When I search on Amazon Books for publications on rape culture, the first item to pop up is Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans by Luke Gittos (SOCIETAS Essays in Political & Cultural Criticism, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015). The book cover’s blurb describes Gittos as a solicitor with ‘extensive experience in defending allegations of rape and sexual violence’. He is also the legal editor for Spiked (or Sp!ked), a UK internet magazine with a libertarian outlook[1] and he has chaired a panel discussion debating rape culture: ‘Rape Culture: Menace or Myth?’ held on 18 October 2015, as part of the series ‘Feminism and Its Discontents’, The Battle of Ideas.

The book title makes me uncomfortable. This is not a book about dangerous myths featuring rape, such as the myths that turn violent abduction and forced sex into something glamorous or titillating: the myths of Greek gods abducting and impregnating women, or of Roman men seizing Sabine women, or of Benjaminite men seizing the women of Shiloh. The subtext of all of these myths is that it is something of an honour, or something exciting, to attract the attention of a deity or man who simply cannot restrain his desire, his ‘need’ for sex and reproduction. Artworks of the rape of the Sabine women in particular often dwell voyeuristically on the muscled bodies of the captors and the beautiful curves tantalizingly visible under the dislodged robes of the captive women.  These myths are seductive – they turn rape into romance and sexual allure – which surely is disturbing in that a violent act is beautified, justified.

I guessed from the title of Gittos’ book already that I was unlikely to agree with the core thesis: namely, that rape culture is not real, or, if it exists at all, that it is a considerably exaggerated, sensationalized phenomenon designed to propel a toxic ideology. Gittos’ application of the word ‘myth’ clearly does not pertain to mythology: its usage is idiomatic and pertains to falsehood.

Rape culture – briefly – is the concept that in a given setting – and I include my own cultural context of the contemporary UK – rape and other expressions of sexualized violence occur with some frequency. This can be explained in part due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality (e.g. sexual objectification, trivializing of rape, downplaying of sexual violence, victim blaming). One expression of and vehicle for such attitudes is popular culture (including images in music videos or advertising).

It was clear to me right away that Gittos and I were not aligned in our views – but why only read literature with which I agree? In my profession, teaching at a University, I make a great deal about how variously a text or topic can be interpreted. I expect my students to read widely and to learn to position themselves and argue their case after reviewing a range of arguments. I encourage debate and listening to different points of view. I tell my students that it matters less whether I agree with them than that they can articulate, argue and justify a coherent case. Sometimes, I have changed my mind on reading a well-argued case I had not considered before. Sometimes, my own point of view has become more sharpened and crystallized through encounter with a different point of view. Plus, Amazon reviews praise Gittos’ book for bringing a ‘cool head and the light of reason… [to] a heated topic’, as well as for being ‘clear and well argued’, ‘calm, level-headed and sympathetic’ and for confronting ‘fashionable orthodoxies’ and ‘the tyranny of political correctness’. Rape and many of the images I see all around me that glamourize and commercialize sexual violence make me feel anything but calm and level-headed – but, why not read a book that takes me right out of the sphere of my colleagues and friends who tend, broadly, to agree with my politics and my values?

I have read Gittos’ book and yes, I disagree with his argument. I do not find his argumentation either consistently rigorous or consistently level-headed – not least because he ‘stacks the deck’ with his (rather inflammatory) refrain that those who affirm rape culture are all panicked, feverish hysterics, manipulated by a fear-mongering surveillance state and sucked in by widely disseminated but completely wrong statistics, while he is reasonable and has access to sober facts. The experiences of others (be it rape victims, or professionals who work with rape victims) constitute ‘endless details’ and are not considered because they are anecdotal and emotive – but the input of lawyers Gittos knows, or of his friend, or his editor (all unnamed and all hearsay), receive mention in support of Gittos’ claims, in the absence of any independent research or any statistics. One important thing I do take away from the experience of reading Gittos’ book is the importance of defining one’s territory. Hence, just as other designations alongside ‘rape culture’ that are descriptive of complex ideas – such as, ‘education’, ‘left-wing’, ‘racism’, ‘pornography’, ‘feminism’ – have meaning on their own and can serve as a short-hand, they each also benefit from and sometimes urgently require delineation and qualification.

What follows is my summary and response to Gittos’ book, which I consider a toxic tirade thin on either responsible research or analysis.

Rape culture skepticism and denial: the wider context

While I will mostly restrict myself to Gittos’ book, his is not a lone voice. There are other prominent rape culture skeptics or deniers, too – for instance, Wendy McElroy, who has self-published Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women (2016), as well as Camille Paglia, Christina Marie Hoff Sommers and others. Their voices are not uniform in every respect. Hence, whereas McElroy and Hoff Sommers claim a feminist high ground (they are real feminists), Paglia has declared feminism defunct and dead. Paglia is also altogether less willing to engage with the concept of rape culture, dismissing it – certainly, in the context of North America, though not India – as ‘ridiculous’. Tendencies that unify the rape culture skeptics and deniers referred to here are an emphasis on individualism and libertarianism alongside a (so-called) sex-positive/anti-censorship of pornography perspective and a need to stress that they are not anti-men and that men are victims, too (of both rape and wrongful or unreasonable rape allegations).

Denial of rape culture appears to be part of a distinctive worldview and I acknowledge that I do not share in it. I am not libertarian – although I may agree with some platforms of some libertarians (e.g. concerning opposition to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq). I do not deny individual accountability but I probably place greater weight than the rape culture deniers on the contribution of systemic-level influences and injustices. I, too, am opposed to certain forms of censorship and would also, like them, oppose the prohibition of polemical speakers on campuses. I believe universities should be places of free speech and spaces to present as well as resist and protest disparate views. When it comes to pornography, however, I am more circumspect than they, because I factor in what I see as the damage wrought by the sex industry on people’s lives, including on psycho-sexual development. I am also concerned about availability of pornography to children and other vulnerable people. Hence, I approve of some censorship on pornography, while acknowledging that the topic is complex (not only in terms of what constitutes pornography but also in terms of where and how it should be censored, as well as whether this will be effective in terms of managing damage). I have not felt a need to state that I am not anti-men or that men, too, are victims of rape and other forms of violence and abuse – I take this as a given and consider inequality on the grounds of gender contrary to the aims of equality (and hence, of feminism).

Let me briefly digress regarding so-called ‘sex-positive feminism’, a movement advocating that sexual freedom is an essential part of women’s freedom: this movement came into being in the 1980s as a result of a split on the topic of pornography within the feminist movement. Sex-positive feminists advocate against censorship or banning of pornography, while other feminists regard pornography as central to women’s oppression, objectification and exploitation. The debate is a many-layered one and feminist views on the matter cover something of a spectrum. In my view, the word ‘sex-positive’ – rather like ‘pro-life’ in the also divisive and emotive abortion debate – is misleading. It is perfectly possible to be positive about and to enjoy sex without using or promoting or tolerating pornography – just as being pro-choice on the matter of abortion does not equate with being anti-life. The spectrum and polyphony within feminism is sometimes unacknowledged by McElroy, among others: hence, for her there are ‘real feminists’, like herself, Paglia and others (2016: 7) and then there are man-hating ‘PC feminists’ – but no further nuancing. While she might (I don’t know) write me off as ‘fluffy’ or ‘liberal’ I see no space for my feminism in her bipartite depiction.

McElroy argues that ‘rape culture is a wildly successful fiction created by PC feminists’ that ‘engender[s] a climate of fear’ (2016: 2) and is particularly rampant on university campuses (2016: 1). The agenda of these feminists who ‘occupy positions of elitism and power’ (2016: 3) is ‘nothing less than the deconstruction of the institutions, culture and values of Western society’ (2016: 2) through ‘legally [disadvantaging] one class of people (white males) in order to benefit others’ (2016: 7). McElroy accuses these PC feminists of ‘[branding] half the human race – males, and especially white males – as rapists or rape facilitators… [a] slander [that] would be denounced as hate speech if it were directed at any other class of human being, such as blacks, gays or women’ (2016: 20).

