It feels like rape has been everywhere lately. The issue of Julian Assange seeking asylum within the Ecuadorian embassy has placed it firmly upon the map. Normally, I would see raised awareness as a good thing. We need to highlight its too frequent presence within society in order to make a stand against rape culture. However, the recent discourse surrounding rape has supported this culture. There have been groups of Assange supporters outside of the embassy and many others speaking out in Assange’s defence. The general argument of those in support of Assange has been that the accusations of rape, and the desire to extradite Assange to Sweden, have been purely politically motivated. In so doing it is implied that the women accusing Assange of sexual violations must be liars.
I have seen it proposed that they were just being bitter and “crying rape” to get back at him. I’m sure we can all agree that this has been used as a defence by many perpetrators. It has been asserted that Assange is basically incapable of such acts. The messiah mythology which has sprung up around Assange illustrates him as incapable of any wrongdoing; reminiscent of the way in which many people find it impossible to believe that a friend or family member is capable of such acts. Finally, it has been contended that the women did not act in an appropriate manner for rape survivors. Alas there is no one correct way to behave after being raped. Some people will become incredibly introverted and avoid sex for a very long time. Some will go straight to the police and report the crime right away. However, some will become more extroverted after being raped. They will become “promiscuous”, seeking to reclaim their lost power, or to convince themselves that what happened to them was deserved. Furthermore, some people will not immediately disown their attacker; particularly if emotionally involved. Some people won’t even blame their attacker for the rape; they will blame themselves instead. Some people won’t even call it rape.
Those who excuse Assange’s alleged behaviour in this way support a culture that says it is okay for a person to have sexual encounters forced upon them. This culture is not some imaginary, abstract concept created by feminists. Studies have shown that one in five women will be the victim of sexual violence. In my experience I believe it is much higher. We live in a society where women are regularly sexually groped without their permission whilst in nightclubs. We live in a world where rape prevention is not considered to be challenging this culture, but instead proscribes certain outfits, buddy systems, and self-defence skills for women. This emphasis placed upon the victim is illustrated by the Canadian police officer Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s suggestion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts”, sparking the SlutWalk protest marches. This takes victim blaming to a new level, encouraging women to blame themselves.
Another argument that has been used in the Assange case is that, as proposed by George Galloway, these sexual offences don’t even constitute rape. Galloway’s argument was made on the basis that consent, once given, is given for life. He stated that, “Some people believe that when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes, and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you’re already in the sex game with them”. He admits that what Assange is alleged to have done is morally wrong, but he argues it is no more than “bad sexual etiquette”. In Galloway’s view of sexuality it is not rape to have sex with somebody who is unconscious, particularly if you have already had consensual sex with them. He dismissively believes these things “can happen, you know”. I’m sure that every person who has ever used a date rape drug in order to be able to have sex with a sleeping person will be pleased to know that there are those who will argue, in their defence, that sex with an unconscious person is morally ambiguous, rather than outright condemnable by all factions of society.
This question of whether an act of non-consenting sex can always legitimately be called rape has also been raised by the American Congressman, and Republican candidate for Senate, Todd Akin. In Akin’s view “legitimate” rape cannot end in pregnancy because, he argues, when a woman is legitimately raped her body will simply expel the products of conception. This is of course offensive to all rape survivors, especially those who have become pregnant as a result of their ordeal, but if we take this to its logical conclusion it must be questioned if he would also suggest that, for instance, young girls who are the victims of incestuous rape, and who become pregnant as a result, would be considered to have been consensual to the act. Is the alternative to his proposed “legitimate” rape, an “illegitimate” rape? This argument is similar to Ken Clarke’s gradations of rape, whereby he sought to determine “serious rape” from other “categories of rape”.
As long as rape culture continues we can never honestly state that women and men now have equality within our society. Whilst men can be, and are, the victims of rape, the frequency of rape and sexual violence against women reflects a trend within our society which reduces women to their sexual parts. Rape culture is being actively supported and perpetuated by a mixture of victim blaming and perpetrator apologism. Think about that for a minute: we blame the victims, and support the perpetrators. Both of these aspects have been reflected in the reactions to the Assange case. Rape is the only crime where this happens. This mythologizing of rape allows it to continue on such a large scale. Is it little wonder that many women do not feel empowered to report these crimes to the police, when this is the reaction they can expect from society?