It is safe to say that Victoria Coren’s article in the Observer on Roman Polanski was not received well online. Twitter erupted with denouncements and some basic confusion as to exact point of the piece. Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming] campaign received seven separate submissions from women concerned about the perpetuation of rape myths and victim blaming within Coren’s piece. Coren has suggested that those who did not like the piece simply did not understand and her use of the word ‘nuance’.
The problem is not that “those feminists”, Coren’s description of the individual women and feminist and women’s organisations who criticised her piece, did not understand the piece. The problem is that we all understand it too well.
This is rape culture.
The problem with the reporting of rape cases is that they are too ‘nuanced’. We do not talk about rape as a crime where the only person responsible is the perpetrator. We make excuses for rapists. In the case of Polanski, there are two issues used to mitigate his personal responsibility for grooming, drugging and orally and anally raping a child. The first mitigation is Polanski’s personal history as a victim of extreme violence. Polanski is a Holocaust survivor whose pregnant mother was murdered in Auschwitz. The second is the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate in 1969 whilst she was 8 months pregnant at the time. Both of these are used as mitigating factors in Polanski’s defence. One wonders if these would have been used to excuse Polanski’s crime if he were a plumber.
The second excuse is that Polanski is an‘artist’. Coren goes further than many defences of Polanski when she says:
A second complicating factor is that Polanski’s work is filled with beauty and humanity.
Polanski has won multiple awards for films he has directed, including The Pianist, which is based on the memoir of Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. And, whilst I am unsure how Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are filled with “beauty and humanity”, I find the conflation of Polanski’s films with a defence for his crime of child rape deeply problematic. Actually, I find it disgraceful. Being an artist is not a mitigating factor in criminal responsibility. Artists must be held to the same standard as anyone else, which, frankly, in our culture isn’t that high to begin with.
What is very rarely mentioned is Polanski’s relationship with Nastassja Kinski, which may or may not have been sexual, that started when she was only 15 years old. There are also the accusations of molestation brought forth by Charlotte Lewis. When Polanski’s personal history as a victim of violence is mentioned as a mitigating factor, the accusations of sexual violence against other teenage girls are never mentioned. Why do we consider Polanski’s childhood and art evidence of ‘nuance’ but not the other accusations of child sexual assault?
Coren clearly thinks she has made a new argument with her piece on the “sin of simplication”. But, it isn’t. It is the same argument used to minimise and obfuscate rapists’ responsibility for their crimes.
The act of minimisation starts with the very language we use. Coren actually uses the term “had sex with her”. Coren does use the word rape four times in the article but this does not lessen the negative impact of the term “had sex with her”. “Had sex with her” implies that Geimer was partly responsible for being raped. Sex is not rape and conflating the two is very dangerous.
There is also a strange disjoint in that particular paragraph: Comer goes from “had sex with” to statutory rape to rape. Now, technically this was a case of statutory rape since Geimer was only 13 and too young to consent; however, had Geimer been 18 the case still would have been rape. The use of “statutory rape” within the context of this paragraph reads as a minimisation, like Whoopi Goldberg’s infamous “rape-rape” comment.
Language matters. It is never acceptable to use the phrase “had sex with” when talking about rape. It doesn’t matter that you actually use the word rape 4 times in the same article. Conflating rape with “had sex with” makes it easier for rapists to deny that they committed rape. It makes it easier for juries to believe that there was “reasonable doubt” because the victim was drunk or wearing a skirt or out late at night or a million other excuses.
Language is important because we live in a rape culture.
After all, as the Ending Victimisation and Abuse [EVB] campaign make clear:
Use of language matters hugely when discussing domestic & sexual violence and abuse simply because it is often expected that those who experience abuse, should change their behaviour in order to reduce their risk. We believe that using correct language both to describe abusive acts, as in this case, is crucial in both acknowledging the abuse itself, and the repercussions for survivors who are often left with responsibility for the abusive actions of others.
There is no “sin in simplification” when discussing a case of child rape. The sin, if we were to use that term, is in demanding that we accept “nuance” in cases of child rape.
We need to stop making excuses for Roman Polanski.
We need to stop looking for ‘nuances’ and start talking about rape.
Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and historian with a background in education. She blogs for the Huffington Post and her personal blog, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows [http://therealsgm.blogspot.co.uk/], is part of the Mumsnet bloggers network.