Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Rape: Or why I am now a feminist

I just got back from holiday and I know that I promised quite a few days ago that I'd finish writing my series on the various Lib Dem "factions" but instead something else has come up. Which is why I'd like to talk about rape. TRIGGER WARNING.

You see, over the past few days, the case about Julian Assage and his alleged rape of two women in Sweden has caused a bountiful tide of sexism, misogyny and rape apologism to rear its ugly head.

Before we go any further, let's quickly establish some facts:

Firstly, I like Wikileaks. I think it's done incredible and amazing things that have shone a much needed spotlight onto the actions of governments across the world.

Secondly, Assange's own lawyer admits that he had sex with one woman while she slept (making her incapable of consenting) and that he physically held another woman down, forced her legs apart and tried to have sex with her. Assange and his lawyer can continue claiming all they like that that's not rape but the law of pretty much every non-dark age country would define that as rape.

Thirdly, anyone with an opinion on this subject should probably read the brilliant New Statesman article which outlines several myths about the Assange case. Seriously, go have a read of it - especially if you're planning on posting a comment below.

Now, as a consequence of Assange being wanted for arrest for rape charges, lots of people, generally on the left, have been rushing to defend him and to trivialise the accusations against him. We've had George Galloway MP say that forcibly attempting to penetrate a woman while she resists you isn't rape, it's just "bad sexual etiquette".

We've had Craig Murray, supposed human rights activist disclosing the names of one of the women involved live on Newsnight - when I sent him an email expressing my disgust he used the excuse that, as other people had already disclosed her name online it was okay for him to disclose her name live on television. Apparently not understanding, or not caring, that it's commonplace for rape victims to suffer disbelief and outright abuse and death threats simply for reporting their rape in the first place, let alone when it's an internationally known case with the alleged perpetrator having a devoted and fanatical following.

We've also had an American congressman, Todd Akin, come out and promote the myth that pregnancy doesn't happen in "legitimate rape" cases - the implication being that anyone who does get pregnant from rape wasn't the victim of "legitimate rape". This was then followed up by a Republican radio host interviewing Todd Akin saying that rape gave us some "great people", which apparently makes everything okay and the views of the rape victim concerned about what she wants to do with her own body aren't worth a damn.

And, of course, we have Assange and co arguing that if a woman has consented to sex with someone once then she no longer has the right to refuse consent at any point in the future.

Aong with all of this we've had lots of incredibly ugly, and usually well-hidden, misogyny come to surface absolutely everywhere where these events are being discussed - hundreds, thousands, of vile comments repeating utterly bonkers rape myths and denigrating and abusing rape victims.

So let me just say something:

Rape destroys lives.

Rape leaves people traumatised and feeling worthless. It leaves them feeling like their own body isn't theirs any more, that it doesn't matter what they want as anyone can just come along and take away their most fundamental rights. It's about power and control and fear. And unless you've been through it yourself, you can't comprehend or imagine what it feels like. I'm better informed about rape than most people and even I know that I can't begin to imagine what a rape victim goes through.

And the fact is that something like 1 in 3 women get raped in their lives. (CORRECTION: after some checking the actual figure from a randomised survey of women raped in their lives is 1 in 5) Many, many more get sexually assaulted or suffer attempted rape or sexual assault.

So out of my three female cousins on my mother's side of the family the odds tell me that one of them is likely to be raped at some point. I pray and hope that this doesn't happen and there's no reason to think that it's likely to happen to them but those are the odds that women have to live with every day of their lives.

As a man, I don't experience that, because the chances of me being raped are much, much lower. Male rape victims do exist, and often suffer problems of disbelief and isolation much worse then female rape victims, but  the odds of any individual man being rape are incredibly small. It's not something I have to worry about. If I walk home in the dark I might get worried about getting mugged but I don't have to be worried about rape or to have to worry about it every time I'm left alone in a lift with a leery member of opposite sex.

Rape victims are incredibly common. And the anguish they go through often haunts them all their lives, it's something it's pretty much impossible to escape from. That's the reality of rape. So imagine how it feels to them when thousands take to twitter and facebook and the airwaves to denigrate rape victims and to apologise for rapists.

And this is what people don't realise: when rape victims see so many people, often including those they'd liked, respected or thought of as friends, it's like a massive slap in the face. It feels like thousands of people are saying that what they experienced, the anguish they've been through, doesn't matter. It makes them relive what they've been through and makes them feel worthless and like no one believes them. It reminds them of all the times that they've been called a whore or a slut for getting rapes. So, to spell out what so many people seem determined to deliberately ignore:  BEING A RAPE APOLOGIST ACTIVELY HURTS PEOPLE.

So what I'm trying to say is that I know how utterly depressing and hurtful this all must seem to rape victims and women's rights campaigners. However, I want to let them all know that the work they do, the challenging of bigotry, the writing, the campaigning, it does make a difference.

I know this because I am now, for the first time in my life calling myself a feminist. I wouldn't have done even six months ago but I do now. My attitudes have utterly changed in the space of two years and especially in the last year. When I think back to what I might have said and, more importantly, what I thought two years ago I feel ashamed. I had a lot of misconceptions about sexual equality and rape and I believed a whole load of myths. I thought that rape was bad but I also bought into a head deskingly large amount of victim blaming bullshit. I'm really not proud of it at all.

But, thanks various people who kept on drawing attention to the reality of rape and to the reality of gender inequality, I do now consider myself a feminist. In particular I'd like to thank Jennie Rigg for consistently linking to valuable different sources of facts about rape and the realities that rape victims experience via her blog.

However, the big push which really moved me from being a feminist in all but name (e.g. believing in gender equality and recognising that their is a significant amount of entrenched sexism left in our society) to now being happy to use the label is actually the current events around Assange. Because when an MP denies a fundamental concept about rape and insists that a woman's consent is not always needed in order for it not to be rape, when a so-called human rights activist broadcasts the name of a rape victim on television, and when thousands of people pour out victim blaming, misogynistic crap on twitter and in comment threads, it's pretty damn obvious that feminism is still needed and that it needs more people to be proud to use that label.

So I am now a feminist. And I owe it all to the people who keep on fighting, keep on campaigning and keep on confronting people with the ugly realities of prejudice no matter how discouraging and dispiriting. What they're doing does make a difference. And I'm proud to consider myself living proof of that.

P.S. GO AND READ THIS - it's long, but very important.

P.P.S. Any comment I see where someone discloses an alleged rape victim's name or uses the term "Feminazi" non-ironically will be deleted.


  1. Really good piece, George. Although, to be honest, I'd have had you down as a feminist before now:-).

    This is so heartfelt and well put and I especially like the way you described how being an apologist for rape is harmful and is a total slap in the face for women who have been raped. When they see doubt in the faces of their own friends and family, those they trust most, it must be horrendous. Rape is the only crime where the victim takes the brunt of the blame.

    Re Wikileaks, I am not as much of a fan as you are. I think it's an Assange ego project rather than an attempt to improve the world, and there's no doubt that releasing some of the information was irresponsible.

  2. * hug *

    Thank you for giving me hope.

  3. You're right; Jennie is fantastic.

    This is the first thing I read after writing something about how important it is to speak out against rape and not let people assume they think all the right things.

    It's so powerful to read about the journey you've been on, your willingness to admit that there was a time when you didn't think what you now do. I think that's true for everybody but a lot of us are hesitant to admit to not having always been the perfect people we now are ;)

  4. Good piece, though I would never be able to call myself a feminist. One point though, I believe assange is trying to claim that because the women consented AFTER they had not consented, in retrospect, that it can't be rape. Which is insane, of course. Maybe I'm wrong, in either case it seems he's terribly in the wrong.

  5. I think Lee is right about Assange's explanations. Apparently after she woke up she consented to sex with him. It raises the question, which I don't have the answer to, that if you assume someone consents to sex and turn out to be correct, is it rape seeing as you didn't get consent?

    Of course this doesn't detract from the other charge which feels a lot less ambiguous.

  6. What if a husband (non-estranged) has sex with his wife while she is sleeping, is that also rape? What if a wife wakes up her husband with oral sex, is that a sex assault?

    I tend to think in those cases there are better established assumptions about consent which don't apply in the Assange case (based on what is presented above) where he is said to have had sex with the activist only once before, but I would be interested to know if others broadly share my line of thinking on that.

    Isn't the crime of trying to penetrate a woman who is resisting attempted rape rather than rape (also a serious and extraditable offence).

    1. To answer your first example, yes. To answer your second example, yes as well.

      Personally, if I were in a sexual relationship with someone I would make it clear to them that yes, I am perfectly happy with being woken up with sex. That kind of discussion to determine sexual boundaries should be commonplace any adult relationship.

      In particular in this case, a key fact is that both women had made it quite clear to Assange that they wanted protected sex. In the first instance he waited until she was asleep and then had unprotected sex with her and in the second case he forcibly held her down, tried to have sex with her and prevented her from trying to reach for a condom. While there might be a grey area when it comes to sexual activity while a partner is asleep, the contraception issue makes it much more black and white in the Assange case.

    2. I don't even slightly want my view construed in this way. The facts laid out by his defence layer is the woman previously said no sex without a condom. He woke her with sex without a condom. She may then have consented after a falling out of sorts. This is, to my mind, simply rape. He did something he knew he shouldn't. It's not in the same league as a husband and wife that know the boundaries of what is acceptable sexual behaviour with each other in advance and stick to each others wishes

  7. This isn't about rape. And what the US politician Akin said has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Julian Assange.

    This is about the state trying to get away with the most transparently obvious dirty tricks. There is nothing in this case that even vaguely represents a coherent allegation of rape, let alone a charge, and the facts are well known to all.

    It's not about feminism, not about rape. It's about the grotesque misuse of state power. And it's about the absolutely jaw-dropping fact that some people will fall for a lie from the state, no matter how ridiculous.

    1. Clearly someone hasn't read the Myths article I linked to at the beginning of the article. Or the article itself for that matter. Come back when you have.

  8. "I know that I can't begin to imagine what a rape victim goes through"

    I don't think this can be stressed enough.

    I'll never really fully understand the brutality of rape - and it's important to realise that this is particularly true because I'm male. I can't fully get a grip on how traumatic it would be to awaken and find myself in the middle of non-consensual penetrative sex. There's no way around this. We have to accept that we can't fully appreciate the true nature of this crime. We should acknowledge that this will always be a bit of a Rumsfeld 'known unknown'.

    Clearly some men arrogantly think they understand rape more than it's possible for them to. It's understandable how they end up decreeing some types of non-consensual sex as rape and others not. I hasten to add - that's no excuse. They ought to realise and accept that they aren't in a position fully decide this. But I think this is the trap George Galloway and Tony Benn have fallen into.

  9. This debate is now getting quite worrying. I think any sexual assault is appalling and utterly repulsive, and perpetrators should be brought to justice and feel the full force of the law. But I also think torture and inhuman treatment is appalling and utterly repulsive. The question perhaps should be, what penalty should a rapist face? In the UK our law says imprisonment for a number of years determined by a court. That's NOT what Julian Assange faces. He faces the prospect of solitary confinement for life, or possibly worse. Do the people who think he should be extradited want to revert to Old Testament treatment of offenders? Before declaring all who think he should NOT be extradited rape apologists, consider this, 'a society can be defined by how it treats its prisoners'. Are we really happy, irrespective of how terrible the offence, to see offenders waterboarded and sleep-deprived? Kept in solitary for decades? This is a real prospect for JA, and I would argue that he should face justice, real justice, but not Old Testament retribution. Our choice will define the future society we live in. Railing from the rooftops isn't the way we should decide this.

    1. Julian Assange faces the prospect of a trial in Sweden, under Swedish law, for an alleged crime, which took place in Sweden.

      I'm fairly certain that Assange isn't facing life in solitary confinement if he were convicted of rape under Swedish law and, even if he was, then the solution would be not to rape people in Sweden.

      You see, you're confusing extraditing him to the US with extraditing him to Sweden to stand trial for the rape charges.

      Extraditing him to the US, given the potential penalties Assange faces, is illegal under both national Swedish law and European law as a whole. In fact, he is more likely to be extradited from the UK than he is from Sweden.

      But, more importantly, you are completely missing the point.

  10. "I believe assange is trying to claim that because the women consented AFTER they had not consented, in retrospect, that it can't be rape."

    I've read the myths article, which explained that one woman was raped in her sleep, and so not given the chance to consent. This is the third option - consent, refusal, was not able to form or express an opinion. Only the first is not rape. Consent cannot be given after the fact. Equally it cannot be withdrawn after the fact.

    Btw, the second woman according to the myth article description was sexually assaulted, rather than raped. It's a fine distinction, but as I understand it, it is the act of penetration that is relevant.

    Oh, and men can also be raped, though it's less common at 1 in ten men.
    "male rape did not exist in the eyes of UK law until 1994. Before this, male rape was classified as indecent assault. "

    1. Swedish law has varying degrees of rape/sexual assault - my understanding that both of his alleged crimes fall under the same particular crime name in Sweden which doesn't technically translate as rape.

      Under English law you are quite right in saying that he would be facing a charge of rape and a charge of sexual assault.

  11. Caron, Jennie, Holly and Lee, thanks very much :)

  12. Thanks for the link to the New Statesman article which seems quite factual.

    But in your blog you say that Assange said "a woman has consented to sex with someone once then she no longer has the right to refuse consent at any point in the future."

