she’d also expressed the opinion that date rape is ‘a tricky area’ and not always for the courts.

Mirren has been widely lambasted for her comments, and rightly so – rape is what happens when one person says ‘no’ to sex and the other person makes them have sex anyway. Everyone has the right to decide they don’t want to have sex, even if they really look like they want to have sex; even if they’ve already whispered in your ear in the club that they really want to have sex; even if they’re already gone home with you; even if they’ve already kissed you, got naked with you, whatever…when they say no, you stop. If you carry on, that’s called rape.

Sounds simple, and at that point it is. The difficulty comes with proving, in court, whether it was rape or sex. If the defendant insists there was consent, and the witness insists that there wasn’t, then how can you possibly prove beyond reasonable doubt which one is telling the truth? The problem is that assuming the defendant is innocent until proven guilty necessarily means assuming the witness is lying until s/he is proven to be telling the truth. And it is exactly these obstacles – the ordeal of being treated as a liar throughout a trial, and the slim odds of securing a conviction at the end of it – that put victims off reporting rape at all. Why would you put yourself through it?

The best answer I can come up with – and if anyone has a better one, suggest it, please – is that victims of this kind of offence arguably have a responsibility to report it, if only to make it more widely known that no means no. If Helen Mirren had reported the man who raped her – if more women over the years had stood up and said ‘this man raped me, and it’s not acceptable’ – then maybe we would now be facing less of the idea that women are responsible for being hurt.

This view of rape as something that women invite – the suggestion that the number of rapes is related to the number of ‘ladettes’ who get drunk and ‘don’t take responsibility for their own safety’ – is worryingly prevalent, and curiously hasn’t been matched by a concern that men who go out and get drunk a lot aren’t being sufficiently careful not to get stabbed. Nobody high-profile seems to have publicly concurred with Helen Mirren with the exception of Ann Widdecombe – and once Ann Widdecombe agrees with you, you might as well stop speaking – but a google search for ‘rape statistics uk’ brings up a hell of a lot of woman-blaming rape denial. (It also seems to bring up a lot of people who really, really hate Harriet Harman. I was always quite a fan of hers anyway, but having seen the amount of anger out there being directed at her sort of makes me wish she would adopt me.)

Probably the most shocking thing about Mirren’s comments is that they come from someone who has actually been through date-rape. It’s bad enough when women let us down on this one – Ann Widdecombe can be relied on here, and my mom’s another of the ‘well, she was in bed with him, what did she expect?’ brigade – but when a woman puts her own rape down to a misunderstanding, well, that’s just sad. The most obvious explanation is the ‘it was a different time’ one – that when Helen Mirren, Ann Widdecombe and, er, my mother were young (my mother is obviously much younger than the other two, but the times tend to move more slowly in the black Country) young women were still taught that men can’t control themselves, and that ‘leading them on’ wasn’t what nice girls did.

However, in Mirren’s case I think there might be more to it. In trying to find the interview in which she made the original comments, I did something I thought I never would, and headed to the GQ website. The only version of her interview with Piers Morgan I could find there only included her comments about how much she used to love taking cocaine. I hesitate to pick on a woman because of her representation in the media – it’s enough of a minefield – but in a 63-year-old woman’s interview with a lad’s mag, don’t these assertions of enjoying hard drugs, and of thinking date rape isn’t such a big deal, go some way past ‘knowing your target audience’ and begin to stray in the territory of ‘desperation to be liked’? In other words…could it be possible that Helen Mirren herself has fallen victim to ladette culture?


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