Since Todd Akin revealed that he had skipped an essential biology class, we’ve all been thinking about rape. Akin’s comments have mostly been met with a mixture of anger and ridicule. Women and men from the United States and elsewhere were forced to compute a new level of ignorance (if not audacity).
Thankfully, the debate about the female reproductive system that Akin plain old invented was shut down pretty quickly, and the Senate candidate released a video apology for using the wrong words. His make-believe idea that women have an inbuilt defense system that stops them from becoming pregnant if they’ve been raped would have been dangerous if its logic was followed to the end. As Ilyse Hogue mused in a Nation article entitled The Danger of Laughing at Todd Akin, “This bizarre standard of innocence is reminiscent of medieval Europe, where the men in authority held the similarly scientific view that women guilty of witchcraft floated in water while innocent women would drown.”
Akin’s use of the word “legitimate” will arguably have longer-term (if subtle and immeasurable) repercussions than his easily debunked magical medical thinking. Outrage over Akin’s term “legitimate rape” has been, rightfully, widespread. This week both the New York Times and the New Yorker published pieces written by editors that noted the significance of Akin’s qualifying adjective.
In her blog, Close Read, senior New Yorker editor Amy Davidson asked, “What is ‘illegitimate rape'”? Akin offered some idea when he cosponsored a bill that tried to change language about federal funding for abortions for victims of “rape” to cover only “forcible rape.” And on Monday the New York Times published an editorial explaining that though Akin’s comments had proved embarrassing for many Republicans, his views fit with beliefs of the party’s abortion opponents. Many claim that women who are not really raped would abuse a rape exception to get abortions.
As Hogue notes in her Nation article, there have been many historical attempts to redefine rape for political reasons. “Not really raped” has changed meaning over the years. In 1993 North Carolina became the last U.S. state to get rid of the “marital rape exemption,” which meant that a husband could not be guilty of raping his wife. Before that, “I do” actually meant, “I do-agree-to-have-sex-with-you-at-any-time-until-one-of-us-dies-or-we-get-divorced.”
Another debate about what “really raped” and “not really raped” means is going on at the moment over the four allegations made against Julian Assange by two women in Sweden. These include one allegation that Assange had unprotected sex with a woman without her knowledge (she had specified that she only wished to have sex if a condom was used) and another accusing Assange of beginning sex with a woman who was asleep.
Yesterday the Times published an op-ed written by Michael Moore and Oliver Stone called WikiLeaks and Free Speech. The lauded left-wing filmmakers argued that since they believe WikiLeaks to be an important and worthy project, Ecuador, in granting Assange diplomatic asylum in its London embassy, “has acted in accordance with important principles of international human rights.” Presumably, the rights of the women who have accused Assange of sex crimes to see him fairly brought to justice are not covered by Moore and Stone’s version of international human rights. They introduced the allegations using a patronizing mansplaining tone: “Most Americans, Britons and Swedes are unaware that Sweden has not formally charged Mr. Assange with any crime. Rather, it has issued a warrant for his arrest to question him about allegations of sexual assault in 2010.” Legal expert David Allen Green had already addressed this point and other confusions surrounding the case for the New Statesman on Monday. “[T]o those who complain that Assange has not yet been charged,” he wrote, “the answer is simple: he cannot actually be charged until he is arrested.” The rest of Moore and Stone’s piece is based on the logic of the myths that Green’s post debunks.
By failing to take the allegations against Assange seriously, Moore and Stone have not acted extraordinarily. In 2010, when the case first became public, Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation that “when it comes to rape, the left still doesn’t get it.” At the time, Michael Moore was spreading unsubstantiated rumors that the women who filed the rape charges were lying. Now he’s using easily addressed concerns about the legal process to draw conspiratorial conclusions, altogether sidestepping the question of whether Assange should have to face the allegations at all.
It gets worse. British MP George Galloway, a founding member of the Respect Party (formed in 2004 to serve as a left-wing alternative to the mainstream parties), defended Assange this week on the grounds that starting to have sex with someone who is asleep (and therefore unable to consent) does not constitute rape but merely “bad sexual etiquette.” Since Assange had already had consensual sex with his accuser, Galloway argued, he had free rein to do it again. In terms of the law, his comment is factually inaccurate, but its logic was in tune with victim-blamers who use women’s behavior to discount their right to complain if they are sexual assaulted. Victims of rape in situations that fall outside of the “Innocent Virgin in White Dress Raped by Red-Eyed Maniac in a Back Alley”—in other words, most rape victims—are often publicly scrutinized as if they are the ones on trial. Unless Assange’s accusers truly are on the CIA dole, it is difficult to believe that they looked forward to much of the response to their allegations.
It?s easy to condemn the theoretical separation of “legitimate” rape and “illegitimate” rape, or “forcible” rape and merely coercive rape, but it is important to apply this condemnation to difficult real-life situations, too. It is possible to believe that Assange should not be extradited to the United States while believing that—as a man accused of rape and sexual assault—he should have to face the allegations against him in accordance with the law, in Sweden. As well as being an under-convicted crime, rape is also one of the most under-reported crimes. If Assange is allowed to get away without facing proper investigation, and people who should know better continue to apologize for him, a message will be sent to men and women around the world that rape can be excused in certain circumstances involving certain people. This ambiguity is offensive and confusing. As President Obama said in response to Akin’s comments, “rape is rape,” and it should always be treated as such.