    You also alleges that Galloway said "forcibly attempting to penetrate a woman while she resists you isn't rape, it's just "bad sexual etiquette"."

    I am happy to be proven wrong but that is not in any way what I read either of them to have said?

    1. No, I did not say that they had said that. If I had then I would have used quote marks. Instead I am paraphrasing, in my opinion fairly accurately, the arguments which they made.

    2. I have now listened to the entire Galloway video and in my opinion your "paraphrasing" is nothing but a shameful lie by you and in the interests of honesty you should have the courage to withdraw it.

      The man said absolutely no such thing. Whilst I personally find his style and some of his politics really irritating, I still believe one should treat one's political opponent with respect and honesty.

  13. I am the same anonymous who asked before about whether the wife waking up the husband with oral sex was an assault. I think it is true that people should talk about these things in advance in which case the answer is simple - you go with what the person has already said, but in the case where people haven't (not all adult relationships are conducted in quite the grown-up fashion they should be), it would still be grossly unfair to jail the wife. I think when you are married (or in a long term relationship) then the boundaries are different and as long as the wife's best guess is that he would consent then its ok (remember wives are allowed to make best guesses about whether or not their husbands would consent to organ removal, having life support turned off and all kinds of other things) and even if she judges it wrong (let's say the husband is actually planning to leave her and move out to his mistress's that day) she still hasn't done anything morally wrong - and nor should it be legally wrong. I don't claim to know at what point you start being able to make such best guesses on behalf of another person, clearly Assange having met these women a few days previously is not a case where that would be legitimate, but I think you reach a point where that is legitimate (and it's probably before you get married). Apart from the sleep examples I think it is fairly normal when couples live together for one to sneak up behind the other (for example the other is doing the washing up) and grab them - perhaps including some sexual touching - again, within the framework of a relationship longer than the ones in the Assange case I don't think this is sexual assault.

    I see you have changed the stat on 1/3 or 1/5. Isn't a possible explanation for the difference in that you suggest 1/5 is those who have been raped up to now, whereas you present 1/3 as including those who are statistically likely to be raped in the future (presumably assuming no change in the prevalence of the crime)?

    The myths article is great but it doesn't address what for me is the strongest point in the Assange case (and I mean this as a member of the public who has heard a bit over the last few months from the media but doesn't claim to know everything), that the woman are said to have made Twitter posts the next day saying they were having a great time with Assange for example ('Julian wants to go to a crayfish party, anyone have a couple of available seats tonight or tomorrow? #fb') which they were caught out deleting by the google cache and that the case was dropped by the regular prosecutor, before being resurrected by the equivalent of the attorney general.

    1. The case wasn't just resurrected, their lawyer appealed the decision to drop the case, and won. Also please stop assuming that because people are publicly showing happiness that it doesn't mean they were a victim. Please go and see just about any early stage domestic abuse victim and realise how damaging that view can be.

    2. I stand corrected about the resurrection of the case. Pro-Assange posters are also saying the women didn't make a complaint to the police (they asked for advice and the police started the case on their own) as a way to avoid later prosecution for making a malicious complaint. What's your take on that?

      I know victims of domestic violence do try to show a happy face to the outside world, you're right about that, but Miss A was not in an abusive relationship. She'd had a one-night stand with some guy up to that point, her twitter post doesn't look like putting on a brave face for the outside world, it looks like setting up a second date with her supposed attacker.

  14. Well said George. It's really worrying how so many over on Lib Dem Voice support his attempts to avoid an open hearing. Sweden is a country with a fair legal system and an open press (unlike Ecuador).

    Believe it or not there are even those stating that whatever his guilt he should avoid trial because of his "important work".

    As a Father of one daughter and with another due to be born next month, it makes me feel sick that people can hold such views about a women's right to choose when, what and with whom she consents. I hope the people of Bradford remember their MP's views come the next GE.

  15. Just fond your blog and this post wa iell said so I am going to look at what else you have to say.

    P.s don't know I you remember me from Surrey uni but u you have Facebook would be fun to catch up

  16. I agree with you on Assange, and the terrible incidence of rape and assault.

    I just weep slightly at the idea that thinking like that makes you a "feminist" rather than just possessing unremarkable background levels of good and nice.

    1. I don't consider myself a feminist because of my views on rape and assault - I think that, as you say, means I possess "unremarkable background levels of good and nice".

      I consider myself a feminist because I believe in equality between the sexes. However, I have only started using the label feminist as a result of the current rape apologism convincing me that if attitudes are this bad then people like me who disagree with those attitudes and consider them abhorrent can't afford to shy away from using a label like "feminist".

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