McElroy argues that if prison and military populations are taken into account, then male-male rape may be even higher than male-female rape (2016: 12). She accuses PC feminists of ignoring male-male rape and even of ‘display[ing] an explicit enjoyment of male pain, perhaps because they view it as some sort of payback’ (2016: 13). This characterization of (un-real) feminists as sadistically anti-men and the dismissal of all they stand for as ‘PC’ or as ‘ideology that… wages war upon true diversity’ (2016: 7) strikes me as a vicious caricature. After rebuking ‘PC feminists’ for ignoring or relishing in male-male rape, she herself proceeds not to address the topic further. Her reason is that while she regrets this ‘omission’, an exposition of male-male rape would itself demand a book of its own. I agree with McElroy insofar that male-male rape is highly likely to be ‘one of the most underreported and widely dismissed crimes in society’ and also, that to do the topic justice would require careful and particular ‘direction of research and analysis’ (2016: 13). I forcefully reject McElroy’s reasoning why feminists who affirm rape culture steer towards discussions of primarily or solely male-female rape (i.e. because they dismiss, even delight in male shame and pain).[2] I would say, too, that male-female rape is also highly likely to be underreported and in all probability considerably exceeds male-male rape. Of Rape Crisis UK service users in the past year, for instance, 93% were female. Reliable rape statistics are difficult to obtain but such is also the indication of data compiled by the Office for National Statistics (on this, see below).

Even more explicitly so than Gittos, McElroy is a neo-liberal, as well as someone who calls herself a ‘real’ feminist[3]– while attacking above all (un-real?) feminists for perpetuating falsehood and hysteria about rape. Among descriptors applied to McElroy by herself and her supporters are ‘individualist anarchist’, ‘libertarian feminist’, ‘equity feminist’ and ‘sex-positive feminist’. Unsurprisingly, she expresses preference for capitalism as the most productive, fair and sensible economic system and advocates for ‘privatizing higher education to provide the competition that offers freedom, and removing the power of the federal purse in academia’ (2016: 11). (We disagree on far more than just rape culture!)

Luke Gittos on Rape Culture

Gittos’ argument is that the phenomenon of rape culture derives from ‘the hysterical climate that has arisen around rape’ (2015: 3), which is fed by ‘panicked news stories’ (2015: 2). This has led, he argues, to the erroneous belief that sexually aggressive behaviour has become normalized, thereby making actual rape and sexual violence more likely. But this is actually ‘nonsense’ (2015: 9) and either ‘demonstrably false or based on extremely questionable evidence’ (2015: 7). Instead, so Gittos, rape is roundly condemned and taken very seriously (certainly in the contemporary UK), including in court, and is not endemic, or even very common. Rape culture has nothing to do with rape but is designed to facilitate the ‘fervent intervention by the state in our private and intimate lives’ (2015: 9). Because of such intervention more incidents that are not actually rape are called rape, intimacy is increasingly patrolled, and the anxiety this generates fans assertions of rape culture further.

Gittos claims that rape culture proponents ‘rely heavily on personal accounts of those involved in rape cases’ (2015: 12) but he intends ‘boldly’ not to ‘recite endless details about people’s experiences’ but to present ‘the facts’ (2015: 13). (It is unclear why the accounts of persons who have been raped or who work with rape victims or rape perpetrators are not ever a suitable source of facts.) Over and over again, we have a juxtaposition of panicked, hysterical, feverish rape culture proponents, gushing out ‘endless details about people’s experiences’, which is counterpointed with Gittos’ ‘facts’ and ‘objective substance’ (2015: 13, 14).[4] While Gittos eschews what might be called anecdotal evidence about the prevalence of rape or sexual violence, his book is none the less speckled with anecdotes that serve his purposes. There are no stories of the many revelations about rape committed by celebrities (as investigated by Operation Yewtree), or by persons in position of authority (such as football coaches, clergy) or about the numerous and long-ignored, even suppressed, cases of on-street grooming (in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford, and elsewhere) – with the implication being that such would be emotive, hysterical, feverish and get in the way of judgment, objectivity and facts. Gittos refers to Operation Yewtree only insofar that it is driven ‘by the public’s reinterpretation of the past in line with the supposedly objective standards that we hold today’ (2015: 56). In other words, he casts doubt over all the allegations of sexual abuse raised by Yewtree. Again, Gittos decides what is ‘objective’ or legitimate evidence and what is not.

But, curiously, some experiences and some stories do pass muster – when they suit Gittos’ agenda. The book opens, for instance, with a press story about a sixteen-year-old referred to as ‘M’, who has pleaded guilty to rape, will have a rape conviction and be registered as a sex offender. Although what is relayed by Gittos is sparse (probably because the media coverage was similarly terse), he is quick to designate this a grave injustice against a child (moreover, a child with mental illness and low IQ) who was probably only experimenting sexually. How Gittos can conclude that this was in all likelihood a case of harmless sexual experimentation – any more than he can decide that Yewtree cases are all distorted reinventions of the past – is unfathomable. But for Gittos what was done to M is an ‘outrageous miscarriage of justice’ against ‘the most vulnerable’ (2015: 2). Given how little is reported it is difficult to decide whether he is right about this or not. In my view, however, it is a grave omission to make no mention at all of the very considerable number of unequivocal rape cases – including, as in his example, of children – cases where sexual experimentation is decidedly not an issue and where the most vulnerable were not always served well by the justice system (e.g. in the Rotherham grooming scandal. There is no attempt here at balance.

Gittos is clear about focusing primarily not on either rape or victims of rape but on ‘rape culture’ (which he places in inverted commas to suggest the spuriousness of what the term represents). Rape culture, he claims, ‘bears little resemblance to the reality of rape’ (2015: 16) – about which he, however, has nothing to say. Gittos is not a rape apologist: he is careful to point out that rape constitutes a ‘hideous criminal offence’ (2015: 15)[5] and he argues that ‘the law has expanded significantly around rape’ (2015: 14; cf. 2015: 19) – in his view too much, so that its ‘regulation of sexual etiquette’ (2015: 14) has come increasingly to interfere in intimate life.

Chapter One of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth

In the first chapter, Gittos tackles rape statistics. It is widely acknowledged by persons on various parts of the spectrum of the debate on rape prevalence and incidence, that reliable statistics are very difficult to obtain.[6] It is, quite simply, not possible to interview everyone, or to ensure that everyone interviewed reports truthfully. Moreover, the definition of rape and – even more so – of sexual violence is somewhat variable. The Crime Survey for England and Wales and the data of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states that an estimated 85,000 women and 12,000 men per year are raped or severely sexually assaulted.

The number of 85,000,[7] Gittos agrees, before dispelling its accuracy, is high. He also designates the number a ‘fixation’ for rape culture advocates (2015: 27, 36)[8] and proposes that it is grossly inflated. He does not discuss the counter-suggestion that the figure may indeed legitimately be high – might even be conservative. Hence, Rape Crisis UK, for instance, reports an annual total of 202,666 calls to its helpline and has assisted 67,059 individuals with specialist services in the past year. Gittos focuses instead on the survey questions and points out that ‘someone who is penetrated without consent is not necessarily a “victim” of rape or serious sexual assault, even in law’ because this ‘fails to take into account an alleged perpetrator’s knowledge at the time of the incident’ (2015: 21).[9] But how can persons answering a survey on their experience of non-consensual sexual penetration comment on the perpetrator’s knowledge? Still, Gittos concludes, ‘the figure of 85,000 potentially includes as victims people who shouldn’t be’ (2015: 23). He does not concede that the figure might also fail to include victims of rape who should be included (e.g. those whose consent was compromised or invalid and those who do not acknowledge let alone report rape due to trauma, stigma or shame).

Gittos asserts that the high figure is indicative of over-reporting (i.e. of calling certain sexual acts ‘rape’ when they are actually not) and of an increase of rape allegations, which for him does not constitute an increase of rapes or of proven allegations. Gittos also decides that included in the high figure is all sorts of ‘perfectly ordinary relationship behaviour’ where things might get ‘a bit frisky’ (2015: 23–24).[10] He attributes this tendency to being ‘routinely bulldozed by the narrative that we live in a “rape culture”’ (2015: 25). Gittos is dismissive of the methods and results of the ONS but he does not propose how more reliable statistics as to the prevalence and incidence of rape might be obtained instead and he does not venture an alternative number. He speaks of the need for ‘an objective and impartial judgement on the evidence’ (2015: 31) but he himself does not present let alone analyze evidence.

Gittos shuts down early on the relevance of the experiences of rape victims to discussion on rape culture and makes no mention of any possibility that certain professionals (e.g. health care workers, social services staff, police officers) have valid input to contribute. Instead, he dismisses the former as ‘endless details about people’s experiences’ (2015: 13),[11] mere anecdotal evidence. But Gittos does find it okay to bring in ‘the views expressed by the lawyers I spoke to’ who ‘often bemoaned the number of rape cases coming to court that had not been properly investigated’.[12] He refers to ‘[o]ne prosecuting barrister I spoke to [who] said that rape trials were becoming “psycho-sexual examinations” of two people’s unsupported word’ (2015: 32). Just as it is Gittos who decides who is ‘hysterical’ and who is ‘objective’ he also decides whose anecdotes are relevant and valid! I am quite certain that one could speak to other lawyers who would tell a different story – like Professor of Law Susan S. M. Edwards, author of Sex and Gender in the Legal Process (Blackstone Press, 1996), who indeed features in a panel discussion chaired by Gittos (see above, The Battle of Ideas).

Granted, reliable rape statistics are difficult to obtain, not least because rape is emotionally fraught terrain. By pointing out that rape allegations are not rapes, that absence of consent to penetration is not always constitutive of rape, because it does not take into account the alleged perpetrator’s knowledge or state of mind (!), and by constantly asserting that a frenzied media and an invasive state instill rape hysteria, Gittos dismisses the ONS figure of an estimated 85,000 rapes of women and girls in one year. He neither permits nor considers counter evidence and offers no method for obtaining data and no figure that he deems more reliable. The support he cites is selectively anecdotal.

Chapter Two of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth

In the second chapter Gittos rails at what he considers intrusions by the law, which seek more and more to regulate intimate relationships. He appears to lament how law addressing domestic violence and violence against women and girls (VAWG) targets ‘what once would have been considered perfectly ordinary intimate behaviour’ (2015: 43). (Ah… the ‘good old days’ … when there was no rape within marriage, when children were told to stop being ‘inappropriate’ when they attempted to describe sexual molestation, when sexual harassment in the workplace was just something you had to put up with…)

Gittos sees great potential for harm in Clare’s Law, which allows any member of the public to apply to the police for information about a person’s previous convictions for violence (2015: 43–44), and finds it disturbing that both stalking and ‘controlling or coercive behaviour’ in an ‘intimate’ relationship are now criminalized (2015: 44–45). In my view, rather ignoring the intent of the law – hence, Clare’s Law is, as Gittos explains, named after ‘Clare Wood, who was tragically murdered at the hands of her ex-partner, George Appleton, in 2009’, with ‘Appleton ha[ving] a history of violence against women’ (2015: 43) – namely, to protect persons from violence, intimidation and harassment by giving them greater access to relevant information – Gittos makes light of what is often an acutely serious, even deadly, crime. He writes, ‘[a]nyone who claims that they have never controlled or coerced their partners, even in a way which has a “serious” effect on them, is likely to be lying. It would be hard to coordinate meal times or balance family budgets if you didn’t have some degree of control over your partner’s behaviour. …Anyone who has been in love is likely to have gone at least some way to behaving in a manner which could be defined as stalking. …But the law as drafted is drawn so widely that many perfectly normal aspects of intimate behaviour could be caught’ (2015: 45–46). Do laws sometimes get abused? Yes. Do people sometimes get wrongly accused, even convicted? Yes. But it seems far likelier that the domestic violence and VAWG laws were refined in response not to pettiness and not in order to facilitate invasions of privacy, as Gittos implies, but in response to actual violence (directly so, in the case of Clare’s Law) and greater pressure to address such. After all, every single week two women are killed in England and Wales by a current or former partner. Gittos may say that ‘[o]f course, domestic violence is a serious problem’ but he undercuts this with his much greater emphasis on the ‘significant state involvement in the most intimate areas of our lives’ (2015: 47). Frankly, if this ‘involvement’ brings some measure of protection and some public acknowledgement of the scourge of domestic violence, I’ll take it. Again, ONS figures on domestic abuse and stalking are staggering but Gittos no doubt has the same disdain for these statistics as for those on sexual violence.

Gittos also sees evidence of ‘the state’s colonisation of intimacy’ (2015: 38) in family life, including parenting. Interestingly, whereas earlier Gittos does not want to engage with the accounts and experiences of rape victims but rather with what he refers to as objective facts and the words of experts – like the lawyers he has talked to (2015: 32) – when it comes to parenting he favours the ‘judgement of parents based on their own experience’ and expresses indignation that this ‘is seen as of secondary worth to the state-approved advice of “experts”’ (2015: 49). He refers to the difficult case of Ashya King, to point out how harmful state intervention and management can be. While there are high-profile and tragic cases were local authorities failed children who went on to die in their homes (such as Baby P), Gittos makes no attempt to look at (less newsworthy but more numerous) instances where state services intervene to help children at risk in their homes and sometimes from their parents.

Also in this chapter Gittos – for all his apparent open-mindedness (e.g. with regard to sexual experimentation and things getting ‘a bit frisky’, or his opposition to censorship) – reveals a starkly socially conservative side. With regard to same-sex marriage, Gittos expresses some upset with ‘the disregard that many of those in favour of gay marriage showed to the possibility that marriage had a particular tradition that was worth defending’ (2015: 51–52). Again, Gittos refers to ‘[his] personal conversations on the topic’ (2015: 52) – anecdotes and personal experiences are fine when he says they are – and calls many of those in favour of equal marriage rights ‘vitriolic and aggressive’ (i.e. the counterparts to ‘panicked’ and ‘hysterical’ rape culture proponents). He casts them as ‘intolerant’ and dismissive of tradition. Most surprising for me is his statement: ‘[t]here was no public referendum and no evidence that the change [to inclusion of same-sex marriage] was supported by the majority of married people. The possibility that married people had any stake in the institution of marriage was simply brushed aside’ (2015: 52). I am baffled quite why married people should decide whether same-sex couples be legally permitted to marry! Why should married people decide and what precisely is their ‘stake in the institution of marriage’ anyway?? (No one, as far as I am aware, has ever suggested that same-sex marriage is to be the convention instead of opposite-sex marriage… what is the threat here?!)

From here, Gittos continues on something of a tirade. Objectivity and facts do not spring to mind first when one reads: ‘[t]he idea that marriages and family life are best understood by the people involved has become seen as risky and in need of control. The idea that people should be able to marry for “traditional” reasons is seen as reactionary and prejudiced. The idea that parents should be able to dictate what is best for their children is dismissed as willfully neglectful or abusive’ (2015: 53). It is unclear to me just who these fulminating anti-traditionalists and judgers of willfully neglectful and abusive parents are… Gittos does not tell us.

Gittos is dismissive of what either an extension of domestic violence law or consent classes could possibly achieve. He considers both sinister incursions on privacy and intimacy. Regarding the latter, Gittos laments that consent classes imply that ‘what was once an organic and deeply human process, the obtaining of agreement from another human being, can be taught to children much like how they learn a musical instrument’ (2015: 57). I have my doubts that in times past the obtaining of consent was either as organic or deep or naturally practised as Gittos implies (where are reliable statistics and objective facts now?) but I can see how the notion of offering consent classes might seem clunky. It is the case, however – though most of my ‘evidence’, admittedly, is anecdotal and obtained directly (I have two young children) – that children are confronted with many sexual and sexualized messages and images (in the form of music videos, YouTube videos, and so forth), which are widely and rapidly accessible, on demand, at any time on a phone or tablet. Gittos ridicules the notion that a song such as Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines contributes to rape culture (2015: 4) and it is certainly not likely that hearing the song or watching the music video is likely to lead directly to sexual violence. If, however, there is regular and intense exposure to sexually explicit lyrics and, particularly, visual images (such as, sexually explicit music videos, or pornographic films) this is likely to have an effect on a child’s psyche and on psycho-sexual development – particularly if this is not discussed, or put into some sort of context (this being the purpose of the proposed ‘consent classes’).

I am thinking now about a song my nine-year-old enjoys singing, Treat you Better by Shawn Mendes. Many children in my children’s age group could sing all the lyrics to this catchy, soulful song. The song’s video is quite unsettling. It features a moping Mendes thinking about the girl he loves, a fragile, waifish girl, who is together with another man who does not treat her well. The other man is depicted as ‘cool’ (he drives fast and dangerously, he is dominant in his group or gang) and also as violent: he threatens the girl physically, grabbing her by the face, throwing her on to a bed, and she is afraid of him. At the end of the video – in acknowledgment of the disturbing content – a telephone number for the National Domestic Violence hotline flashes up.


