Helen Mirren tells men’s magazine date rape shouldn’t be illegal – why, oh why?!

// 1 September 2008

Helen Mirren told GQ magazine that date rape should not be illegal, as reported everywhere, but here’s a link to the BBC’s story*.

In her interview with former national newspaper editor Piers Morgan in the October edition of GQ, Dame Helen also spoke about being date-raped as a student – something she first revealed in a 2003 interview.

She told GQ: “I was [date-raped], yes. A couple of times.

“Not with excessive violence, or being hit, but rather being locked in a room and made to have sex against my will.”

Dame Helen said it was rape if a couple engaged in sexual activity but the woman said “no” at the last second.

However, she said: “I don’t think she can have that man into court under those circumstances.”

She said she had not reported her own experiences to police because “you couldn’t do that in those days”.

She’s quoted elsewhere saying:

“I guess it is one of the many subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them.”

[Edited for clarification purposes] I can only express sympathy for Mirren, and what she’s been through. But her statement that date rape shouldn’t, in effect, be illegal, is dangerous and wrong. In reality, in this country, right now, men can rape with impunity. And in this country, right now, rapists are getting away with it because of woman-blaming attitudes.

* For some reason they’ve led on her cocaine use, though!

Update: The Guardian’s coverage includes this quote from the solicitor general:

Vera Baird, the solicitor-general, described Mirren’s remarks as “dangerous” at a time when rape victims were being encouraged to come forward.

“We want women to report rape with the confidence that – albeit slowly – conviction rates are getting better. It really is a shame to cast doubt at the edges of what she thinks might not be rape.”

She added: “It is a pity, because she is a much-admired person.”

Comments From You

Sarah // Posted 1 September 2008 at 1:24 pm

I had thought (hoped) that what she was saying was not that such a situation shouldn’t be illegal, but that it would be impossible to prove in court, and therefore trying to prosecute would be pointless. Sad though that she seems to believe rape is a normal part of relationships between women and men.

Hazel // Posted 1 September 2008 at 1:29 pm

The headline did read “Actress Mirren tells of date-rape” when I looked at the BBC News website about 9am. I was surprised to see it had changed.

Soirore // Posted 1 September 2008 at 1:30 pm

I guess my naivity must be showing but I didn’t read it that way at all. Rather than saying that date rape shouldn’t be illegal I thought that Mirren was being defeatist in how she considered the law would treat it.

I’m not sure of your objections to how Mirren described her experieince of rape. It happened a long time ago and her unemotional recounting of it may be a coping mechanism. Should we really be judging her for this? I’m not sure that we can make valid critiques from the tiny quotes we’re given. And do we trust GQ has chosen the most woman blaming quotes?

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 1 September 2008 at 1:47 pm

Regretably Dame Helen Mirron’s claim will be used by individuals justifying male sexual violence against women. Of course ‘date rape’ is not ‘real rape’ it is just normal male sexual aggression. The fact Dame Mirren was forced against her will to have sex done to her means no crime was committed. It is a male entitlement to coerce, threaten or force women to have sex done to them against their will because according to Dame Mirren this was ‘not rape.’ So, this negates women’s rights of ownership of their bodies because women’s bodies must always be sexually available for men’s use. It also helps to justify the reason why less than 5% of men charged with rape are convicted of this crime and one of the reasons is because ‘real rape’ only occurs when a deranged male stranger attacks a virginal or elderly woman who is perceived as being non-sexual in any way. Obviously the media will focus on Dame Mirren’s misogynstic claims and claim ‘I told you acquaintance rape never happens since it is just women lying.’

Jess McCabe // Posted 1 September 2008 at 2:27 pm

@Soirore – I wasn’t objecting or judging the way Mirren described being raped – I just meant to express sympathy. Will go clarify that.

Effectively, if you say that date rape shouldn’t be prosecutable, but is something for men and women to negotiate between themselves, you’re saying it shouldn’t be considered a criminal offense.

And, yep, that’s true that GQ may have been selective in the quotes it used, absolutely. That’s always a risk.

Leigh // Posted 1 September 2008 at 3:22 pm

The GQ quotes are selective and as a man I feel angered and let down that they would take the time to promote such an ambivalent attitude to rape.

But I think this post was also selective and unfair to Mirren, in the

Guardian coverage of this story I found this:

“I love the fierceness of young girls nowadays, and the way they just say, ‘fuck off’, because I wish I’d been taught to say ‘fuck off’ when I was younger.

