The Ugly History of Rape Panics
Rape of the Sabines by Pietro da Cortona (wikicommons)

The Ugly History of Rape Panics

Jerry Barnett
Jerry Barnett
10 min read

The abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in London on March 3rd created a wave of outrage and protest. It is easy to understand why a crime like this would generate reflexive disgust, but less straightforward to explain why society chooses to focus so intently on a small minority of crimes like these, while largely ignoring the majority. In this case, the answer partly lies with the identity of both victim and perpetrator, which fit neatly into prevailing activist narratives. The worrying slide of British society (including much of the mainstream media) into tribalistic, identity-based thinking has led repeatedly to episodes of selective outrage. But such moments are dangerous for civil liberties, and inevitably provide activists and opportunists with an opportunity to advance self-serving and authoritarian political agendas.

The first time I remember encountering an identity narrative was in my teens. I was leaving school with a friend, and we bumped into two older boys, who stopped us and asked if we were interested in joining the National Front. My friend and I were both from progressive families and I was active in the anti-racism movement, so white nationalism held no appeal. In any case, I’m Jewish and the National Front was deeply anti-Semitic, so I was hardly an ideal recruit. On the other hand, we were facing two somewhat menacing boys that we recognised from school, so we stopped to talk.

I was also interested to hear them explain their case. I had heard much said about the NF and its supporters, but had heard little directly from them (other than the abuse shouted at anti-racist marches by NF counter-protesters). I could see the frustration that was drawing some local white boys into their orbit. We attended a school that was only about 10 percent white, and many of the poorer local neighbourhoods were now minority-white. It was hardly surprising that some white working-class people felt a sense of marginalisation. Their elevator pitch was short and blunt: “What would you do if your mum was raped by a black man?”

I remember this moment particularly well, perhaps because I subsequently played out the “What I should have said” scenario many times in my head. But at the time, the sweeping generalisation of the statement stumped me, and to an extent it still does. As a liberal-minded young activist, it seemed to me, well, just obvious that the actions of a black man—especially a hypothetical black man—couldn’t rationally be blamed on all black people. I did draw some useful lessons from this encounter, however. It strengthened my conviction that tribalism becomes dangerous when disaffected people allow themselves to be conscripted into an identity tailored for them by recruiters with malicious intent.

It also taught me the power of anecdote (even a hypothetical anecdote), especially when that anecdote relates to violence against a woman by a man, and especially when that violence is sexual. I had been stumped by a logical fallacy ubiquitous in identity politics. The far-Right insisted that black men were responsible for disproportionate levels of sexual violence. Even if true, this claim would not have justified the subsequent claim that the majority of black men were a threat to women. Clearly, violence is perpetrated by a small minority in any group. And yet, the NF’s propaganda relied on this illogical leap in order to sell its preferred “solution,” which was to impose a block on immigration and a programme of forced repatriation.

This trick of identity politics relies upon statistical and linguistic sleights of hand, and it has always been a core tactic of the far-Right. Identitarians take a claim (real, exaggerated, or simply false): “Many crimes of type X are committed by people of demographic Y,” and from this we are asked to infer that “People of demographic Y are to blame for X.” This rhetorical manoeuvre is politically powerful precisely because it is slippery, and its truth or falsity depends upon interpretation. In essence, the racial propaganda of the far-Right can be expressed as: “Yes, all immigrants; Yes, all blacks; Yes, all Muslims.” Once a claim like this is established, it is reinforced by cherry-picking anecdote after anecdote to fortify a sense of persecution for which the despised scapegoat is held responsible. For believers, each anecdote provides additional proof, and serves to increase their anger that the problem is being allowed (by corrupt elites) to continue.

As British race relations evolved, so did the organised far-Right. It gradually reduced its interest in hounding British Jews and blacks and switched its attention instead to Asians (those from the Indian subcontinent). In my teenage years, the repulsive phrase “Paki bashing” described the main activity of the National Front. Then after 9/11, the focus switched again, to Muslims (British Pakistanis and Bengalis). The 9/11 attacks and then the 7/7 bombings that hit London four year later laid the basis for a narrative linking all Muslims with terrorism. The same identity trick was employed. The fact that most terrorism in the UK was now inspired by Islamist ideology was used to stigmatise all Muslims as a security threat.

Although there were some racist attacks on Muslims and mosques, the British public as a whole remained largely unpersuaded that Muslims in general were a threat. A more effective recruiter for anti-Muslim groups was a return to the issue of sexual violence. The revelation that Pakistani “grooming gangs” had been sexually exploiting teenage girls in some English towns—and that the authorities had often ignored the extent of the problem—touched a deeper and more atavistic nerve than even terrorism. The fact that the perpetrators were hardly likely to be model Muslims, and that not all such gangs were Pakistani, did not stop groups like the British National Party and the English Defence League from re-labelling them “Muslim rape gangs,” and trying to smear Britain’s two-and-a-half million Muslims as sex criminals by association.

Similar methodology was used elsewhere in Europe. In early-2017, a rumour that an “Arab rape mob” had run amok in Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve went viral. The story turned out to have been fabricated by two individuals, but it spread so fast that the German newspaper Bild was caught out and reported it as fact, before retracting. Around the same time, a video purporting to show “Islamic immigrants” attacking a young woman “somewhere in Europe” appeared on a far-Right Canadian Facebook page. This was eventually revealed to be drug-related violence that had taken place in Prague—but only after the video had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

It is well understood that sexual violence against women, more than any other issue, will inflame feelings and create fertile ground for the creation of a mob. But the use of rape panic as a political tool is not exclusively a tactic used by anti-immigration campaigners; it has also been used by the feminist movement, and with far greater success. Many of the lynchings that took place in the Deep South a century ago were driven by rape allegations (the majority of which were likely groundless), and that movement was backed by some of the early feminists. Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator and a feminist campaigner, said in 1898, at the peak of the lynching movement:

When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organise a crusade against sin; nor justice in the courthouse to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue—if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts—then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.

The (more liberal) second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s again took up rape as a core issue, and achieved some valuable reforms, including the criminalisation of rape within marriage. When the second wave had achieved its political goals and peaked, the feminist movement switched from overtly political to cultural objectives, of which ending violence against women was paramount. The campaigns against rape and domestic violence begun by the second wave became more conservative and increasingly anti-sex through the 1970s, and began to use rape panic as a tool to achieve secondary aims. The feminist writer Marcia Pally (quoted in Nadine Strossen’s 1995 book, Defending Pornography) noticed the trend:

The changing names of feminist organisations tell the story. Early on, there was Women Against Violence Against Women; then, later, Women Against Violence and Pornography in the Media; and then Women Against Pornography.

As the West began to take sexual violence increasingly seriously, the issue attracted increasing levels of funding. From the 1970s onward, levels of sexual violence went into decline. From the mid-1990s, Internet access appears to correlate with an acceleration of that decline. According to the United States’ National Crime Victimisation Survey, the rate of rape fell by 85 percent over a quarter century, from 2.7 per 1,000 in 1980 to 0.4 per 1,000 in 2004. Other research suggests that this drop was especially marked in the 15–19 age group, and correlated strongly with access to online pornography. (I have examined this issue and summarised some of the research in a short e-book called Porn: What’s the Harm?)

But by the start of the last decade, with identity politics beginning to dominate media narratives, the anti-rape movement had morphed into a powerful grievance industry. As sexual violence was reaching historic lows, the narrative was demanding the opposite. The definition of sexual violence began to be broadened, and so the numbers grew. The issue of rape on university campuses became a hot topic for feminists. In a 2011 article, Margaret Wente pointed out the disparity between activist claims and the available data:

The American Association of University Women, which is deeply involved in antiviolence campaigns, reports that 62 percent of women at university say they have been sexually harassed. A quarter of all university women say they’ve been victims of rape or attempted rape…

Wente then noted that “…the rate of rape is now 50 per 100,000 people, which is several magnitudes removed from one in four,” and concluded:

We are more enlightened now, and men—most men, anyway—behave much better. That is bad news for the grievance industry, which must stretch its definitions of assault and abuse to ridiculous extremes to keep its numbers up. It can’t acknowledge the good news, because it has too much at stake.

