If rape is not ‘gender-related’… what the heck is?

f, for argument’s sake, you found yourself charged with ‘murder’… but then, the prosecution insists that the crime you committed did NOT actually fit the definition of ‘murder’, in any legal context: on what grounds could you possibly be convicted?

I don’t know if you followed the police’s ‘crime conference’ about Paulina Dembska’s murder last Thursday… but there was a moment which took me all the way back to my schooldays: specifically, to a particular French lesson when I was in Form 3.

Naturally, I’m talking about the ‘good old days’ here: you know, when ‘boys were boys’… ‘girls were girls’… and each were sent to their own separate (maximum-security) schools.

So the classroom I am talking about - back in around 1984, or thereabouts – was composed uniquely, and exclusively, of boys.  Around 30 of us, to be more precise… and every one just as visibly bored as I was, at the prospect of yet another 45 minutes of ‘conjugating French verbs’.

Until suddenly, without warning, the teacher boomed out a single, startling syllable… and it rang around the classroom like a rifle-shot.

‘SEX!’, he roared.

And just like that: all 30 of those male teenagers sat bolt upright in their chairs, as if instantly electrified. I would even wager that: never before - in the entire history of De La Salle College, Cottonera - had so many students, paid so much attention, to a single word uttered by any teacher… even if (as it happens) for such a miserably short time….

Because in case you were wondering: that early encounter with the word ‘SEX!’ ending up lasting… well, about as long as any early encounter with the real thing itself, I suppose.

“Right!”, our teacher cheerily continued, “Now that I have your full, undivided attention… yes, this lesson is going to be about sex. Because French verbs ‘have sex’, too, you know; only in their case, we call it ‘gender’…”   

Well, what can I say? Just as quickly as it had descended, all that excitement and anticipation was  instantly replaced by the sound of some 30 disappointed teenagers, all simultaneously groaning in exasperation…

All the same, however: the experience did teach me two fundamentally important lessons (actually three, if you also include: ‘how to be grammatically accurate, while swearing at French people of different genders’)….

The first is that it is actually quite correct to say that ‘verbs have sex’ (Let’s face it: it’s not for nothing that so many of us think French grammar is – if you’ll excuse the expression - ‘f***ing hard’…)

But the second is that… yes, actually: the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are indeed all-but exact synonyms of each other. Not, perhaps, in the sense that they can always be used interchangeably (for let’s face it: ‘Right Said Fred’ wouldn’t have had quite such a massive hit, with a dance-track called: “I’m Too Gender-y For My Car”…)

And by the same token: the typical Maltese cat-caller might very easily shout out ‘Aw, Sex!’ at any old random, female passer-by… but he’s not likely to taunt his victim with an ‘Aw, Gender!’, is he? (Even because it just doesn’t transition quite as seamlessly, into: ‘… Ejja l’hawn, ħa nagħmillek baby!’)

Nonetheless: at a broader level, it is perfectly true that ‘sex’, and ‘gender’, both amount to roughly the same thing. And – just in case you’re wondering whether I’d forgotten all about that police press conference, in the meantime – this is precisely why we tend to categorise crimes of a generally sexual nature, as… well… ‘gender-based crimes’…

And incidentally, it also raises the entirely seperate issue of how other members of the same gender – in other words: roughly half the entire country, either way – are likely to react…

…not only to the crimes themselves, of course; but also, to how the police – and other authorities, including the law-courts, etc. – actually go about investigating and prosecuting them, when they occur.

When it comes specifically to the crime of rape, however: BOTH those meanings of the word ‘sex’ suddenly step right up into the spotlight.

Not only will the victim have been chosen specifically on the basis of ‘his or her’ (but let’s face it: way more often, ‘her’) gender… but the crime itself would have been committed specifically for the purpose of ‘having sex’, too.

Now: it obviously doesn’t always follow, that the motive will necessarily have been equally ‘sexual’ in nature. There are, after all, plenty of other motives to coerce people into violent, penetrative sex… that may have nothing to do – or next to nothing, anyway – with ‘sexual gratification’ at all.

