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4th October 2012

“Oh, but it wasn’t rape-rape…”

As George Galloway announces he is suing the NUS for libel, in wake of his being described by them as a “rape denier”, Emma Bean examines the culture of murky understandings of rape.

The world is awash with what can politely be described as misunderstandings of what constitutes rape and what consent actually is. Whenever conversations on the topic spring up, the most marvellously, shockingly incorrect things are too often said, “well, that wasn’t proper rape, they were really drunk” , “to avoid being raped, women shouldn’t dress like sluts”, “they might not have said yes, but they didn’t say no all that much either” .

Let’s just add some clarity with the actual, legal definition of rape. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines rape as: A is guilty of rape if he intentionally penetrates the vagina, mouth or anus of A (the complainant) with his penis, if B does not consent to the penetration and A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

The definition of consent is an important provision within the act also, defined as “if she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”. Freedom and capacity are two words that are particularly pertinent, for the sort of rapes that Todd Akin would perhaps not define as “legitimate”. The majority of rape and sexual assault occurs within relationships, where real free choice could certainly be easily diminished.

Abusive and coercive relationships, such as those featured in the recent home office campaign aimed at young people which tries to highlight these rapes, are a particularly common sort of rape. They’re not the down-a-dark-alley-way “forcible rapes” that Paul Ryan recognises, but they represent a far more common sort of rape that shows an incredibly harmful side to power structures within relationships, where the victims are coerced into sex.

If we look at power structures within relationships and the world more broadly, we see that it is women who are more likely than men to be on the receiving end of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and the two are often inextricably linked. The act of rape has been used as an act of exerting dominance and power over a person or conquered group since the year dot, and it would be incorrect to consider rape and sexual based abuse and violence outside of this historical and societal context. For a man to be raped by another man is an act intended to emasculate and make him ‘less of a man’. Though of course, the current legal definition of rape is rather too couched in heteronormative understandings of sexual encounters to entirely deal with the issue of relationship based abuse or sexual abuse more broadly. One of the highest risk groups for such things is the Trans and Queer community, and of course in same sex relationships issues relating to sexual and domestic violence can occur. In opposite sex relationships, men can be subject to abuse and this is something that is often ignored in legislature, and is also of course very damaging.

If we look at the culture of ‘slut-shaming’, victim blaming and the Slutwalk movement inspired by some distressing comments from a Canadian police officer, we see a culture where victims of sexual violence and harassment are told to accept it, that they should hold some of the blame and that they should be ashamed of their own choices regarding their sexuality. This is just a further continuation of positively medieval notion of sexual morality, that women are the gate keepers of propriety in the face of men’s uncontrollable all encompassing sexual desires and that if men should see even the slightest hint of the ‘feminine form’ that they can no longer be held responsible for their actions. Put quite simply, in addition to being incredibly offensive to all of humanity whatever their gender identity, this just doesn’t make a single scrap of sense when we look at the actual legal definition of rape. Or to quote a particularly good Slutwalk placard “a dress is not a yes”.

This culture is something that affects women, the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) community and the whole of society not just in terms of sexual assault but also when you look at how common street harassment is, and how people are told quite categorically that they should just accept it, that they should regard it as a compliment, and that it is something that isn’t worthy of police time.

This quite simply is not good enough, and trivialising this so is very offensive, not just to those who are the victims but for men who this logic suggests are nothing more than animals driven solely by their reproductive urges.

One in four women students will be victims of sexual assault. If the figures can so stark amongst a group that is most likely one of the most educated in the importance of gender relations and liberal thinking, the sort of people who recognise that being outwardly homophobic or racist would be most certainly wrong, how bad must it be amongst other groups?

Whilst the UK is no longer at the stage of say America, where basic abortion provision is something that still needs to be fought for, there are still some very serious issues that need to be dealt with that hinder women’s liberation. For consent, sexual autonomy and rape to be so broadly misunderstood and misrepresented across almost all of society is truly distressing and shows how much more needs to be done.


Emma Bean

Emma Bean

Middle Eastern studies at the University, originally from North Yorkshire

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