Rape 101

Ooookay. Thanks, the internet. I’d got most of my column written at about half seven last night – wasn’t about much, had a few jokes. And then Twitter informed me that some Missouri Republican Congressman I’d never heard of had been talking about rape and abortion. There’s a sentence that never bodes well for your evening.


It’s tempting to dismiss the stupid things some American politicians say about rape with a simple, heartfelt expression of relief that we don’t live there. However, Akin’s attempt to specify ‘legitimate’ rape is an uncomfortable reminder of Ken Clarke’s ‘classic rape‘ comments of last year. It also blends in well with the comments of some Assange supporters, on Twitter and elsewhere. These include both those whom we might have hoped to hold to a higher standard (oh, former Python Terry Jones. You spent so long dressed as a woman – I’d thought you might have had more sympathy for real ones) and those who sadly fail to surprise us. The opinions of George Galloway (from about 20 minutes in, if you haven’t seen it and you’re in the mood to be enraged) would be far easier to laugh off if we didn’t have to deal with the fact that, like Rep. Akin, the guy’s an elected representative. And unlike Akin, he technically represents a constituency in this country, even if he hasn’t been there since he was elected. It looks like it might be time to dust off the ‘Rape 101’ textbooks once again.


1 – Julian Assange is accused of rape. I thought this whole ‘it was only sex without a condom!’ thing was cleared up by now, but I’ve still been seeing tweets to that effect over the weekend. You can read a list of the accusations here, but to summarise: he’s accused of holding a woman down in order to have sex with her, penetrating a woman in her sleep, and having sex without a condom against the woman’s wishes.


I know that doesn’t in any way mean he did it, but suggestions that he’s only wanted under a quirk of the Swedish legal system need to stop.


Besides which, ‘sex without a condom’ is hardly a trivial affair, as this account from the F-Word blog demonstrates. There’s a massive difference between ‘consenting to sex’ and ‘consenting to potential HIV and/or babies’.


2 – with reference to the fact that Assange is accused of raping a woman while she slept: you do not invite sex by being asleep next to someone. If you were walking down a dark street alone, someone might reasonably comment that you could have taken more steps to ensure your safety. They’d be unlikely to claim they assumed you wanted to be stabbed.


If you’re in bed with another person, here’s what you need to do to prevent a rape occurring: don’t rape them.


3 – The fact that a person has done some things you agree with does not make them incapable of rape. Sad but true.


4 – moving on from Assange to Akin, apparently it’s necessary to explain that you can get pregnant by being raped. The idea that the female reproductive system shuts down during rape is far from new, so if you’ve been labouring under this illusion allow me to rob you of it: you’re thinking of ducks. Conception is easier for ducks if it happens during consensual sex, for reasons related to their corkscrew-shaped vaginas and ballistic penises. When it comes to humans, however, a 1996 study found that an estimated 32,101 pregnancies occur as a result of rape every year in the US, and concluded that ‘Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.’


5 – there’s no such thing as legitimate rape. When Akin said this, he didn’t mean ‘legitimate’ as in ‘acceptable’. What a relief, right? Until you realise that what he meant by ‘legitimate rape’ was ‘rape I’m prepared to believe happened’. We’re back at Ken Clarke’s notion that rape only happens when a strange man leaps out of the bushes, possibly armed, and forces himself on a woman (the only difference being: Ken never tried to claim that at this point the woman’s cervix slams shut), and that in every other circumstance, rape is a misunderstanding.


In American politics, the definition of rape is important in healthcare as well as in the justice system. Last year, you might remember, Republicans including Akin tried to further limit the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, with a bill which initially specified that abortion would only be funded in cases of ‘forcible’ rape. (‘Forcible’, incidentally, was part of Ken Clarke’s limited definition, too.) That would have ruled out Medicaid assistance for abortions resulting from: statutory rape, drug rape, date rape, rape of women with limited mental capacity, and possibly, given that many states don’t have a legal definition of ‘forcible rape’ (perhaps because it’s, y’know, a tautology), all rapes in those states.


In the end the Republicans bowed to pressure and took the ‘forcible rape’ bit out of the bill. But the concept keeps returning, so prevalently that I’m starting to become seriously concerned about sex education, here as well as in the States. Keep saying it until it sticks: sex without consent is rape. How is that so hard to understand?


This post originally appeared on LabourList.

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