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.