If you thought that a man publicly speculating on the circumstances in which he might rape a female Member of Parliament might preclude him from running for office, you’d be mistaken.
In 2016, YouTuber turned Ukip candidate Carl Benjamin tweeted that he “wouldn’t even rape” Labour MP Jess Phillips. In a video posted online later that month, he elaborated: “There’s been an awful lot of talk about whether I would or would not even rape Jess Phillips... I suppose with enough pressure I might cave, but let’s be honest, nobody’s got that much beer.”
Benjamin, who is now running in European elections, has refused to apologise for his comments, which he characterised as “crimes against political correctness.” What a hero.
Rather than condemning Benjamin’s brazenly misogynist conduct, party leader Gerard Batten downplayed the comments as merely satirical, and the Ukip Twitter account likened his comments to “jokes you’d hear down the pub”.
In a statement to Buzzfeed News, Benjamin said, “Any subject can be the subject of a joke. The alternative is a world devoid of humour, the essential tool we use to reduce the horror of events that are beyond our control.”
There you have it. Benjamin’s comments about raping a woman whose views he disagreed with were not intended to intimidate, demean or humiliate her, but rather as a tool to reduce the horror of rape. And the alternative to making comments about raping a female public figure is “a world devoid of humour”. Essentially, a man vocally contemplating how rapeable a woman is, is a defender of free speech.
Author and academic Abigail Bray wrote, “Attacks on women’s basic human rights have long passed as humour.” Misogyny is often couched as ‘just a joke’, one at the expense of women and their dignity. Women who don’t find jokes about rape and violence against women so amusing are encouraged to get a sense of humour. The debasement of women is fodder for comedy.
Benjamin’s comments may have singled out Jess Phillips, but they are an open expression of misogyny towards women everywhere. In branding Phillips unrapeable, i.e. not sexually appealing enough to rape, he divides women into two categories – those worth raping, and those not worth raping. In doing so, he reduces all women to objects existing for men’s sexual use. The intended insult behind this ‘joke’ is that Phillips is not sexually desirable enough to rape, and that she should be embarrassed and ashamed by this. He “wouldn’t even rape” her.
A culture of misogyny, including speech intended to denigrate and silence women, has far-reaching consequences for women and their lives. Speaking to BBC, Benjamin’s target Jess Phillips recounted how she cried in the street after hearing his video. She described the “constant degradation” she had experienced as a female public figure, including an onslaught of abuse directed towards her online. While she did not fear for her physical safety, she had concerns for her mental health.
As a feminist campaigner who has been on the receiving end of targeted, sustained online misogyny, I can attest to the impact of this kind of sustained abuse on mental health. Being called a bitch, a whore, or worse, again and again. Wading through detailed rape threats and messages calling me worthless and encouraging me to suicide. It takes its toll.
We cannot let this abuse of women continue unchallenged. We must recognise this online abuse of women as part of a continuum of male violence against women and girls, one that can and does escalate to real life violence. It is designed to prevent women’s full participation in public life, to silence women and girls and keep them in their place. I suspect Benjamin and his Ukip supporters know that all too well.