Conservatism and Feminism: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

Here is something I’m still trying to figure out: UK Conservative leader David Cameron is calling for rape laws to be strengthened (hat tip, milly).

Jender thinks that this is a great thing, and I really, really want to be able to agree. But — and though it sucks, it’s true — I’m automatically wary of anyone who goes under the “conservative” heading. More than that, though, some of Cameron’s comments make me distinctly uncomfortable.

In a speech in London, he will say too many rapists “think they can get away with it”, as just one reported case in 20 ends with a man being found guilty.

The Tories are set to claim conviction rates in other European countries are up to 12 times higher than in the UK.

The government says it has taken action to improve conviction rates.

Speaking at the Conservative Women’s Organisation conference, Mr Cameron is expected to say: “Studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it’s okay to force a woman to have sex.

“To my mind, this is an example of moral collapse.”

He will call for “widespread cultural change” and warn that society has become increasingly “sexualised” over the past decade, during which time treating women as sex objects has become viewed as “cool”.

He is also set to call for compulsory sex education in schools to drive home the message that sex without consent is a criminal offence.

The Tory leader is due to say that some statistics suggest one in 20 women has been raped, yet three-quarters of them never report the crime.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not anywhere nearly as knowledgeable about British politics as I am about American politics. But it is my understanding that British and American conservatives share a lot of views both about social issues and law and order issues. Which, I think, makes this an interesting discussion. It seems to me that neither side of the political spectrum has much of a clear idea how about to deal with the issue of rape.

. . .

The standard conservative stance is to be tough on crime. Liberals/progressives, on the other hand, are concerned not only with rehabilitation over punishment, but also with making sure that false convictions don’t happen. That seems to make rape conviction more of a conservative issue. On the other hand, though, liberals/progressives are the ones concerned with women’s rights, while conservatives like to work under the banner that women have already achieved equality and to claim otherwise is some kind of “reverse” discrimination. Which makes rape conviction a liberal/progressive issue.

What I see coming through here in Cameron’s remarks is some conservative political ideology. For example, with regards to his remarks about seeing women as sexual objects contributing to rape rates, I couldn’t agree more. But rape having to do with our culture being over-sexualized? Well, no. I wouldn’t call objectification of women’s bodies “sexual” so much as I’d call it “misogynist,” and I have a real problem with the idea that openness about sex somehow leads to sexual assault. There’s a big difference between healthy, respectful sexuality, and sexist, objectifying images. To conflate the two is a pretty standard conservative tactic and one that pisses me off. Women’s bodies do not equal sex. And sex does not equal an absence of morality.

The other thing that concerns me is his wildly inaccurate statistic. One in 20 women has been raped? Actually, in the UK (and in the US), it’s more like one in four women have been raped or experienced an attempted rape. Also, one in seven has been “coerced” into sex, which for those of you who aren’t paying attention, is also rape. Now, this could simply be poor information, or he could have misspoken — maybe he meant to say “one in 20 women per year,” or something. But, seeing as how MRAs (who usually identify as conservative) regularly try to manipulate rape statistics to make the feminist claim of sexual assault seem like some sort of crazy conspiracy theory, this also doesn’t sit well.

On the other hand, I’m incredibly enthusiastic about his proposal for education programs. I’m really sick of seeing initiatives around rape either deal solely with conviction rates or solely with help for victims, with nothing in the middle. I think that services for recovering rape survivors couldn’t possibly be more important, but I also feel the same way about education as a prevention tool. I think that teaching men (and women) about what rape actually is, what consent actually means and that rape is wrong is going to be our only real shot at lowering rape rates. The fact that this guy is talking not only about finding women justice, but also about preventing rapes to begin with makes me want to love him.

So I don’t know what I think yet. Let’s be fair: the dude is a conservative. He’s going to be used to speaking on conservative terms. Feminist language is not exactly going to be something that he’s knowledgeable about. And I in no way want to suggest that I’m going to oppose any plan that isn’t absolutely perfect. That’s not the case.

What I won’t support, though, are initiatives that (a) downplay the prevalance of rape (b) make women look responsible for rape or (c) focus on convictions solely for the “jumping out of the bushes” type of rapists. I’m all for increasing those conviction rates as well, but right now “date” rape conviction rates are much, much lower, and “date” rape is also many times more common than stranger rape.

In short, I’m in no way writing Cameron off, but I’m not quite willing to embrace his ideas yet, either. It seems like he hasn’t even officially made his proposal. I’m extremely eager to hear more about it, and I hope like hell that it’s good. Fuck politics — if a conservative wants to do right by women and right by rape survivors, I’m going to be with him on that. And if a liberal/progressive does poorly by women, I’m not going to support him or her, either.

Everyone else — particularly those of you who are British or know more about British politics — what are your thoughts?

0 thoughts on “Conservatism and Feminism: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

  1. RachelPhilPa

    For example, if around one in two women do think that it’s okay to force a woman to have sex under “some circumstances” (and sadly, the studies I’ve seen tend to reflect that these numbers are indeed very high), that certainly is horrid.

    But, the quoted article said:

    Mr Cameron is expected to say: “Studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it’s okay to force a woman to have sex.

    I think he’s criticizing men for having this attitude, not women.

  2. Cara Post author

    Wow, you’re absolutely right. I have no idea how I misread that so badly, but I’m going to go correct the post now. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. rich

    “For example, if around one in two women do think that it’s okay to force a woman to have sex under “some circumstances” (and sadly, the studies I’ve seen tend to reflect that these numbers are indeed very high), that certainly is horrid…I’d call this point of view by women a sad reflection of the extent of rape culture, and the way in which patriarchal control has saturated worldviews. I wish I didn’t, but I hear a twinge of victim-blaming here.”

    You say that 1 in 2 women hold this abhorrent view on rape apologism. Did you mean 1 in 2 men?

    Also, he says 1 in 20 women are raped in the UK, but 3/4 do not report them. The former part of the stat seems way off, as you said. Perhaps he means 1 in 20 are the reported rapes; if 100% of them were reported, it would be 4 in 20, or 1 out of every 5 UK women being raped. That’s much closer to the truth.

  4. Cara Post author

    Yup. I took that first quote out of the post because once I realized my mistake, it made absolutely no sense.

    And yes, your explanation for how he could have potentially misspoken is a reasonable one and a real possibility. As I’ve said, I certainly do hope that he just said something wrong with regards to that statistic, which is not an incredibly difficult thing to do. I’d feel a lot better if that were the case.

  5. leila

    Cn the related topic of Cameron’s Conservative credentials… there were defensive apologies a couple of weeks ago regarding the following joke made to funding executives of the British Arts Council:

    “I hope you won’t be giving grants to too many one-legged Lithuanian lesbians.”

    Apparently he denied having used the term ‘lesbian’.

  6. Her Dankness

    Apparently he denied having used the term ‘lesbian’

    Why is using the term ‘lesbian’ any more contentious than using the term ‘Lithuanian’ or ‘one-legged’? That’s how homosexual women self-identify.

  7. Cara Post author

    Because if he used the word “lesbian,” he was being homophobic. If not, he was just being misogynistic to all women who don’t fit his personal ideal of a woman. Either way it’s bad, but I think that it’s more socially acceptable to pick on “ugly” women than it is to pick on lesbians as a whole, for some reason.

  8. Her Dankness

    why is using the word ‘lesbian’ being homophobic, any more than ‘one-legged’ is anti-handicapped or ‘Lithuanian’ is racist? Why does being one-legged make you ugly?

  9. Cara Post author

    . . . I didn’t say that I agreed with this point of view. Obviously it was an offensive comment all around, but you asked for an explanation of his mindset, and I gave you my best guess.

  10. pocochina

    Thanks for this post – it solidified a lot of my issues with this framing.

    He’s making the mistake that rape is about sex, not power. So while I agree with his legal perspective, I think this framing of it is dangerous and comes from the victim-blaming framework of our culture. It’s a short step from “sexualized culture causes rape” to “sexy clothes cause rape.” It’s not a bad idea, but the reasoning is troubling.

  11. Kevin

    Here’s a guy who thinks strong women are bad roll models for little girls:

    Whatever happened to little girls playing with dolls and dreaming of becoming wives and mothers? Whatever happened to young men looking for a good Christian wife and finding a young woman still clinging to her doll?

