Rape: By any other name

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This week George Galloway termed having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman “bad sexual etiquette” . Last summer Ken Clarke informed us all that there were different kinds of rape. Meanwhile in the US, politician Todd Akin has caused a furore in the last few days by his fairly bizarre views on how a woman’s body reacts to “legitimate rape”. Aside from Akin’s spurious scientific claims, the use of the word legitimate serves to highlight the assumption that many, if not the majority of these claims, are false.

The law surrounding sexual assault and rape is complex and limited. Many men seem unaware of the sheer amount of sexual harassment and assault women experience. In the UK, since the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, rape is penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus by a penis, where the victim has not given consent. However, the most controversial part of the definition, is that the perpetrator (A) must “not reasonably believe that B consents” . Of course this leads to difficult and complex cases – and clumsy language from politicians. Nonetheless they have a responsibility to educate themselves, to interact with people who know more than they do on these questions and learn on a personal as well as a political level. They represent us.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, is accused of having sex with a woman who was asleep and therefore unable to consent. Clarke’s hierarchy between some rapes and “the worst rape” (which it seems he believed were rapes including force) would presumably place Assange’s alleged crimes low on the list. This kind of discourse shows an incredible lack of sensitivity, but also a misunderstanding of the very concept of rape. Whilst a violent rape may be particularly harrowing for the victim, rape is about more than violence and force. Which is why psychological traumas tend to vastly outlive the physical ones.

Does Clarke think that being raped by someone you trust, someone you care about or someone you have a close relationship with is much less distressing? A man who decides a woman’s consent is unnecessary, who values her feelings so little he does not even wake her up before beginning sex, is committing a frightening and distressing violation.

This man, Assange, is also accused of having sex without a condom, with a woman who had not agreed to unprotected sex. Unprotected sex is dangerous, and perhaps more importantly, if lacking consent, it violates a woman’s authority over her own body. This kind of behaviour represents arrogance regarding sexual agency – the self-centred me-culture, which enables some to consider their sexual desires as the most important in the room. Men who do behave like this show no concern for what the woman wants sexually, her mental health following such a gross act of betrayal and exploitation, or indeed her physical health.

Which brings us back to George Galloway, who admitted that, regarding Assange,

“It might be really bad manners not to have tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘do you mind if I do it again?’”

Aside from the obvious mistake he makes in calling rape “bad manners”, this statement also reinforces the woman as passive sexual participant stereotype. Does Galloway consider sex something he does to a woman rather than with her? The “do you mind if I do it again?” question suggest he might. This idea of women as passive in sex leads to the impression that consent means a woman letting a man do what he wants. If this is what some people think, no wonder the grey areas in discussions about rape are sometimes so grey, that some come to believe that “No” can sometimes mean “Yes”.

However, most of all, the political hay which is made out of statements like Galloway’s is to be resented. Whilst, of course, it is important that people with views like his, and who hold his degree of power, are held to account (and hopefully never elected for anything again), it allows opposing politicians to focus on the rhetoric rather than policies. Whatever the Coalition government says about these comments almost doesn’t matter. The funding cuts to refuges and support programmes for vulnerable women says it all . The statements of these three politicians highlight how little is done by some in professional politics to ensure they genuinely understand rape and sexual assault. Until those at the top show a little more empathy and understanding, how can we expect to end victim blaming? How can we create an environment where victims can come forward and feel the law is on their side? Of course this will take policy change as well as better language, but how about, as a start, we stop creating a hierarchy of rape.

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