Barrister Barbara Hewson: Why Can't We Discuss 'Moral Responsibility' Of Rape Victims?

Why Can't We Discuss 'Moral Responsibility' Of Rape Victims? Says Barrister
Barbara Hewson, a human rights barrister at Hardwicke Chambers
Barbara Hewson, a human rights barrister at Hardwicke Chambers

The "moral responsibility" of rape victims should be a topic up for discussion, with the debate over sex offences dominated by a rhetoric of weak, vulnerable, fallen women, a barrister has said.

Barbara Hewson, a human rights barrister at Hardwicke Chambers, told a debate at LSE, entitled "Is Rape Different?" that the age-old debates over the sex trade and sex offences used Christian language - that there are "vulnerable women in danger" that "freedom was dangerous" and that women are "inherently fragile and vulnerable".

Hewson, who has previously called for the age of consent to be lowered to 13, said: “The law does not attribute any responsibility now to the victim of rape whereas traditionally we know the judge would say when they came to sentence ‘well she was contributorally negligent’ or something like that.”

"It seems to me, simply factually, we all know if you’re drunk you are more likely to have accidents. So if you fall off a bar stool and hit your head and have a serious brain injury, because you’re drunk, then people are gong to say, 'Well you chose to be drunk'.

“So there does seem to me something a little sanitised about the idea that we cannot even have a discussion about the moral responsibility, whatever people may want to say about the legal responsibility.”

Hewson dismissed the idea, which she said had roots in 1970s feminism and self-help trends, that "sexual abuse was much more widespread than we thought."

"The book The Courage to Heal [A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis] said if you are unable to remember a specific instance of abuse, or have a feeling that something happened to you, it probably did. That led to a whole outbreak of people believing they had been abused in childhood, lawsuits, prosecutions, miscarriages of justice.

"This idea, that you should believe the victim, unquestioningly has been enormously influential, and we have virtually an ideology of sexual victimisation. That has four components.

“The first is the idea that rape and sexual abuse is very widespread but largely unrecognised even by victims themselves who need to be taught to realise what’s really happened.

“Secondly, that it has long term damaging effects. Thirdly that it’s morally absolutely unambiguous, the victim is utterly innocent and the victimiser is utterly guilty and this is infinitesimal. And finally that claims of victimisation must always be respected, anything less is victim-blaming.

"This explains the reason we talk about rape the way that we do at the moment, and why anyone who questions it in any way at all is immediately either victim blaming or a rape apologist.

"I don't think sexual abusive is widespread, I think that is highly debatable. One in three women are sexually abused, that figure would imply a crime of absolutely epic proportions which the system couldn't possibly deal with."

Hewson said she believed rape victims often blamed all other failures on their experience, that the ordeal "becomes the cause of everything that goes wrong in life.”

“As a society, we have moved on from the rape myths she continues to propagate,” she added.

Earlier this year, after a barrister was criticised for describing a 13-year-old child sex abuse victim as "predatory”, Hewson came out in defence of Robert Colover, saying it "takes two to tango".

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