But if the grievance industry was inflating sexual violence statistics in 2011, it went into overdrive thereafter. In March this year, around a week after the murder of Sarah Everard, the Guardian (a staunch supporter of radical feminist causes) carried an article about a UN Women study which claimed that 97 percent of young women reported having been sexually harassed (a figure the Guardian later corrected to a mere 86 percent). But by now, the definition of sexual harassment included wolf-whistling, being stared at, and unwelcome comments or jokes—delivered in-person or online. By the measures chosen, I—along with (I would expect) the majority of other men—have also suffered sexual harassment.

On the same day, the Guardian published an op-ed entitled “For Women to Feel Safe in Public Places, Men’s Behaviour Has to Change,” in which Rachel Hewitt called for “urgent political solutions to counter men’s attempts to claim public spaces as their exclusive domain.” The problems she identifies include men taking up more pavement space, and making more antisocial noise than women. Hewitt doesn’t explain why these inconveniences are a particular problem for women, or which “political solutions” she believes are necessary, or even how this relates to the murder of Sarah Everard. But other activists wasted no time in providing solutions.

Three days later, the Guardian published what was ostensibly a news item about a possible ban on all strip clubs in Bristol, but made little effort to hide its editorial line. Strip clubs have long been the target of radical feminists (as well as the Guardian) who have peddled a discredited narrative that attempts to link the clubs’ existence to violence against women. The radical feminist group Not Buying It immediately posted a petition calling on the government to “recognise pornography and all forms of the sex industry as directly feeding the attitudes that lead to… abuse and assault… for all women and girls.”

Several aspects of this narrative are worrying but pass largely uncontested. First, beyond rare and horrifying cases like the murder of Everard, the evidence of systemic danger to women in public spaces is flimsy at best, and the claim that it is getting worse seems to be false according to UK government statistics (see figure 3). Second, collective blame, once so beloved of the far-Right, is now culturally acceptable and even encouraged. And third, authoritarian solutions are swiftly demanded in response.

Source: Home Office—Homicide Index

Just as the far-Right has attempted to demonise immigrant men, so the post-#MeToo feminist narrative has laid the groundwork for blaming all men, and makes cynical use of anecdotes that supposedly reinforce this story. Everard’s death was useful to these activists for a number of reasons. She was a young and attractive professional woman. Just as important, her alleged attacker was a white male (given the historical precedents, demonising a non-white man would raise comparisons with the racist Right and weaken the backlash in the current era). And—the icing on the cake—he was a policeman, the perfect demon that could unite the combined fury of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

The rhetorical groundwork for blaming all men was laid by the lynching movement, but it has been eagerly adopted by #MeToo activists and their associated slogans, in particular “Yes, All Men” (the title of a New York Times op-ed in 2014). The idea is so firmly entrenched that to protest that not all men are to blame is to court accusations of misogyny. Collective blame—that ugly fascistic impulse of the far-Right—is now so normalised that Baroness Jenny Jones can stand up in the House of Lords and recommend that men be curfewed in the wake of the Everard murder. She followed this with an article suggesting that disagreement with her curfew proposal “exposed a depressing reality about violence against women.” We are only talking about curfews of course, not lynchings, but it is time to remind ourselves just how easily a mob can be mobilised, and how careless it tends to be in picking its targets.

As for authoritarian solutions, we can be sure that these are on the way. The British government’s response to Sarah Everard’s death was to announce that plainclothes detectives would henceforth be operating in bars and clubs. How this would prevent women being snatched in the street is unclear; the most likely outcome is a clampdown on drug use.

For many older anti-fascists like myself, who focused so intently on challenging the menace of white nationalism, it is dispiriting that it’s been the Left, not the Right, that has succeeded in establishing this collective blame-and-punishment thinking in the mainstream. It is as irrational to blame all men for rape as it is to blame all men of a particular ethnic group for rape. If one irrational narrative can be so easily established by the feminist Left, then we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that the far-Right will become more successful in using this approach.

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Jerry Barnett

Jerry Barnett is a technologist, author, and campaigner. His book Porn Panic! documents recent moral panics against free expression that have arisen on the identitarian Left.