Why is it that violence between people who know each other, especially when those people are of different genders or in a romantic or familial relationship, not as serious as violence between strangers? Cara at The Curvature, who I have to say has an uncanny knack of finding horrendous stories, highlights a case where an attendant in a halls of residence was not fired for raping a woman in his halls, because ‘he knew her’. On one level, I know that this is both an attack on women in the public sphere and an attempt to control women. Rape, of any sort outside of marriage or long-term relationship, usually comes down to a questioning of what the woman did to deserve it and, usually, this involves her having, at some point in her life, left her home. So to blame the victim and not the rapist is effectively a challenge on women’s right to be in public. Rape within in marriage or family environments, goes unchallenged as it questions male ownership of women and a man’s ‘right’ to control the women that he owns. Both of these techniques are a form of restricting women’s rights and spheres of operation, and of empowering men.
Yet, the ‘he knew her’ defence is more complicated than this. It implies that non-familial men have rights to women they don’t own. After-all, most men know quite a lot of women. It is not that hard. In the case Cara cites, the rapist lived in the same halls as his victim. Considering his position, he presumably ‘knew’ all or most of the women living there. Does that mean he could rape them all and have no consequences? Does his position of authority in the halls make it his own harem? This seems to be more complicated than an attack on women for being in the public sphere and more akin to a defence that argues that women he ‘knew’ were his property. Yet, traditionally when women were seen as property, they were owned by one man at a time, not many. Indeed, it used to be the case that if you raped a woman, your offence was a crime of property against her father or husband.
A ‘he knew her’ defence suggests that men have property in all the women that they know. But, if that is the case, multiple men own the same women. Furthermore, they have ownership without having responsibility. Under the traditional patriarchal family model, men owned women, but they also had responsibilities to provide for them, protect them and in many ways compensate them for the disadvantages of their bondage. Under the ‘he knew them’ model, men get all the privileges of ownership and none of the responsibilities or consequences.
In many ways, it is a defence that perfectly reflects modern patriarchal culture. Modern proponents want to have control over women’s bodies, whether that is to rape them or stop them from having abortions, but want to have no part in the consequences. The same people that call for restrictions on abortion do not also call for state funded childcare or free healthcare. The same people who advocate ‘he knew her’ as a defence for rape expect to walk away without consequences and leave women to shoulder the burden of the trauma. In many ways, this is death by a thousand cuts. Women’s power in society is reduced by the unbearable burden that they have to carry. It is the patriarchal system in operation in modern life; it is time it is removed.