Women in politics are continually subjected to threats of violence and rape – both online (Twitter and Facebook were this month lambasted for not doing enough to protect women) and off – and the issue is back in the spotlight ahead of this Thursday's EU elections thanks to Ukip.
In a jaw-dropping interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday morning, party member Lawrence Webb, who is standing as a candidate in the southwest of England, took it upon himself to defend Ukip colleague Carl Benjamin, whose numerous rape "jokes" about Labour's Jess Phillips have sparked a police investigation.
Benjamin, who is also standing for the party in southwest England, tweeted to the Birmingham Yardley MP in 2016 saying "I wouldn’t even rape you" – a remark that appeared to equate sexual violence with a compliment. Benjamin reiterated the claim in a video on his YouTube channel in April, saying: "There’s been an awful lot of talk about whether I would or wouldn’t rape Jess Phillips. I suppose with enough pressure I might cave, but let’s be honest nobody’s got that much beer."
Phillips said she was confronted by a man in the street asking "why Carl Benjamin shouldn’t be able to joke about [her] rape. Shouting: 'I pay your wages,'" she wrote on Twitter. The MP revealed she broke down in tears in Birmingham city centre when she heard about his comments, "just because I felt the enormous weight of years and years and years of abuse". When asked about Benjamin's comments on Today, Webb's defence of his colleague was unfathomable.
Webb told the story of "a young woman" he had met on the high street in Plymouth who stepped out of the crowd "to thank Carl Benjamin". He elaborated: "This particular young woman had been brutally raped at the age of 15 – she'd had her jaw broken in that attack, she'd had her lung punctured – she stepped out of the crowd, this is in a public arena, to thank Carl Benjamin, because dark humour on the subject is actually what had helped her move on from her attack."
The language we use when discussing rape and sexual violence matters, and Today presenter Martha Kearney was quick to point out that while that may have been one woman's experience, the majority of women who have survived sexual violence will likely not appreciate others normalising, trivialising or attempting to garner laughs on the back of their experience.
Webb's response? That women like Phillips, who has long stood up for herself in the face of repeated threats of violence – last year she revealed she once received 600 rape threats in a single night – and even to her life (including from members of her own party), are fair game for rape threats. "You've only ever covered the point from Jess Phillips, who I say is no shrinking violet... you haven't covered any of the people that have come out and supported him [Benjamin], and many of those are rape victims themselves."
As the exchange continued, the audibly baffled Kearney pointed out that even Ukip's leader, Gerard Batten, had condemned Benjamin's comment. "[Batten] says 'I condemn all jokes about rape – they're not funny and ever appropriate, and I've told Carl to keep to the serious political issues in this campaign."
But Webb doesn't back down in his assertion that rape survivors may appreciate rape "jokes". "I agree with that point but you are extremely one-sided on this, because there are people who have been rape victims who've come out and thanked him." While listening to the interview, many people used Twitter to share their disbelief and dismay at his comments.
Responding to Webb's claims, Katie Russell, spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales, said that while some survivors of rape may not be offended by rape "jokes", it is nevertheless wholly inappropriate for someone who has not experienced sexual violence to make light of it. "Victims and survivors of rape and all forms of sexual violence and abuse are each unique and use a range of techniques and tools to support their recovery and wellbeing," she told Refinery29.
"Some victims and survivors find comfort and enjoyment in humour. This has little or nothing to do with whether it’s appropriate for those who haven’t been through sexual violence or abuse to use rape as a topic to intimidate and humiliate women and claim it is a 'joke'." The latter, she said, "normalises and trivialises the very real and traumatic experiences of many in our society and contributes to a culture in which victims and survivors find it hard to access the support and justice they need, want and deserve."
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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