Now, relationships like the one in the video, where attraction is mingled with violence, exist. Domestic violence exists – so, why not depict it? The problem arises when children watch such videos without recourse to people and settings where they can be discussed. While Gittos argues against the notion that ‘sexual suggestion is a more common feature of films and music [and that this]… encourages the viewer and the listener to engage in sexual violence’ (2015: 5), I would say that the first part of the statement is difficult to deny. The explosion of continuously available media – primarily through the internet – and accessibility to it through personal devices (computers, tablets, cellphones) has made all kinds of information and content readily available, including a profusion of sexual and sexualized content. The second part of the statement also strikes me as highly likely: after all, it has been amply demonstrated that children who grow up in households where English is spoken, learn to speak English and children who grow up in violent environments are more likely to act violently. So, insistent exposure to sexually explicit and sexually violent images is – it strikes me as a no-brainer – likely to have some effect (likely negative, or at least confusing) on psycho-sexual development. I would agree that it is not as simple as ‘see rape, do rape’[13] but also that discussion with children about matters sexual and relational – in both the home and at school – is a good idea. It is more urgent because more children are seeing more sexual and sexually violent content and are likely to have questions, or concerns.

Consent classes may be a clunky concept – and ideally, there would be no need for them, because children would not be exposed to sexually explicit and sexually violent images and would also have people to hand who talk to them and answer questions – but both the intention of consent classes is and their effect may well be positive. As with domestic violence and VAWG laws, consent classes are not devised to interfere with and invade personal space and privacy but to address pressing concerns.

Gittos concludes the second chapter with first, the assertion that rape is less prevalent than some (unspecified) ‘campaigners, commentators and politicians would have us believe’ (2015: 59–60). I would say he has still not demonstrated this – Gittos only discusses why in his view rape statistics might be unreliable. He does not offer alternative statistics. Also, while he concedes that rape is a hideous crime, he chips away at what constitutes rape, suggesting that even unwanted and non-consensual sex might not actually qualify as rape. Given this chipping away at the definition of rape, no wonder he can decimate rape statistics. But this is a trick of rebranding, rather than of demonstrating that sexual violence is far less prevalent than claimed by the ONS, for instance.

Secondly, Gittos asserts that prosecuting rape nowadays is easier than ever before. I hope this is true and celebrate it. I am certainly relieved that rape in marriage is a crime nowadays[14] and that date rape is taken more seriously in law than it was a generation ago, as well as that rape victims are reportedly treated with more sensitivity, with police officers receiving specialized training.

Thirdly, Gittos locates the ‘dangerous myth’ of rape culture prevalence not in ‘endless academic arguments… [a] buzzword dreamt up in gender studies classes… [or] an insidious tactic by cranky feminists to target and incriminate men’ (2015: 60) (like McElroy) but in the state of our society: namely, a society of people ‘whose members have become fundamentally anxious about relying on their own judgments about intimate life’ (2015: 60). It is unclear in whose interests such a fearful society might be (and things tend to happen because they are in powerful people’s interests). Whereas McElroy blames the ideology of nasty PC feminists, bent on dismantling western civilization and messing with men, Gittos seems to fear ‘the state’ seeking to control its citizens right on into their intimate lives by spreading fear – fear of rape, of sex, of being accused of rape. The agenda, it appears, is rather grand-scale political and of the neo-liberal persuasion, emphasizing the individual over the collective and fanning a fear of widespread and insidious interference.

Gittos’ fear of the state and its meddlesomeness could rather easily be branded in the ways Gittos ridicules rape culture – as panicked, hysterical, or – to use Paglia’s label – neurotic.

Chapter Three of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth

In the third chapter Gittos pursues further the topic of rape and the law. Gittos writes ‘[m]any more situations can be classed as rape today than could be thirty years ago’ (2015: 63). He does not see this or the greater conviction rate for rape crimes as signs of progress, e.g. of more effective processes in gathering data, of treating rape complainants with more sensitivity and professionalism (so that more rape victims will come forward and take their rapists to court in the first place).[15] Gittos, instead, sees convictions to be equated with ‘victories’ and acquittals with ‘defeats’ and considers this an abandonment of the ‘objective and impartial administration of justice’ (2015: 62–63). For him, the odds are stacked in favour of rape complainants and against rape defendants. He also claims that ‘those who claim that we live in a “rape culture” argue that the justice system ignores rape’ (2015: 63; cf. 2015: 86) – which I (as someone who believes my culture is a rape culture – of which more soon) would resist. I do not believe that the justice system ‘ignores’ rape. I believe there is evidence of improvements in the treatment of rape victims by the NHS and its Sexual Assault Referral Centres, by police and courts and in terms of prosecuting rape. Indications are, however, that rape is still underreported and that when rape trials go to court, a low number transpire in conviction.[16] This low conviction rate is in large part due to the nature of the crime: most often in rape cases there are no independent witnesses or (as with other assaults) CCTV data, which can make it difficult for juries to navigate two different statements concerning a sexual encounter. While there is a lot of independent evidence to support under-reporting and low conviction, Gittos, again, damns this evidence (of the ONS, for example).

Also, because he does not consider the testimony of rape victims or rape complainants relevant, or as compelling as his select ‘facts’, he does not consider why anyone who was not raped would put themselves through the ordeal and hassle of a court case. Yes, there have been wrongful accusations of rape, which have gone to court – and such have gravely affected persons innocent of the charges made against them. Such accusations are deplorable. But there is no evidence to suggest that these are commonplace.[17] Reporting on Jemma Beale, who received a ten-year sentence for a series of false rape allegations, Zoe Williams points out, ‘[f]alse rape claims get a lot of publicity, on the basis of that rarity, and the sentencing reflects this urgent sense that other women must be deterred. In fact, women generally do not need to be deterred, any more than they need case law to discourage them from child trafficking or smuggling rhinoceros horns. It is a well-documented nightmare to bring a charge of rape: to do so falsely is vanishingly rare for that reason, and not because we’re all waiting to see what kind of custodial sentence we can get away with’ (2017).

The chapter includes an absorbing discussion on the complexity of ascertaining ‘reasonable’ consent, describing a memorable and awful case, DPP v Morgan , as well as reaction to it. Briefly, in this hideous case three appellants were convicted of rape after a violent attack. The three had been out drinking with a fellow RAF officer who invited them back to his home to have sex with his wife while he watched. He had assured them that she was consenting and that any resistance was part of kinky sex play. The appellants claimed that they had not intended to commit an offence and had reason to believe that consent was in place. In Gittos’ view, responses to this ‘grim’ and ‘egregious’ case (2015: 65, 67) influenced the Sexual Offences Act 2003, because ‘hard cases make bad law’ (2015: 67). In Gittos’ assessment this Act has undertaken ‘a thorough legislative assault on our private lives’ through ‘intrusive surveillance of almost anybody’, as well as through anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO’s), widespread prosecution of children and young persons for sexual offences and ‘compulsory supervision of the state’ of ‘more areas of family life’ (2015: 64). Here again is more of the shrill tone, sounding alarm about ‘the state’. In his view – though Gittos cites no examples here – many of these cases ‘involve those who desperately [need] the authority and guidance of the people around them, rather than the blunt force of the law’ (2015: 71) – but ‘[these] people around them’ do not or should not constitute representatives of ‘the state’, presumably. No experts are cited – there is only vague reference to ‘many suggesting that the cases show how the law around rape has expanded too far’ (2015: 71).

One case that is raised by Gittos is that of Benjamin Bree, which he characterizes as a ‘drunken, regrettable incident between two young people… the sort of encounter which must happen regularly at campuses up and down the country’ (2015: 72). (This may indeed be the case and the vast majority do not go to court – probably for a whole host of reasons, including, sometimes, that when the hangover is past, a court case seems like too much of a hassle, or too embarrassing, or too likely to end with no conviction.) Gittos says confidently that there is ‘no evidence that Bree intended to commit non-consensual penetration’ (2015: 72) – and that may indeed be so (I know no more about the case than what was reported). Gittos laments that there is more scope ‘today… [for] regulating those cases where defendants arguably should have done more to obtain consent’ (2015: 73). Well… good! Maybe more will do more to obtain consent! Maybe more will wake up to the fact that someone unconscious (e.g. in a drunken stupor) cannot give consent and that it is not okay to have sex with them. Moreover, Bree’s conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal – though for Gittos this only confirms that ‘the fact that the case was ever brought in the first place shows the impact of the expansion of the remit of rape’ (2015: 73). Other cases could be cited which show that even when there are insistent complaints about a rapist or group of rapists rape complainants are not taken seriously – because they were drunk, scantily clad, unreliable in other circumstances, or whatever – though in these cases their claims were vindicated. Examples include dozens of on-street grooming scandals where young victims were routinely disbelieved and ignored (by both social services and police), or the case of taxi driver John Worboys who ‘may have drugged, raped and assaulted more than 100 women over six years’, though ‘police repeatedly failed to respond to the claims of his victims’, leading Deputy Commissioner John Yates to acknowledge that ‘[w]e [the police force] need… to reinvent our response in the way that we did in relation to homicide after the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence’.

Gittos chooses not to discuss such cases (and there are very many), focusing instead on cases where a case for ambiguity is easier to make (e.g. Bree, where the call whether this was indeed a case of non-consensual sex, because the woman involved was not conscious to give consent, is difficult to establish), or where the argument that the law got it wrong (which it sometimes does, cf. Gittos 2015: 85) may apply, as in the case of McNally, the transgender teenager accused of deception for not disclosing to his sexual partner that he was born with female genitalia. For Gittos cases like this are ‘because of the panic around rape and rape culture’, which criminalize ‘youthful experimentation’ (2015: 75) but he considers none of the many cases indicating that there is a high number of unequivocal cases of sexual violence (among youth and non-youth) and that these cannot be smoothed over with recourse to ‘experimentation’. It is unhelpful and potentially toxic and cruel to imply that criticism, indignation and concern about sexual violence are due above all to prudish or hysterical disapproval of sex play.

Chapter Four of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth

Gittos’ fourth chapter opens with the claim, ‘[w]e have considered in some detail the facts about rape’ (2015: 78). I would dispute this claim. Gittos has said that rape is a hideous crime – so far so good. He has rejected bringing in the experiences of rape victims or of professionals who work with rape victims or perpetrators. He has asserted that the definition of rape has broadened to include all kinds of activity he considers fine when really its definition, in his view, ought to be very narrow, excluding even instances of penetration where there is no consent (because the perpetrator’s knowledge and state of mind need to be taken into account). He has rejected rape statistics and offered no alternative methods for data collection and no alternative data. He has asserted over and over again that pretty much all claims about rape prevalence and incidence, as well as all statistics indicating a substantial number of sexual assaults, are down to hysteria, panic and the state’s wish to control people’s private lives. I find this hard to bring into line with ‘the facts about rape’. There is no definition, no data, no description of a preferable methodology for obtaining data, and no engagement with counter arguments.

In this chapter Gittos seeks to discuss what he labels (yet again) ‘the absurd moral panic around rape and rape culture’ (2015: 78), again implying that those who subscribe to rape culture are frigid hysterics. The first page contains more ammunition to support this characterization: rape culture proponents are ‘hysterical, unthinking’, as well as ‘deeply censorious’ encouraging ‘intolerance of any attitude that is seen to offend or even challenge the contemporary consensus around rape’ (2015: 78) (is there such a consensus??).[18]

Until now Gittos has not attended to racialized dimensions in rape discourse, only throwing in a line, with reference to a Ministry of Justice report of 2010, that there is ‘no evidence for racial bias against black [rape] defendants, even in all-white juries’ (2015: 35). Counter-evidence – of which plenty exists – is not referred to, let alone discussed. Now he uses a citation from a racist apologist, dating to 1905, to argue that such apologist rhetoric, maligning black men as sexually uncontrolled, underpins ‘the logic of the contemporary rape culture argument’ (2015: 80). Hmmm. This is further augmented by the opinion of Gittos’ editor at Spiked who sees parallels between KKK tactics to generate rape hysteria and ‘the panic around rape today’ (2015: 81). (It must be true if ‘evidence’ from 1905 and Gittos’ editor say it is – right?) While Gittos goes on to say ‘[o]f course, the racist dynamic that propelled the rape culture argument in the past does not apply in today’s context’ (2015: 82), the use of one (racists) to tarnish another (proponents of rape culture) has already occurred, because, for Gittos, ‘the racist fear-mongers of the past and the feminist fear-mongers of today’ share characteristics (2015: 83). This is a dirty tactic if ever there was one. The shared characteristic is that ‘both portray people as culturally determined’, which Gittos then equates with being ‘constantly susceptible to manipulation by the “culture” they see around them’ (2015: 82). There is no mention of this ‘culture’ also reflecting people and their attitudes. ‘Culture’ is not so much imposed from outside as generated by the people who use it and by their demands.

Gittos goes on to claim that in the past feminists had reason to rail at the treatment of rape victims. Back then (in the 1970s and 1980s) ‘feminists … were able to identify objective political realities’ (2015: 86) – but nowadays, with ‘[a] small army of specially trained police officers to deal with every aspect of rape allegations’ and with ‘prosecutors … desperate to prosecute rape in the most public way possible’ (this is balanced?!) (2015: 85), ‘the absence of those realities… means that those who are convinced we live in a rape culture have to create their own realities’ (2015: 86). Like with ‘alternative facts’ these created realities add up, of course, to lies. Hence, everything all rape culture proponents claim is fabrication ‘[i]n the absence of real social factors making women more vulnerable to rape’ (2015: 86). What an insult to persons who have endured rape, to whole groups of people who are disproportionately vulnerable to rape – such as the homeless, survivors of child sexual abuse, black or minority ethnic persons and the disabled [see Rape Crisis UK statistics]. Distressing statistics and testimony such as those gathered by Rape Crisis UK, however, are dismissed by Gittos as rooted in ‘a deeply personal, subjective conception of what constitutes “culture”’ (2015: 87).

Next, Gittos states that ‘[a]cademic research has consistently failed to demonstrate the link between pornography, computer games, music videos and other cultural phenomena and the prevalence of sexual violence’ (2015: 89–90). Really? More accurately, there is no consistency in research studies (nothing unusual there) but there is actually a great deal of research that demonstrates such links: e.g. ‘The Impact of Violence in the Media – Research from Oxford’, and research by the American Psychological Association among very many more, which can be found with ease in any number of journals from the social sciences – though Gittos, again, fails to consider it and to accuse, instead, rape culture proponents for ‘play[ing] fast and loose with research’ (2015: 90). Ironic…

Having not considered the formidable body of academic research, Gittos proceeds to diss academics by implying that they tend to waste their time anyway: ‘we hardly need academics to tell us that people can still be sexist. …in bars across the world, women run the risk of being touched in bars by sexist men. But equally, I don’t need to be a criminologist to know that these studies say nothing about the existence of a rape culture’ (2015: 91). So… academia has nothing to teach Gittos – he knows it all and if he doesn’t know something, lawyers he knows, a friend, or his editor can provide ‘facts’. Well… such claims would not be adequate for passing an essay in one of my modules at University.

Although the Steubenville and Ched Evans cases are named in the subtitle of his book, Gittos only refers to them now – and briefly. He calls Steubenville ‘a tragedy for all involved’ (2015: 93) but saves particular sympathy for the boys, who were only children. Gittos claims not to be troubled by Evans’s conviction (suggesting that he finds the conviction reasonable – presumably, because he agrees that Evans raped a woman who could not give consent) but he saves the bulk of his outrage for the ‘mob justice’ of rape culture adherents defending ‘their worldview’ (2015: 94). Many of those outraged were not really talking about rape culture but about a man who raped an unconscious woman. Angry responses to Evans returning to Sheffield United often responded to his lack of contrition or apology to the rape victim. But Gittos considers Evans a victim of rape culture harpies who determine that ‘the normal rules of society, by which we tend to allow people the space to live their lives as they choose within the limits of the law, should not apply’ (2015: 96). Gittos deems this ‘abandonment of objectivity, impartiality and judgement’ (2015: 96). But, of course, the way things played out (albeit after the publication of Gittos’ book) following the Criminal Cases Review Commission and Court of Appeal trial saw Evans’s conviction (with which Gittos had no trouble – because it is not in dispute that he had sex with a woman who was very intoxicated and unable to give consent) quashed.