“I wish I’d had those words in my arsenal of self-defence. Instead, I was polite and didn’t have the courage to say that to men who wouldn’t accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

She added: “I was pretty naive, I went to a convent school until I was 18, and had never spent a night away from home, or gone to parties, or any of that.

Mirren was a victim of the men who abused her and of the conservative upbringing that failed to enable her to assert her rights as a person.

Anna // Posted 1 September 2008 at 6:01 pm

I thought she was saying it’s impossible to prosecute, which is pretty much true.

Jess McCabe // Posted 1 September 2008 at 7:30 pm

@Leigh… Yes, it’s true that she also said those things, but I don’t read them the same way you do… Being assertive about not consenting to sex is good, of course, but I worry that this also takes blame away from the rapist.

Whether consent was withdrawn timidly or assertively, or any variation therein, the point is that continuing after consent has been withdrawn is rape. The answer is not to train girls to assertively say no, but to train boys and men not to think it’s OK to rape, and change the paradigm of how we think about consent. This is why I think that Mirren’s comments are so damaging, because they only reinforce the idea that rape is the normal behaviour for men, just something that happens in sexual relationships, which can’t be tackled or stopped. It’s not women and girls that need to change, it’s men.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 1 September 2008 at 10:38 pm

I kind of agree with Soirore.

It sounds like you’re only seeing what you expect to see instead of considering that bare words don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

I think it’s a bit strange to consider that unemotional treatment of this topic may be Mirren’s ‘coping strategy’. It happened when she was a student, for pity’s sake. Maybe she just doesn’t feel particularly emotional about it any more. Maybe she never did.

It happened to me and quite frankly, other than in the week or so afterwards, I was never particularly upset by it.

Anne Onne // Posted 1 September 2008 at 11:33 pm

That’s so sad. The way women learn to ‘deal’ with the horror of things like this is by telling themselves it’s OK.

That she would consider the law separate from it makes sense if it’s what she’s had to deal with. Telling yourself (and no doubt having everyone else tell you) it’s just a disagreement, nothing serious, something the man and woman can sort out amongst themselves feels like the only way in the context of a society which doesn’t really believe it was rape, and would treat the woman as someone who is overreacting to an ‘honest mistake’.

It’s not unknown for women to marry men who have raped them, wanting to somehow make sense of what happened, or tell themselves it was OK because they’re with them now. I can’t help but see Mirren’s words in the same light, as a sad way in which she adapted to a harsh world that literally offered her no protection from rape, and no recourse when it happened.

What she said is still a discouragement to rape victims today, and she should have been more thoughtful. It’s not to excuse the fact that she should know better that I want to point out the context of the time she had these experiences in, but to remind ourselves that women, ourselves especially can be our own worst enemies. We can take in the message the patriarchy tells us every day which is that our wishes don’t matter. Our consent doesn’t matter. That if somebody commits a crime against us, it’s because we failed somehow.

I’m disappointed because she has the potential to do so much good, but in another way, it’s not surprising. So many women do this to themselves, it’s just so disheartening. The added pain of blaming oneself, telling oneself that it was your fault really is in some way easier to bear than realising, and admitting that you did nothing wrong, and somebody you trusted deliberately did this to you, because they could.

But I agree with Jess: there is a definite misplaced focus. Sure, we should teach girls and women to be assertive and that coyness (unless play with a safe word) does nobody a favour, but the real focus should be on men. There are plenty of instances (the vast majority of rapes, I should imagine) where a woman is either completely unconsious so unable to consent, or very clearly not consenting. The onus should be on men to make sure they know that a woman is actively consenting to sex. Absence of the word ‘no’ is not consent. A hearty ‘yes’ is.

Nancy // Posted 2 September 2008 at 2:27 am

I agree with some of the other posts. I believe Ms. Mirren was expressing the difficulty in prosecuting such a case where it would be nearly impossible to prove the woman did not consent, not necessarily that it shouldn’t be a criminal offense. Let’s take step back before we immediately make inflammatory statements that paint Ms. Mirren in such an anti-feminist light.

Anna // Posted 2 September 2008 at 11:02 am

The worst thing I’ve seen so far come from this was the Channel 5’s Wright Stuff this morning – I only caught the very end of it but the closing sentence was from an audience member; “Who do you think is to blame for date rape?” “I think it’s half and half, really”. i want to complain, I really do, but I don’t know how or if it would get anywhere or whatever. It’s set me up to be in a right state this morning.