  12. Kevin

    It’s a comment on the correlation between conservatism and feminism. My overall comment, however, would be that progress from any sector should be welcomed.

  13. Mary Tracy9

    I think he should have to explain the “over-sexualized culture” part better. As it stands it can mean two things:

    1) as you very well said, he could be blaming women in this day and age for being openly sexual.

    2) he could be refering to the BAD IMAGE OF SEX that this culture wants to parade around as THE ONLY IMAGE OF SEX there could possibly be. An image that, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, includes abuse, pornified women who are always gagging for it, etc.

    Let’s don’t make the mistake of assuming that the way our culture defines SEX is the only possible one. Or the most desirable one for that matter.

  14. Jender


    Thanks for pointing out that 1 in 20 statistic. i was so pleased to see him talking about under-reporting (rather than, say false rape charges) that it breezed right by me. The F-Word’s story was happy with the statistic,, so I did some looking, wondering if maybe the UK was just loads better than the US. It seems to come from here:, a home office survey that says 1 in 20 women have been raped afetr the age of 16. So it doesn’t include rape of minors, and it doesn’t include attempted rape. And the study admits that it’s probably an under-estimate. We get a much higher UK statistic here (indeed we get the 1 in 4 statistic for rape or attempted rape), but it’s older:

  15. J C Metheringham

    I’m delighted that Cameron’s speech has been picked up and is being so well received. I’m a member of the Conservative Party (the “wet” Tory Reform Group side rather than the Cornerstone side, just in case you were wondering) and I’m a feminist. Quite a lot of Tories are. I’m often disappointed that feminists here in the UK tend to assume that all feminists vote Labour.

    I would like to make two points. Firstly, Cameron is a true blue Tory, but he is also a liberal progressive. In many circles membership of the modern Conservative Party means no more that anti-socialist and pro-devolution. I’m speaking as someone who was born four years after Thatcher was first made Prime Minster. The Conservative Party currently contains some influential libertarians who are not necessarily right-wing.

    The second point is that Cameron simply borrowed the phrase “over-sexualised culture” from the media. Almost every paper, including the broadsheets, seems to carry daily articles on our “over-sexualised culture”. Yes, it’s pretty lazy to piggy-back on such a phrase in order to be noticed, but it’s a reflection of what is currently making headlines.

    (As for the one-legged comment, it was most out of order. At risk of being prejudiced, I blame Eton: good for rhetoric, bad for common sense.)

  16. milorad

    I’m the first to admit that I’m not anywhere nearly as knowledgeable about British politics as I am about American politics

    Wow that’s an understatement. you certainly have no clue whatsoever about UK politics, but it seems you don’t know a friggin thing about US politics either, except some cheap slogans.

  17. Cara Post author

    Well that’s ironic. Have you watched a debate or, say, the news anytime recently? It seems to me that American politics have been little more than cheaps slogans for several decades, now.

  18. Thene

    This is a decently written article but you do seem way out of your depth with UK politics. I don’t know if our friend JC up there would agree with me on this, but I’d say (and I’ve lived in both the UK and the US) that Cameron, and most other Conservatives, are further left and more progressive than your average Democratic candidate. They’re keen to pledge their support for universal healthcare, they’re carrying as few anti-choice nutjobs as Labour, they won’t say a word against civil unions and the last time a frontbencher talked about reintroducing the death penalty, he got fired.

    I also feel you can’t necessarily equate feminism with the left in the UK – remember that the Conservatives are the only party to have ever produced a female leader (Thatcher), that Labour and the political left still have a base in the trade unions (not hotbeds of women’s representation or feminist thought, would you believe) and that unlike in the US religion rarely defines party lines….so, for instance, the (Labour) minister for Communities and Equality is currently a female Catholic extremist who hates women and gays, and who withdrew her disabled son from public education because she thought it was good enough for all the other disabled children but not for hers. (The new Labour PM, Gordon Brown, is also a homophobe and has abstained from every one of the 14 LGBT rights bills introduced since 1997).

    Mapping of politics aside, I feel very encouraged by this idea partly because it has come from the right. As with Cameron’s green makeover, he can probably shove this through his right-wing party because they’re too used to ignoring this sort of thing to bother arguing. Context is also an issue; recently Labour have responded to Tory ideas by stealing them (inheritance tax being a tragic case of that) and this is such a powerful one that it’s likely Brown will have to pick it up just to defuse it. So I’m at least hoping that it will be a cross-party effort, and that it will start coming into schools without us having to wait two or three years for an election first. I’m going to write to my Labour MP about that, and I hope other women do that too.

    I’m also hoping that sex ed could not just study consent, but also cover the devastating effects of rape and abuse. Not only could that sort of thing prevent future rapes, it could even make it easier for victims of ongoing abuse to find support.

  19. Thene

    I wouldn’t say that, Rich – just that there are different assumptions about what this traditional centre ground that has to be ‘conserved’ are, and the threats they perceive to it are different. For instance, no US Republican has to worry about losing sovereignty to the EU, or about preserving the green belt (ie. keep new build away from existing towns). They’d be aligned with the Republicans on taxation, on the right to hunt, and I think on Iraq and probably on policing. I think the left/right split here is more sharply economic than in the US – you find strong social conservatives on both sides, but currently more prominently on the left, though the Tories still use more socially conservative rhetoric (‘oh noez, everything is sexualised!’ – not to mention their immigration bugbear) because that’s who their voter base is.

    I’ve been thinking about this sexualisation business, and I’m wondering if the problem we have with that word is, from Cameron’s POV, largely semantic. He says sexualisation, we say objectification – do we mean different things? Or is he just wildly ignorant of gender theory and using the wrong word because he doesn’t know any better?

  20. Cara

    He says sexualisation, we say objectification – do we mean different things? Or is he just wildly ignorant of gender theory and using the wrong word because he doesn’t know any better?

    Maybe he is. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know. Objectification and sexualization are two totally different things, but I’d say that the problem is that most people don’t understand the difference. This comment thread shows some good evidence of that, I think. But in Western culture, “sexuality” means “female bodies” (which it shouldn’t). And so to say that “sexualization” is the problem implies that female bodies are the problem. If we had an accurate definition of sexualization in our culture, though, I’d still say that’s not the problem, because there’s nothing wrong with sexuality. Sex is good. Objectification is the problem, the idea that men deserve constant access to women’s bodies is the problem, the representation of every girl in a short skirt automatically “wanting it” is the problem.

    So, I’d in fact say that not only is objectification the problem — the social conflation of objectification and sexuality is the problem.

  21. Thene

    Does it really matter why he wants to end objectification, so long as he wants to end it?

    Again I think context plays a part in understanding his remarks. He’s gone on about ‘sexualisation’ before now – the subject that time was all the preteenage girls in what you might call ‘hooker clothes’ – a creepy eyesore, for sure, but I’m not sure how to feel about it being taken up by right-wing politicians. (More context: clothes and stationary bearing the Playboy logo are aggressively marketed at preteenagers in the UK, something I’ve gathered doesn’t happen in the USA). Given that he’s used the word in that sense before, I’m drawing the conclusion that his use of it now is connected somehow. Hence talk of moral malaise, etc.

    But in Western culture, “sexuality” means “female bodies” (which it shouldn’t). And so to say that “sexualization” is the problem implies that female bodies are the problem.

    I 100% agree with that comment, but I live in a world where an exposed female body is being used to symbolise sexuality, used to market absolutely everything (as if heterosexual women are all blind, or never buy anything…), and is regularly presented in ways that support the idea that men are entitled to sex. I think I can be glad that a right-wing leader has got far enough to talk about challenging this symbol in schools – I’m not overly bothered if he’s using the wrong word, and I’m not expecting him to reconfigure sex and power overnight so a female body can be a subject and a male body can be an object. I don’t even think that’s his job, to be honest – his job is making law, and it sounds like he’s thought up a really good one. If he starts bringing slut-shaming later into policy later, I’ll bash him then.

  22. Cara Post author

    Yeah . . . using “hooker” as an insult doesn’t get any points from me. The way to try to protect women from objectification is not to insult women.


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