Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 25 April 2017
The idea of a husband raping his wife only hours after their wedding ceremony is genuinely shocking. So it was perhaps to be expected that some viewers of Emmerdale would be up in arms after the long-running ITV soap showed just such a scene last night - not least because it was aired a couple of hours before the 9pm watershed.
They are right to be shocked - but for reasons that have nothing to do with the time at which the rape was shown. The watershed is increasingly irrelevant these days, when we can watch TV programmes on demand. No, the reason we should be horrified is that so many people don’t know that rape in marriage is a crime in this country – and has been ever since the law was changed in 1992.
When Emmerdale character Pierce Harris dragged his bride Rhona Goskirk indoors after a blazing row and raped her, he was committing a serious criminal offence. The days when men could say ‘You’re my wife and I can do what I like’ are long gone, at least as far as the criminal justice system is concerned.
But the soap was absolutely right to highlight widespread ignorance of the law, something that endures even among those who would profess to know it.
According to a 1993 biography of Donald Trump, the mogul forced himself on his then-wife Ivana after a row about hair loss treatment. The book, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, describes a “violent assault” where Trump “jams his penis” into a “terrified” Ivana, who apparently then told her closest friends: “He raped me.”
Trump has denied the allegation, and the book included a statement from Ivana stating she did not want her words to be interpreted ‘in a literal or criminal sense’.
We may never know the facts. But when the story resurfaced during the US presidential campaign, Michael Cohen – a lawyer acting for Trump - didn’t stop at denying it on the now-President’s behalf. He also poured scorn on the entire notion of marital rape as a crime, displaying an astonishing level of ignorance when he claimed, “You can’t rape your spouse.”
As an inconvenient aside for Mr Cohen, rape in marriage has been a crime in New York State since 1984 and was outlawed throughout the US in 1993, a year after the law was changed in the UK.
The producers and writers of Emmerdale have done another public service by reminding viewers that many rapes take place behind closed doors – and in two-thirds of cases the attacker is known to the victim. That statistic comes from the Metropolitan Police, by the way, and it confounds the popular notion that most rapists are strangers who lurk in dark alleys.
Stranger-rapes do happen, of course, and they have a devastating effect. But many women, like Rhona in Emmerdale, discover that the danger comes from a man they know and perhaps love. Here is another police statistic, even less well-known to the public but hugely relevant to scenes like the one that has caused such an outcry: around a quarter of rapes are believed to be linked to domestic violence.
That’s why police and local authorities up and down the country have set up sanctuary schemes - basically a safe room in which a woman and her children can hide if they are threatened by a violent ex-partner or spouse. A man who raped his wife while they were living together may have no qualms about trying to do it again, a fact understood by women’s refuges, which have to spend huge sums on security.
Some viewers objected to the Emmerdale rape because it took place so soon after the couple’s wedding ceremony, but even that isn’t as implausible as it might seem. All the warning signs were there, with Rhona’s friends describing her husband-to-be as ‘jealous’ and ‘obsessive’.
For some couple, weddings have become big events in modern life. It’s totally believable that a woman might put all her energy into thinking about the details, distracting herself from justified doubts about the man she is marrying.
Sober reflection, as well as crime statistics, suggest that someone who is controlling and jealous before saying ‘I do’ will only get worse afterwards. Women who have escaped from abusive relationships sometimes look back and say they were anxious, but pushed their worries aside in the excitement.
There are, naturally, some viewers who have welcomed the Emmerdale rape plot line. Television and radio can be a powerful means of educating people about subjects such as domestic violence – you need only think of The Archers’ Rob and Helen Titchener. In the wake of a storyline that saw Helen become the victim of her husband’s controlling behaviour, more than £100,000 was raised for the charity Refuge.
In contrast, in the hours after the final episode of the BBC’s Broadchurch was aired earlier this month, a similar push for fundraising saw just a tenner donated to Rape Crisis. Various theories have been put forward for this, from Trish Winterman’s rapist turning out to be a stranger (so not in keeping with the reality of rape in the UK) to the fact that we just find sexual assault to be unpalatable. Something we struggle to confront and that is just too horrible to think about.
Then there’s the even more awful suggestion that we still, partially, point a finger at the victim. A recent study by the Fawcett Society found that over a third of people still think “if a woman goes out late at night, wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is then the victim of a sexual assault, she is totally or partly to blame.”
Clearly, there’s still a long way to go before it’s generally accepted that the only person to blame for sexual and domestic violence is the perpetrator – and women will continue to be in danger until there’s zero tolerance of these dreadful crimes. It may be uncomfortable to watch or listen to, but TV and radio drama is a very effective way of getting that vital message across. Before or after the watershed.