Leigh // Posted 2 September 2008 at 1:11 pm

@ Jess

It’s not women and girls that need to change, it’s men.

Well Women AND men need to change from not training boys that it’s never okay to be negligent of consent to training boys that it’s never okay to be negligent of consent.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 2 September 2008 at 1:20 pm

I read it as being ambiguous whether Helen Mirren thought it shouldn’t be illegal, or if she thought it couldn’t be tried. But either way, she is effectively saying that men have carte blanche once they are invited into a woman’s bedroom (or home?)

The suggestion that men and women “work it out between themselves” is, of course, pie-in-the-sky. If a man is going to force himself on a woman in the first place, then “might is right” will always win out, and no amount of words are likely to help.

maggie // Posted 2 September 2008 at 2:20 pm

when will people realise that NO means NO.

TheLady // Posted 2 September 2008 at 2:41 pm

I heartily agree with everything Anne Onne says; and in order to further reinforce her point, imagine that the scenario Helen Mirren describes involved anything other than a man, a woman, and intercourse.

Say two guys go to a gym, potentially intending to have a boxing match. They do some stretches together, have a good warm up, strap each other’s gloves on, get in the ring… And then one of them says “you know what mate, I don’t think I’m up for this today”. Is it “a matter for the two of them to sort out” if the other man then locks the door and forces him to engage in what’s effectively a fight?

Or say you go to a friend’s place for dinner. You help set the table, share a glass of wine – it’s all heading towards that tantalising conclusion, but then you just lose your appettite. Would you feel any ambiguity about your friend’s actions if they locked you in the dining room and force fed you?

It’s a mark of just how devalued our physical integrity is in this society that this issue can even come under question. I feel for Dame Helen, I’ve been in that situation myself, and I know just how incredibly difficult it is to think to yourself “that nice guy who I enjoyed talking to so much in the bar is a _rapist_”; because of course even if you do, you still end up blaming yourself – if not for “asking for” rape, then for being the sort of person who enjoys flirting with a rapist!

No, there’s no easy way to avoid the trap of believing that a violation of your body, your rights, your integrity as an independent agent is your own fault, and we all have to deal with it as best we can while not going crazy. If anything, my criticism of Dame H is about her very questionable choice of interviewers, rather than her perfectly commonplace attitudes to women’s safety and sexual autonomy…

Bee // Posted 2 September 2008 at 4:06 pm

@ TheLady – nice comparisons. I guess the only “difference” lies in the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality… how dare she get him all wound up and then not want to go through with it? Don’t you know the effect that could have on a man’s health??

@ Anna – that is a shocking statement. You could certainly complain, but given that it was an audience member (i.e. member of the public) making the statement, it probably won’t achieve much. Though even asking the question “Who is to blame?” is pretty inflammatory in itself. When there are two people involved, one of whom is raped, the other of whom is doing the raping, it’s hard to see how there is any dilemma or debate over who is at fault.

Missie // Posted 2 September 2008 at 6:11 pm

Debating over what Helen Mirren might have meant is pointless because it’s too late – her statements have been published in a high readership mens magazine and now in newspapers and on websites all over the world. The very fact that her statements are open to interpretation is scary. My only consolation is that in my experience of sex & casual sex is that I have always been able to say no at any point and no guy has ever taken it further. I am lucky to have been with normal respectful guys. And I stress normal because most men don’t rape. Lets hope the ones that have considered crossing the line aren’t swayed by her comments or GQ’s careless editing, if that is the case.

jane // Posted 3 September 2008 at 3:26 am

Is all rape the same – i.e. is there no degree? Also, is it rape if someone doesn’t express there lack of consent (i.e. thinks no but doesn’t say). ?

Missie // Posted 3 September 2008 at 1:24 pm

@ Jane – I don’t think it is all the same but it is obviously never ok & is going to affect different woman differently. Lack of consent where a woman has no or little recollection of the rape because she was so drunk she could not give consent is in my book rape. I am confident a woman knows when she has been violated. Men need to know it is never ok to take advantage of a very drunk woman. Otherwise men will continue to seek out drunk vulnerable women.

Leigh // Posted 3 September 2008 at 2:30 pm

@ Jane

In the UK Rape is penetration with the penis of an orifice. Attacks not using the penis or penetration are known as sexual assault

YES is it Rape if you don’t get a clear Yes.

Rape under the law in the UK happens if you disregard consent or are negligent of consent- you don’t make sure the person is able and has the chance to say no.

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