IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn listens during his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn listens during his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York

Rape, while not a pleasant topic for civilised society to talk about, is all over the news this week.

Just days after the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape, the British Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has come under fire for making comments on rape that have not gone down well.

In a BBC radio interview this morning Mr Clarke, a former lawyer, distinguished between date rape and statutory rape and what he described as "serious rape with violence".

Later in the day the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, called on Prime Minister David Cameron to fire Mr Clarke before the end of the day for suggesting that some rapes are "serious" while others are not. The Prime Minister insisted that he had not heard the interview before adding that he considered rape to be "one of the most serious crimes there is".

Mr Clarke, who is not usually deserving of sympathy and is well known for speaking his mind, may have been unfortunate in this case to have been speaking as a former lawyer rather than as a media-aware politician.

He is in a sense right that what is legally defined as rape could be argued to vary in seriousness. He cited as an example how consensual sex between a 17 year old and a 15 year old is classed as rape and suggested that this may not be quite as serious a crime as a violent attack. Legally speaking of course he could have reduced age gap from two years to two days if he had wanted, if the hypothetical crime had been committed just before the victim's birthday.

As a result of his carless use of the highly charged word rape, Mr Clarke faces the possibility that he may lose his current job, if not today, then at the next reshuffle.

By contrast the accusations against Mr Strauss-Kahn, while serious in any case, are made to seem less so by more careful deployment of the R word.

The headlines all speak of "attempted rape", which in itself is bad enough, especially when one considers the trauma of the violent attack the victim was allegedly subjected to and yet, attempted rape might be considered better than actual rape. After all the victim escaped with her dignity intact didn't she?

Yet the victim alleges that not only did Mr Strauss-Kahn unsuccessfully try to rape her, but that he successfully forced her into performing oral sex on him. Bizarrely, forcing someone to perform oral sex is not technically considered to be rape but results in a charge of performing an "illegal sex act".

One imagines that for the victim being forced to give a complete stranger oral sex might possibly be more traumatic and degrading than the memory of a failed rape attempt, although there might not be much to choose between the two. In any case she probably feels worse off than Mr Clarke's fictitious 15-year-old victim.

Despite this it is the "attempted rape" which gets the headlines, rather than the rather vague sounding but arguably more distressing "illegal sex act".

So it is that thanks to the legal definitions of what is and is not rape Kenneth Clarke seems to be getting (only slightly) worse than he deserves, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged crimes are played down in the media, but thankfully not by the New York Police Department.