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Why rape comments directed at Jess Phillips need to stop being reported as ‘jokes’

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Hollie Richardson
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Jess Phillips

Jess Phillips is still being subjected to vile rape comments, so why are they still being reported as ‘jokes’

Last week, Jess Phillips responded to another rape comment targeted at her by UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin. The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley publically called for Benjamin’s candidacy in the European Elections to be reviewed, after he made a violent comment in a new YouTube video.

“There’s been an awful lot of talk about whether I would or wouldn’t rape Jess Phillips,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of trouble for my hardline stance of not even raping her. I suppose with enough pressure I might cave. But let’s be honest, nobody’s got that much beer.”

After Phillips took to Twitter to say she was “so tired of people legitimising this stuff,” the Electoral Commission later replied: “Really sorry to see you’ve been on the receiving end of these unpleasant comments @jessphillips. Current law in this area only allows for disqualification if someone has served a year or more in prison. We’d be happy to discuss with you.”

This was not the first time that Benjamin had targeted rape comments at Phillips. It started when he shared a tweet in 2016 which read: “I wouldn’t even rape you, @jessphillips.” He has since said that he thinks such comments are “100% acceptable” and told one reporter to “deal with it”.

This caused a huge backlash, with many people asking: how can this man be a party candidate?

But it seems that legal action might finally be taken. West Midlands police confirmed on Tuesday (7 May) that officers were examining whether an offence had been committed. Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, will be questioned about the safety of MPs when she appears before parliament’s human rights committee on Wednesday.

But this is nowhere near enough.

Jess Phillips Labour MP
Labour MP Jess Phillips has dealt with online abuse for years

After news of the investigation broke, Phillips then tweeted: “Just leaving Westminster and a man ran down the street alongside me asking me about why Carl Benjamin shouldn’t be able to joke about my rape. Shouting: ‘I pay your wages’.”

She also told Victoria Derbyshire on her live TV show that she recently broke down in tears in Birmingham city centre because of “the enormous weight of years and years and years of abuse”.

UKIP leader Gerard Batten, who has defended Benjamin throughout this whole ordeal, confirmed that he would remain a UKIP candidate. This meant that Batten’s next statement – “I condemn all jokes about rape. They are not funny and never appropriate and I have told Carl to keep to the serious political issues in this campaign” – proved worthless.

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While we wait to see what happens next, our attention has turned to the reporting of the series of events involving Phillips – with many press headlines referring to Benjamin’s comments as a ‘joke’. The Times led with “Ukip’s Carl Benjamin faces police inquiry over Jess Phillips rape ‘joke’ on YouTube”, while the BBC wrote “UKIP candidate to be investigated over Jess Philips rape ‘joke’”.

Even if the term ‘rape joke’ is cloaked in quotations, it takes away from the fact that any comments about rape aimed directly - and, in this case, consistently - at a woman are a violent and verbal threat. It tacitly defends Batten and Benjamin’s comments and actions. It fails to consider the purpose of the so-called joke, and who it benefits. And it can even make a rapist feel as if their actions are somehow accepted by society.

“Rape and sexual violence and abuse are serious crimes, and among the most traumatic things someone can go through in their lifetime,” Katie Russell, a spokesperson from Rape Crisis England & Wales told Stylist.co.uk. “An experience of sexual violence or abuse can have wide-ranging, long-lasting and often even lifelong impacts on the victim or survivor’s mental, physical and emotional health and wellbeing, their relationships and their lives as a whole.

“Discussing or speculating about doing this to another human being, regardless of the motivation or intention behind the words, does not constitute a ‘joke’. This kind of material can not only cause fear, humiliation and distress on the part of the person towards whom it’s directed, but can also be deeply upsetting and even re-traumatising for other victims and survivors of sexual violence or abuse who hear or see it.

“We would all do well to remember that hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, rape and all forms of sexual violence live among us and to show some empathy and respect.”

Essentially, there is no such thing as a ‘rape joke’ - and the press should remember this. 

Images: Getty

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…

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