Leaving aside certain exceptional circumstances - such as warfare, for instance: where ‘mass-rape’ is often used as a means of ethnic cleansing – we also know of (or at least, can picture) individual cases, where rapists may have been motivated by the equally primal urge to ‘dominate’ others… or to humiliate others… or to somehow impose (or re-assert) their own ‘power’ over others…

But then again: isn’t ‘sex’ about all that, too?  Doesn’t it also, by definition, entail ‘power struggles’ of its own? And aren’t those the very same struggles that lie directly at the heart of the entire discussion we are having in Malta right now? You know: the same discussion which was so dramatically – and brutally – catapulted right back to the very top of the national agenda, by the horrific rape and murder of Paulina Dembska on New Year’s Day…?

OK, by this point you might be seeing where all this is headed. For yes: like many other people, I was disconcerted (to say the least) to hear the Police Force so cavalierly dismissing the idea that this crime – regardless who committed it, by the way (not that I should really need to remind everybody, but… Abner Aquilina is still ‘innocent until proven guilty’, remember?) – was even ‘gender-related’ to begin with…

… for all the world as though – and this, believe it or not, is a direct quote from the police conference itself – “there was no specific targeting of the sex of the victim”…

…and even then: this happened just literally a few hours after the same Police Force had arraigned their prime suspect, specifically on charges of: not just murder, but also RAPE. (‘Vaginally, anally and orally’, please note – all details that emerge from the same bill of indictment)…._

I don’t know: it almost makes you wonder if those police officers even took any French classes at school at all…

But hey! Let’s not make the usual mistake of ‘jumping to conclusions.’ (Let’s try ‘pole-vaulting’ instead: it’s much faster, and more fun…)

For to give that police conference its full due: we were also assured that the results of this investigation – you know: the one that led the police to pre-emptively rule out any ‘gender-based’ motives, in this particular crime – will soon be ‘presented in court’.

I suppose we shall have to wait and see, then, how the prosecution will actually succeed in pulling off such an unlikely stunt. Because unless there’s something I’m missing, in all this: their job is now to secure a conviction for the (presumed) killer… when the Police themselves seem to arguing, prima facie, AGAINST the charges they themselves have only just pressed against him in court…

OK, let me try putting that another way. If, for argument’s sake, you found yourself charged with ‘murder’… but then, the prosecution insists that the crime you committed did NOT actually fit the definition of ‘murder’, in any legal context: on what grounds could you possibly be convicted?

And if – to extend that same reasoning – the police have only just charged Abner Aquilina with ‘rape’: a crime that is partly defined, in Maltese law, as “[…] non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration OF A SEXUAL NATURE [my emphasis]…”

… only to then around, and suddenly tell us that the same crime they just charged Aquilina with, was not actually ‘of a sexual nature’ at all…

… I’m sorry, but that only raises a whole bunch of other questions: such as… why did the police even bother charging Abner Aquilina with ‘rape’ in the first place? Or even ‘murder’, if it comes to it: because - let’s face it - if a rape of this magnitude is no longer even considered a ‘gender-based crime’, in the eyes of the police… then who knows? Maybe ‘murder’ doesn’t need to involve actually ‘killing people’, either…

But like I said, we shall have to simply wait and see. Meanwhile, there is another small problem that this press conference may also have inadvertently raised. Indeed, I’ve mentioned it already… it concerns how ‘other members of the same gender’ are likely to interpret those words (coming, as they do, from the police).

Bearing in mind that around 90% of Maltese women have already reported experiencing ‘sexual harassment’, of some kind or another, in this country; and that Malta practically tops the European charts for both domestic violence, and femicide (oh look: yet another woman’s been stabbed, just this very morning…. I mean, honestly now: who would have ever seen that one coming?)

In any case: put it all together, and I think you’ll find that it more or less neatly explains why so many Maltese women have so very clearly lost faith: not just in the ability of the local authorities, to protect them from violence against women… but even - I’m sorry to have to add - in their willingness to do precisely that.

But to try and end on a positive note, in spite of everything… at least, the sales of ‘pepper spray’ are up; and things have never looked better, for private gym instructors giving self-defence classes.

So there is, I suppose, a silver lining to absolutely everything in life…