Why rape comments are always tactical

Gerard Batten assured us that it was a ‘statement of non-intent’ – but Carl Benjamin’s comment that he ‘wouldn’t even rape’ Labour MP Jess Philips should never be consigned to the offhand-remark pile. An explicit attack on the ‘over-sensitivity’ of mainstream media outlets, rape references by right-wing politicians are always tactical. Signifying the greatest possible dispensation with cultures of equality and progressivism, such comments – brash, offensive and provocative – function as assurances of equally radical policies. In other words, rape-comments win votes.

Somehow, by their sexism and misogyny, male political outsiders have become the champions of free-speech and anti-establishment views. The list is increasing at an alarming rate. Donald Trump, after claiming that his celebrity status allows him to ‘grab any woman by the pussy’, dismissed the comments as ‘locker-room talk’ during his presidential campaign back in 2016. Jair Bolsonaro, now President of Brazil, claimed in 2015 that his fellow Congresswoman Maria do Rosário was ‘not worth raping’ because she was ‘very ugly’. Meanwhile, Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte has been known to make frequent jokes about rape, offering the justification that ‘as long as there are many beautiful women, there are plenty of rape cases as well.’  His Presidential spokesperson noted that Duterte was ‘known to make jokes’ and simply has a ‘sense of humour.’

Though UKIP might be down in the polls ahead of the upcoming European elections – and overtaken by Nigel Farage’s ‘Brexit Party’ – examples above suggest that drawing on rape imagery empowers outlandish political men and their followers. It speaks to an inner traditionalism that many voters in civilised democratic landscapes feel is being overtaken by elite preoccupations: welfare concerns, female empowerment and uncontrolled immigration. Support for Benjamin’s ‘quip’ is already evident and rife: Phillips admitted that she was chased down the street by a man asking why Benjamin ‘shouldn’t be able to joke about her rape’. This only adds to the multitude of rape and death threats women politicians now routinely receive.

But why are blasé affirmations of male sexual dominance so effective? Because they pare power relations back to their most basic and rudimentary form: male versus female. If female politicians act to the distaste of political men (and they just so happen to be white, heterosexual and of the same nationality, like Jess Phillips), then ‘rape’ is their go-to trump-card: a guaranteed way of asserting essentialised, biologically-determined authority over a female opponent. Swearing candidates like Benjamin into the European parliament is a dangerous endorsement of such strategising. Bolsonaro started off on the outskirts of Brazilian politics, and now he presides over a population of 212 million people. His controversial views – widely publicised – were no doubt the driving force behind his bid for the presidency. Who’s to say Benjamin couldn’t possibly follow suit?

Importantly, these comments are never simply an end-in-themselves. Part of their function is to stimulate backlash and debate – giving the perpetrators opportunity to defend their comments on televised TV debates, like Politics Live. Horrifyingly, this turns those same perpetrators into heroes for boldly upholding their right to cause offence, even when challenged on live air. What courage! As one Twitter user aptly remarked, referring to the now-infamous Politics Live showdown between Gerard Batten and the surrounding panel (where the UKIP leader defended Benjamin’s comments): ‘I do not care for Gerard Batten, but your interview is almost an inquisition. He’s beset on all sides and the panel’s disdain for him is palpable. He may gain votes from people who have seen this and feel sympathy for him and his party.’

With this in mind, it’s time we stopped dismissing rape comments as meaningless bluster. They are always premeditated, always spoken with a purpose, and always an indication of the type of politics any individual wants to enforce; we should never assume otherwise.  UKIP donor Aaron Banks, when defending Trump’s sexist remarks in 2016, proffered that ‘men say all sorts of things’, adding that there’s a marked difference between ‘what you do and what you say.’ This is wrong: we need to start taking sexists, and their comments about rape, at face value. We must stop giving them the chance to explain ‘what they meant by what they said’ and, for the love of God, stop giving their defendants invaluable public airtime.