In the course of Evans’s appeal the complainant’s sexual history was brought before the court, an invasive tactic that has raised alarm among a considerable number of lawyers. Vera Baird refers to this as an acquittal gained by prejudice against the sexual choices of the complainant. She states that ‘[w]e seem to be returning to a mindset and practices we thought were confined to history’, a time where fear of having one’s private life disclosed in a court setting deterred rape victims from reporting assaults (2016). Because the rape claimant in the Evans case had had separate sexual encounters with two men around the time of the rape encounter with Evans and because on those occasions she had had a lot to drink and taken initiative in sex, the case was made that sex with Evans constituted similar or typical behaviour, a pattern. In other words, someone who will get drunk and consent to sex with two men, will also when drunk have sex with Ched Evans…?! The subtext here is, ‘she had it coming’. Had she accused all three men of rape there might have been a case for a pattern. Because she did not, it could very well be the case that the complainant knew full well when she had given consent and when not. The disclosure in court of the claimant’s sex life is likely to have been humiliating. Who was really on trial here? Who is moralistic and censorious here? How does a tactic like this not downplay the seriousness of rape? How does it not target the victim? How does this bear out Gittos’ claim that rape is taken very seriously and that the law is stacked in favour of the complainant? Is this a one off? It seems not: Baird points out that ‘[o]ne in five trials sees an application for sexual history to be heard, even now’ (2016).

Gittos extends his pretty constant litany of claims about rape culture proponents being hysterical and irrational by claiming that ‘[w]hile portraying groups of men [e.g. members of athletic teams and fraternities] as savages in need of reining in, the rape culture argument also portrays women as incapable of negotiating their sex lives for themselves’ (2015: 99). Again, I certainly do not recognize myself in this depiction. The rape complainant in the Evans case was deemed incapable of negotiating her sex life for herself, being depicted in court as someone who habitually gets drunk and will sleep with anyone and not even know the next day who that might have been. In my view there are indications here – and this is not an isolated case – of a wider cultural context where double-standards about sex persist, where the complainant was judged on account of having had consenting sex while drunk with two other men and therefore to have been consenting to sex with Evans (or to have been reasonably considered consenting). Evans’s sexual proclivities, meanwhile – he had another sexual partner at this time, too – were not held to the same standard. Also indicative of a toxic rape culture climate were the many vitriolic things said about the claimant. Where Gittos focuses on what he calls the ‘mob’ who were outraged at Evans rejoining Sheffield United he makes no word of the mob who outed and vilified and slut-shamed the woman who brought the case against him. She was accused of being a gold-digger – then why try to maintain anonymity? – and of crying rape after regretting sex – then why not do the same after sex with the other men? The treatment of the complainant is very difficult to justify – or to account for other than with recourse to a cultural climate in which (for all the improvements in laws pertaining to rape and for all the resistance to rape culture) rape myths – such as that women will falsely report rape to get back at a man or seek attention, or that a woman who gets drunk and acts flirtatiously is fair game – persist.

Whereas Gittos dissected and rejected the ONS statistics, he readily accepts statistics that he finds agreeable. Hence, he cites research by the University of Bolton, according to which ‘more than a quarter of respondents interact socially with others only once a week’ (2015: 102). He does not subject the methodology or results of this research to any degree of scrutiny but uses these findings to argue for the alienation and sense of personal vulnerability wrought by the state’s intimacy-surveillance, which is (he has told us many times now) fuelled by rape culture panic. Deprived of sexual experimentation, which is, Gittos has told us, so bluntly dealt with in draconian and intrusive fashion by the nasty state, young people now resort to sexting in ‘place of old forms of youthful intimate behaviour’ (2015: 103). Again striking a surprisingly conservative tone, Gittos comments further that: ‘[r]ates of cohabitation, in preference to marriage, are rising year on year. The age that people get married is similarly increasing, as is the age that people have children. This aversion to commitment of any kind, an elevation of temporary satisfaction and self-validation over and above traditional commitments, shows that today’s young people are fundamentally sceptical about committing to anything that carries the potential to impact on their self-esteem’ (2015: 105). Whoa… is this what passes as ‘objective’, ‘factual’, ‘calm’, ‘reasoned’, ‘level-headed’? How is cohabitation not a commitment, or – necessarily – a lesser commitment than marriage? Are there not all kinds of reasons why people choose not to marry, or to marry later? Are there not all kinds of reasons why people postpone having children, or choose not to have children at all, that do not stem from commitment-aversion? Isn’t it pretty presumptuous and simplistic to reduce it all to self-esteem, temporary satisfaction and self-validation? And what is this ‘traditional commitment’ and why is it preferable? There is so much that is reductionist, baseless and – frankly – stupid and out-of-touch with this statement…

Chapter Five of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth

In this final chapter Gittos takes on social and other online media for disseminating allegations. Such ‘online tribunals’ (2015: 107), he points out, provide neither justice, nor the truth. At best they are ‘a very weak form of therapy’ (2015: 108) or ‘hashtag justice’ (2015: 111).

It is not difficult to think of valid examples for this claim. Social and other online media come with the potential to spread an image or story rapidly and widely. This has given rise to new lingo: ‘going viral’ and ‘meme’, for instance. And no, what gets widely disseminated is certainly not always balanced, or factual, or deserving of the attention it receives. When Dr Matt Taylor wore a shirt depicting semi-naked women while reporting on the progress of the Rosetta Mission the furore was – in my view – over the top. (I am more interested in the mission and more unhappy about the under-representation of women in the sciences and the gender pay-gap than I am bothered about a garish shirt.) But this is the way of the internet and its wide reach and most thinking people, increasingly accustomed to such phenomena, know this. Much of what flares up one day is quickly forgotten soon after. Think of ‘Kony 2012’, the short-lived rallying call by Invisible Children: one day tens and hundreds of thousands, including Rihanna, were committing not to rest until Joseph Kony was captured by the end of 2012; soon after, nothing, with Kony still not behind bars. (As of April 2017 Ugandan and US military forces ended their hunt for Kony). Some of what is reported online and explodes into prominence is indeed disproportionate.

For Gittos, however, such tendencies have led to ‘blindly acknowledging the status of [rape] complainants as victims’ (2015: 110).[19] Be it revelations emerging from Operation Yewtree, or allegations against Lord Janner addressed in the Goddard Inquiry, or against Terry Richardson, or Bill Cosby – Gittos presses on with his point that none of these allegations should be stirred up in the media until persons are convicted of criminal action. He makes no room for the possibility that such publicity can also encourage persons who have been sexually assaulted to come forward. With the Janner case Gittos has no time for complainants who want their experiences confirmed by an official tribunal (2015: 111), while the models working with Richardson should have been more clued up (2015: 115).

Gittos goes on to say that ‘for many of those who believe that we live in a rape culture, allegations are automatically assumed to be true’ (2015: 122). This certainly does not represent me. It is important to conduct proper and full investigations. But – in the many on-street grooming rings, in the case of John Worboys, where these investigations have been conducted – there were clear patterns of perpetrators selecting and abusing victims. And, in the allegations against Jimmy Savile and Bill Cosby similar patterns are emerging. Does this prove every allegation made against either? No. But there is just cause in these cases to give credence to the complainants and to suspect the alleged perpetrators. Gittos’ claim, ‘[w]hen you believe in a rape culture you don’t believe in innocence, you merely believe in those rapists who have been caught and those who have “gotten away with it” because of the endemic influence of toxic cultural misogyny’ (2015: 122), is inflammatory and sweeping – rather like the online media wild-fires to which he objects.

The principle of innocent until proven guilty is an important one. In rape cases, as stated earlier, proof can be difficult to obtain, because it can come down to two disparate accounts of one incident. But it is unclear to me why Gittos is so much more loathe to trust the allegation of a rape claimant than the protestation of innocence of an alleged perpetrator. Gittos is outraged that Ben Sullivan, president of the Oxford debating club, was advised to resign or take a leave of absence while a criminal investigation was under way. MPs under investigation for financial scandals are suspended until guilt or otherwise is established; children believed to be at serious risk of harm or neglect in their homes are removed until the situation is fully investigated – in both such instances prior to conviction – and there is surely good cause for this.

