03:02, May 01 49 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-01 03:02:06
The Hepburn judgement signals a shift in cultural attitude to rape. It's sorely necessary

Alex Hepburn’s blue eyes are pale under a dark, straight brow. In the news photos, his gaze resembles the male model aesthetic of an Armani or Ralph Lauren campaign, and the juxtaposition of his youth in an older man’s suit does, too. Maybe Hepburn styled himself that way. In his own words, the 23-year-old was one of a “pair of tens”, and entitled to be “banging models”. He is a rapist.

Hepburn has just been sentenced to five years jail by a British court. Two years ago, the former cricketer raped a woman who he found sleeping in his British teammate’s bed. After consensual sex with the woman, his teammate Joe Clarke had gone into his bathroom and drunkenly passed out. Then Hepburn entered the room. The dozing woman believed the man who began performing sex acts upon her was Clarke, until Hepburn spoke with an Australian accent. She left the flat, and was found “distressed and sobbing” by a stranger in the street.

The case is notable for two reasons – firstly, because the sentence vindicates the woman.

We are, in the English-speaking west, too used to stories of judicial process where justice to rape victims is denied. In America, Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, served but three months of an already controversially short six-month sentence for his crimes. In Canada, federal court judge Robin Camp acquitted a man accused of raping a 19-year-old woman over a bathroom sink, asking her in court: “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”. And in Australia, Saxon Mullins, a teenager who alleged rape by nightclub owner’s son Luke Lazarus, endured two trials and two appeals without conviction, and spurred a national conversation about a “systemic problem” with consent laws.

These cases are all from within the last five years. A study conducted across Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Scotland and the United States found that only 8% of sexual assaults reported to the police even make it to trial. Data from the state of New South Wales found that within those trials, only 10% of cases received a conviction.

So for Judge Jim Tindal in the Hepburn sentencing to declare that Hepburn had seen his victim as “a piece of meat, not a woman entitled to respect” - and making an explicit point that neither she or Clarke had themselves done anything wrong on the night in question – represents something of a weather vane turn in cultural attitude.

It’s sorely necessary – because the second reason for which the Hepburn case is notable is the role of a WhatsApp conversation among Hepburn and two teammates in providing closed-circuit self-justification to the man for his behaviour. Tindal noted that Hepburn was “fired up” by the “stat chat” conversation’s secret competition to have sex with as many women as possible. A joke Hepburn made in the group was of how Clarke may enhance his total by “me dragging them home and you raping them.” Hepburn’s friends did not police these expressions. “Got to understand that Hepperdawg is a horny cunt and without you keeping my head straight just goes and does rogue things,” he said. And then he raped someone.

Foucault used the term “heterotopia” to describe the spaces of discourse or relationship that spring up with their own rules and governance within the material geography of reality. A recent piece in Vox explained the radicalisation of the incel movement from an online support group for the lonely to a well of murderous woman-hating with the observation that it was one incel community’s decision to abandon moderation standards and allow misogynistic posts that gave a place for ideology of hate to announce itself, then echo, recruit and self-justify. What technology has enabled is instant, unmoderated, unobserved heterotopias to flourish in every angry man’s pocket. Beyond the “barbarian country” of the internet’s public conversations, what we’re learning from the platforms is the narcissistic lawlessness they enable in private territory. They’re places unencumbered by the social institutions we created to save ourselves from ourselves – the internet is The Cement Garden rebuilt on the island from Lord of the Flies, where viruses of hate, vanity and prejudice can self-indulge and spread before finally they explode into real-life communities, devastatingly.

Hepburn brutally dehumanised another person with the cruel enactment of his contempt for female autonomy. He has been punished, and that is good. But while our legal systems otherwise struggle to deliver justice to survivors of rape and sexual assault, they fail to affirm social standards against the woman-hating that currently foments in ungoverned places our institutions cannot see.

There are plenty of Alex Hepburns in plenty of WhatsApp chats recruiting friends into their own fantasies about the treatment of women, and suggesting ideas. Rape is not discouraged when social institutions lack the robustness to punish it. Ambiguity is what allows rapists to believe they can get away with it.

Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist