Joan Smith

His celebrity friends need to wake up and relocate their moral compass.

Any woman who has to report a rape fears that she won’t be believed — with good reason. Conviction rates are low, and many cases don’t even get to court. Now, in a twist that even the most imaginative novelist would have been pushed to devise, the arrest of the film director Roman Polanski has prompted a fierce debate about what constitutes rape. Polanski fled to Europe to avoid jail more than three decades ago, and his celebrity supporters are jostling for a place on the airwaves to explain that what he did wasn’t “really” rape.

Foremost among them is the actor Whoopi Goldberg, who has introduced a whole new concept — “rape-rape” — into the debate: “I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.” It would be nice to think that she is alone in making this ludicrous distinction, but she isn’t. Others might not put it so crudely, but plenty of people are willing to excuse a sex attacker because what he did wasn’t “really” rape.

According to this line of thinking, it doesn’t count if any of the following circumstances apply: the victim knew her attacker, had been drinking or taking drugs, was wearing nice clothes, or agreed to go into a house with him. Thanks to Goldberg, we need a new vocabulary to deal with such cases; they’re not “rape-rape,” so we might decide instead to call them something less pejorative, such as “rape-lite.” Polanski didn’t want to spend time in prison for such a minor infraction.

Another celebrity supporter, the actor Debra Winger, has dismissed his conviction for statutory rape as “a three-decades-old case that is dead but for minor technicalities.”

She is furious, not just on behalf of Polanski himself but for the Zurich film festival, where he was due to receive a lifetime achievement award. “We stand by him and await his release and his next masterpiece,” she declared, joining a roll call of supporters which already encompasses government ministers, director Andrzej Wajda, and novelist Robert Harris.

It’s hard to believe any of these people are talking about a 44-year-old man who was alleged to have groomed a 13-year-old girl for sex, got her drunk, fed her a drug and raped her. The child testified to a grand jury that during a photo session in 1977 at the LA house of the actor Jack Nicholson (who wasn’t there at the time), Polanski encouraged the girl to drink champagne, got into a jacuzzi with her and persuaded her to take a sedative.

Then Polanski sent her to a bedroom. Drunk and terrified, she protested that she didn’t want to have sex, but Polanski took no notice and asked when her last period was. She couldn’t remember and he asked if she was on the pill. He performed further sex acts before the weeping girl got into his car and was driven home. Would that be rape? Or “rape-rape”?

Goldberg doesn’t know what happened between those two people, but the prosecutors thought they did, and Polanski was arrested on suspicion of rape, sodomy, child molestation and furnishing dangerous drugs to a minor. The charges were dropped only when the child “expressed in no uncertain terms that she wished to maintain her anonymity and avoid the further trauma” of a rape trial. Polanski agreed to plead guilty to the lesser offence of unlawful sex with a minor, statutory rape, but fled to France rather than risk facing sentencing. Now the past has caught up with him, and Polanski is facing extradition and the prison sentence he deserves. His supporters urgently need to locate their moral compass and stop making excuses for an unrepentant sex attacker. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

(Joan Smith is a novelist and author of Moralities.)