Concluding Comments

It is easier to be neoliberal, capitalist, or a sex-positive feminist, or someone who experiments with their sexuality if you have a voice and financial security, plus the confidence and sometimes entitlement that come with these. While it does not protect or ensure against rape (which cuts across social and socio-economic sectors) it is easier, too, to avoid the underbelly of the sex industry, or to hire a lawyer, if you have confidence, a voice, an income. It is no accident that certain rape criminals – such as on-street groomers or sex-traffickers – target vulnerable persons (by far predominantly girls and women in most reported instances) who are deprived in terms of a voice, social status or economic autonomy and power. Their stories, or the stories of those who represent these victims of rape are not in Gittos’ field of vision. He says that rape is a hideous crime and there is no reason to disbelieve that he has empathy for rape victims but he does not tell or allude to their stories or their suffering. Claiming the territory of judgment, objectivity and facts and defining rape culture as not about rape but about an amplification of hysteria, panic and media frenzy, that inflate and distort statistics and deprive regular people of an intimate life and the freedom to experiment sexually, Gittos in effect dismisses the testimony of rape victims. He shifts the focus in a way that makes him the decider of whose verdicts and stories matter – like the assessments of the unnamed lawyers he has spoken to, or the story of M, maligned as a sex offender when he may only have been dabbling in sex play (though Gittos does not have, or does not present a full account of what happened to whom). It is also Gittos who decides who is witch-hunted by the media – Ched Evans, the men of Steubenville – could the same not be said for the woman who brought charges against Evans, or even of Jemma Beale?

Gittos writes, ‘[t]his book is not about rape. …This book is about the contemporary panic around “rape culture” that … often bears little resemblance to the reality of rape’ (2015: 15–16). But I am not convinced that it is possible to talk about rape culture without talking about rape, or the reality of rape. Rape happens in a context. The way rape is understood, characterized, depicted, responded to, addressed in law and the public domain, and so forth, has bearing on the cultural context – and vice versa, cultural context has bearing on rape.[20] Understandably, because rape is a ‘hideous criminal offence’ (Gittos 2015: 15) and because its consequences can be devastating and life-changing discussion about rape can be emotional and distressing. This need not, however, make it ipso facto panicky, feverish and hysterical. By insistently stating or implying that this is the case, the argument is rigged.

Gittos is not calm or level-headed. He makes many sweeping claims and his tactic is to caricature those he is opposing and to label them over and over as hysterical, panicked, feverish, narcissistic, and so forth, while calling his own tactics rational, factual, objective. But these self-designations are not borne out by his methods, such as dismantling rather than also presenting statistics, or discounting some anecdotes and opinions while validating others (of his friend, editor, lawyers he knows).

It is important to probe and question statistics. The difficulty of obtaining statistics on rape is widely acknowledged. Gittos’ endeavour is centred entirely on challenging statistics, such as those of the ONS. Having done so, he concludes that the actual rate of rape is much, much lower than statistics indicate. But he arrives at this conclusion without either addressing arguments suggesting that the ONS statistics are likely to be conservative, or addressing the statistics of organizations working with victims of rape and sex trafficking, or providing his own reliable statistics.

What Gittos describes in his depiction of an interfering state, utilizing inflated and unfounded fear of men and rape to invade people’s private sphere and control them through making them vulnerable through fear, is what is called in social sciences literature ‘deviance amplification’. This is described as follows:

For whatever reason, some issue is taken up by the mass media of communication […] The sensationalized representation of the event makes it appear that there is a new and dangerous problem which must be taken seriously. In practice, the problem, however dangerous or socially threatening, will not be new [or even real], but some dramatic example will have caught the attention of the media. Their distorted and sensationalized coverage creates a moral panic which also leads to increased police action and to more arrests of offenders. The higher arrest rate is seen as a confirmation of the growth of the problem […] The police respond to this evidence of public concern with yet more arrests, and so on. (D. Jary, D. and J. Jary, eds (1995), Collins Dictionary of Sociology (2nd edn), London: HarperCollins.1995: 164).

One classic example of deviance amplification is Satanic Ritual Abuse (see Stiebert 2016:41). Allegations of such abuse flared in Great Britain in about 1990 and created a nationwide scare. In the wake of this, children were removed from their homes, reputations were tarnished – but even a six-year investigation into Satanic Ritual Abuse by a commission chaired by Jean La Fontaine found no evidence at all to substantiate any charges whatsoever. Gittos suggests a similarly empty panic about rape culture but the difference is that a deluge of incidents and of research, which he chooses to dismiss or ignore, indicates otherwise.

As with climate change deniers and Holocaust deniers, Gittos dismisses or ignores extensive research and the thousands of first-hand experience accounts of rape victims and rape support service professionals (e.g. in the NHS, or Rape Crisis UK). Labeling these as hysterical, narcissistic, panicked and so forth, he fails to provide his own statistics and proposes that his version of events – a sinister state seeking to control people’s most private spheres of life by spreading so much fear of rape at every turn that a huge section of the population becomes so terrified as to agree to more state control – is accurate. But how plausible is that really? About as plausible as large-scale production of fake concentration camp facilities and data, or of a gigantic scientists’ conspiracy to spread fear about global warming, purely so they can make SUV drivers miserable. Come on… Who is really hysterical here?

This brings me to rape culture. It is quite true that rape culture is a variable phenomenon – as is ‘feminism’ (which embraces such disparate figures as Andrea Dworkin and Wendy McElroy) and ‘democracy’ (which can refer to the political systems of both ancient Athens and contemporary India). Having a broad meaning does not invalidate the concept, though it may require refining.

It is the case that rape culture can refer to very different societies and it is ill-advised to associate the rape culture of, on the one hand, sexual warfare in places such as IS-controlled territories or Darfur, where women and girls are raped as a strategy of targeted terrorization, humiliation and intimidation, with, on the other hand, the rape culture of the contemporary UK. I am not denying that rape is criminalized in the UK that there aren’t protections (including legal ones) for victims of rape or that there haven’t been advances in terms of the treatment of victims of rape and of rape complainants. Persons living in the UK are less likely to be raped than Yazidi women and girls in IS-controlled territory, or impoverished persons in India or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The reason I still find ‘rape culture’ a legitimate designation for the contemporary UK is that rape is a high incidence crime and a crime that has very damaging effect on the raped. While, yes, precise numbers of rape incidence are difficult to obtain (and this is not denied even in the preamble of the ONS statistics), independently obtained data and data from organizations at the frontline of rape (e.g. Rape Crisis) is startling, running into the tens of thousands annually. Rape does not exist in a vacuum – any more than rising obesity and eating disorder rates do. Reducing rape to something committed by a few ‘bad people’ or obesity to ‘people who eat too much’ or eating disorders to a few picky eaters ignores larger forces and influences. And there is plenty of research to back this up and to show that there are – in the case of rape – connections between exposure to sexually violent content and enacted sexual violence. Of course this is not as straightforward as listening to a song like Blurred Lines or Treat You Better and then (as a male) wanting to rape or (as a female) expecting to be raped. But cultural expressions (songs, films, fashion advertisements) both influence and are influenced by the people in whose midst they exist and operate.

Gittos’ book is not balanced, not well argued and not persuasive. He does a lot of name calling, accusing rape culture proponents of panic mongering and hysteria, comparing them to racists and calling them cold-hearted narcissists. With all this labeling of panicked hysterics, he then goes on (in rather inflammatory fashion) to fan panic about a fear-spreading surveillance state where young people have no freedoms (particularly none to sexually experiment) and can’t commit, or even communicate with each other any more, where men are rapists until proven innocent and parents have no parental rights. He claims to have given the facts on rape but ignores the testimony of rape victims and rape care professionals, as well as statistics by independent bodies and a wealth of research in the social sciences. He justifies his own claims by rubbishing academia, discussing select cases and weighing in with the words of lawyers he knows and of friends. If this passes as level-headed research, research is doomed.



[1] Opposition to all forms of censorship characterizes the magazine’s stance. Its publications have spoken out against laws targeted at pedophiles (for being counterproductive and inciting mob mentality), as well as against the scientific consensus on global warming, political correctness, restrictions on immigration, humanitarian intervention, and the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

[2] As mentioned earlier, feminism is a poly-vocal movement. It includes feminists who abhor men. Yet the characterization of all feminists (or even of a substantial percentage of feminists) who are not ‘real feminists’ (of the McElroy variety) as man-haters is crass and inaccurate.

[3] Similarly, Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, claims to be a real-deal feminist, as is captured in the title of her video blog, The Factual Feminist. She contrasts her own ‘equity feminism’ with what she calls ‘victim feminism’, which, again, is characterized as irrationally hostile to men and as incapable of regarding the sexes as ‘equal but different’ [see Hoff Sommers Wikipedia]. Hoff Sommers is one member of The Battle of Ideas panel on the topic of rape culture, chaired by Gittos (see reference above).

