Politicians across the political spectrum have been wading into the debate about the definition of rape.
American Republican Todd Akin, who is running for Senate, made startling comments while discussing abortion. After drawing a breathtaking line between "legitimate rape" and ... well, what exactly only he knows, Akin demonstrated his poor grasp of human biology by stating that during rape, the female body naturally "shuts down" to prevent pregnancy.
Closer to home, Respect MP George Galloway commented on the case of Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning by Swedish police investigating two allegations of sexual assault. Galloway argued that the Wikileaks founder is the victim of a "set-up", but what drew a tsumani of outrage was his assertion that even if the allegations were true, the behaviour in question amounted to "bad sexual etiquette" rather than "rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it".
He was referring to the claim that one woman – after having consensual relations with Assange – woke to find him having sex with her again. Galloway argued that the alleged behaviour may have been "sordid" and "disgusting", but, as the couple were naked in bed and had already had sex, to call it rape was to dilute the meaning of the crime.
The MP's comments – which he later clarified – have been widely condemned. His own party leader, Salma Yaqoob, described them as "disappointing and wrong", adding that "rape occurs when a woman has not consented to sex".
Galloway may be right that many people wouldn't recognise the alleged events as rape, but thankfully we have moved on from the days when the term applied only to violent attacks by strangers, and when marital rape was considered impossible because a man couldn't steal what he already owned.
Allegations of rape should always be investigated. After all, if someone has felt violated enough to speak out then they have already made a judgement call on what has happened. Progress has been made in the way women are treated after reporting rape – an experience some have described as being as invasive and humiliating as the crime itself. But the prosecution rate remains pitifully low, and no-one embarks on such a potentially harrowing path for kicks.
In this country, under the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, establishing whether a rape has occurred involves deciding whether the defendant had a "reasonable" belief that the other party agreed to sex. So it's imperative that this issue of active consent becomes ingrained in the national psyche, and that people negotiating the minefield of sexual activity are clear about the boundaries.
This may mean asking questions such as: "If this person wakes to find me all over them, what will their reaction be?" Between the sheets, it is about knowing your partner well enough to be aware of the agreed boundaries, or, in a casual encounter where you cannot be sure, it's about clear, unambiguous communication.
To ensure this issue of active consent is foremost in people's minds, it needs to be discussed openly. Cue George Galloway. Sure, his comments on the Assange allegations may have been clumsy, and to many people they may be unpalatable. However, unlike Akin's wacky observations, they are perhaps not that uncommon amongst the general population and they should not be suppressed. If there are young men out there who hold similar views, surely it is better that they are aired and challenged in a public debate.
The question of what exactly constitutes rape is a highly emotive one. The last thing we need is a situation where open discussion on the subject is shut down.
The days of only ever sharing a bed with one partner for life are over. The world is more complicated and people's personal sexual boundaries are as unique as we are. Whether you find that a liberating or outrageous notion, it's a fact, and young people growing up now need guidelines about how to navigate the complicated world of intimate relations. They need to feel they can voice their feelings, ask questions, and challenge what they are told. Declaring it an absolute abomination every time a blundering politician wades in with unpalatable views will not achieve that.
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