[4] This tendency occurs elsewhere in Gittos’ book, too. He decides what constitutes panic and frenzy and what constitutes ‘objectivity and judgment’ (2015: 17–18) or the ‘real roots of rape culture’ (2015: 38, italics mine). Similarly, McElroy refers to rape culture proponents as ‘draconian’ (2016: 1) and Paglia as ‘neurotic’ (2013).

[5] McElroy is also no rape apologist. She is upfront about being a victim of rape and writes: ‘[n]o one who knows my history can doubt how seriously I take rape; no one can doubt that I empathize. The issue once devastated my life’. She is also justly angry about any assumption that deniers of rape culture ‘are indifferent or callous towards victims’ (2016: 11) – like I am angry to be cast as a man-hater who delights in male-male rape (see above).

[6] Statistics for child abuse (sexual and otherwise) and for domestic violence are also difficult to obtain. I discuss elsewhere the disparate statistics pertaining to incest, focusing most closely on father-daughter incest. In the course of this I examine the disturbing potential of Ian Hacking’s argument, as developed in his monograph The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), that incidence of child sexual abuse and incest are grossly exaggerated. There is affinity in terms of incest denial and rape culture denial. See Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596), London, New York: T&T Clark, 2016, pp.35–43.

[7] Gittos does not examine male-male rape in any focused way. The conviction of M, with which his book opens, pertains to male-male rape.

[8] I, on the other hand, find it understandable that anyone seeking rape statistics would turn to the ONS, because it is the largest independent producer of official statistics, which are annually updated. Gittos offers no alternative source or data.

[9] Gittos returns to a similar point later, stating ‘“[u]nwanted” is not the same as non-consensual. A person can agree to have sex even if they don’t want it for all sorts of reasons. Even if sex in a particular situation were non-consensual, whether you were raped would depend in part on the state of mind of the person you are accusing’ (2015: 54). It is not unimportant to be concise or to define one’s terms but this kind of language dissection can get very slippery and has the potential virtually to define rape out of existence. It has the ring of ‘alternative facts’. Survey responders can report on their experience and assessment of a sexual act – not on another’s knowledge or state of mind!

[10] So, if one survey respondent considers sexual penetration to have taken place without their consent, but Gittos, or another participant in the same act considers the activity enjoyable or normal then it is not rape? Again, who gets to decide?

[11] Pace McElroy, who writes in her book on rape culture: ‘in a book about rape, having first-hand knowledge seems significant. It gives me perspective that most women happily lack’ (2016: 6).

[12] Later, too, Gittos affirms a point he is making (about how the past is reinvented in the present) with reference to a discussion ‘with a friend of mine’ (2015: 57; cf. also the reference to ‘[m]y editor at Spiked’, 2015: 81). So, the input of lawyers he knows and of his friends and editor has validity but the experiences of those who have been raped, or of those who work on the ground with victims of sexual violence has not. Rape is played down and Gittos’ claim that rape culture is the outgrowth of subverted feminism, hysterical media reporting and, above all, an intrusive state is insistently asserted.

[13] Gittos does try to imply that this is what rape culture proponents do think: ‘[rape culture] suggests that the people around us are incapable of hearing certain lyrics without being encouraged to rape. It suggests that banal and childish misogyny is capable of affecting people’s view of women to such an extent that they become more likely to commit horrific crimes’ (2015: 79). Of course things are more complicated. Then again, if children are persistently surrounded with ‘childish misogyny’ why would they not find it confusing or affecting?

[14] Even Gittos seems to agree, referring to ‘the archaic marital exemption’ (2015: 85).

[15] Later Gittos does state that in the 1970s and 1980s ‘there were real forces to battle against which prevented the effective prosecution of rape’ (2015: 85) – by implication, as opposed to the ‘nonsense’ that passes for rape now. Here and elsewhere, however, he is referring to what he deems the regrettable and improper extension of law for prosecuting sexual offences (including behaviour Gittos designates not an offence but, instead, ‘experimentation’).

[16] The ONS survey reports that an estimated 19% of offences that should be recorded as crimes are not and that the ‘greatest level of under-recording [is] seen for sexual offences and violence against the person offences’ (an estimated 26% of sexual offences are not being recorded as crimes) []. According to Rape Crisis only 15% of those who experience sexual violence report to the police and only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction []. Gittos, of course, roundly condemns such statistics. For an alternative legal perspective to Gittos’ and for how implicit bias and discrimination operate within the legal system, see S. M. Edwards, Sex and Gender in the Legal Process (Blackstone Press, 1996)

[17] False accusations of rape do make good news. Also, unhelpfully, lies about having been raped and accusing someone who did not rape of rape are often conflated with rape that is ‘no-crimed’ (e.g. where there may be a suspicion that unwanted sex has taken place but due to drink or drug-induced incapacity there is no credible evidence for the suspicion) or with false allegations due to mental health or drugs and with rape retractions (which need not by any means indicate that rape did not take place) [e.g. see ‘False allegations’,]. In a seventeen month period in 2011 and 2012 there were 35 prosecutions for false rape accusations, over against 5651 prosecutions for rape (that is 0.62%) (see Zoe Williams 2017). A number of these false allegations, moreover, can be accounted for by mental illness. Even of hate-figure Jemma Beale, depicted in the media as a ‘lesbian fantasist’ [ see Victoria Ward, 24 August 2017, The Telegraph,] and as ‘attention-seeking’ and costing taxpayers £900,000 pounds [, by Amanda Devlin, 24 August 2017], it might legitimately be said (without apologizing for her actions) that ‘no one turns their life into a construct of bogus victimhood for fun’ [see Zoe Williams, ‘Jemma Beale…’ 2017].

[18] This kind of rhetoric continues. Hence, rape culture proponents are prone to ‘violent and unthinking responses to individual cases’ (2015: 91) and exhibit the ‘navel-gazing narcissism inherent in the rape culture argument, which leads to a complete loss of moral perspective’ (2015: 93). And again: ‘the argument that we live in a rape culture is often used to justify petty authoritarianism, which – in turn – is symptomatic of the argument’s narcissistic and self-centred heart’ (2015: 99). This kind of talk can pass for level-headed and calm? Really?!

[19] Gittos refers to persons acquitted of rape as innocent (2015: 131) when, technically, they may not be.

[20] On 6 March 2014 RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) released a lengthy report, which, among other recommendations identifies overemphasis on the concept of rape culture as an obstruction in both the prevention of rape and in accounting for causes of rape. The crux of its recommendation is that rape is caused not so much by cultural/systemic factors as by the conscious decisions of members of a small percentage of the community. These rapists are individuals who disregard the dominant cultural message that rape is wrong. According to RAINN, blaming rape culture rather than individuals mitigates personal responsibility. McElroy takes a similar stance. She is open about having been raped and domestically assaulted and asserts, ‘I was not attacked by men but by an individual man, and I hold those individuals responsible. … I know the rape culture is a lie that harms women and victims of violence as well as men’ (2016: 5–7). I am cutting corners here – but, in brief, to me this kind of argument about wrongs being down to ‘a few bad apples’ is rather like the ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ argument. On one level it may be so – but it misses the bigger point. Quite simply, gun crime is more prevalent in places where more people have more access to guns and also, where gun culture glamourizes and glorifies guns. The US and its statistics on gun fatalities bear this out. Emphasis on the systemic, rather than the ‘bad individuals’ argument can also make sense of other social ills, such as the much greater incarceration rate of blacks than whites in the US. The alternative conclusion, veering from systemic to individual onus, is that blacks are more likely to be bad people. A viewing of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th (2016) will set the record straight on this.

Tags : GittosLuke GittosRaperape denial
Johanna Stiebert

The author Johanna Stiebert

1 Comment

  1. Only now heard the 2015 Woman’s Hour with Luke Gittos and Joanne Conaghan (available on Well worth a listen. Here Gittos says that the John Worboys case should not be used as an example in discussions of rape culture. And yet this case involved many women (possibly well over 100) and led to the deputy police commissioner’s admission that this case indicates extensive shortcomings in terms of police treatment of victims of sexual violence. Similar admissions followed on-street grooming scandals, many of which took years before being taken seriously by police and social services. Meanwhile, Gittos has no qualms using a case as unusual as the McNally case to argue for excessive state intrusion into private lives.

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