What people who talk about "legitimate rape" really mean

At the heart of both the Julian Assange and Todd Akin debates are some very questionable assumptions about what constitutes rape.

These days it’s getting harder and harder for those who want to deny rape. Gone are the good ol’ days when rape within marriage was legal. Or when we thought that all rapes were conducted by men jumping out of bushes dressed in a macintosh. But now, largely thanks to the tireless campaigning of anti-rape organisations and survivors themselves, we’re all a bit more educated. Instead now, rape apologists have to do such intellectual acrobatics, such feats of biological nonsense and such breath-taking disregard for due process and the rule of law that it’s a wonder they can still stand up straight.

The most recent was Terry Jones taking to Twitter to claim that “Not wearing a condom is not a crime in this country” in reference to the new global hit - Julian Assange: The Soap Opera. Yesterday, US Representative Todd Akin reinvented female biology by telling us that we can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape”. But there is a rich history of rape being redefined to suit the occasion; whether it is former Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s concession that victims of “honest rape” can get an abortion or the Roman Polanski rape of a 13 year-old which wasn’t "rape-rape".   

All of these manoeuvres have an ulterior motive - either to outlaw abortion in all circumstances or to exonerate an accused celebrity. What they can all draw on and feed is the belief that there is “bad rape” and “excusable-under-the-circumstances-well-not-really-very-rapey rape”. While we roll our collective eyes on the issue of abortion and say “Well that’s the Christian Right in America for you”, the defence of some Grand Men uses the same intellectual dishonesty.

It is dishonest because it is 50 years since the sexual revolution and yet some still relegate women’s rights at the first sign of trouble.

The attack on sexual and reproductive rights is continuous and sustained despite all the medical and scientific evidence which proves how fundamental to men and women’s lives they are. Women, and therefore society, are healthier and more prosperous when women and men can access contraception, sexual health information, safe and legal abortion, and are able to refuse sex and insist on condoms. We know this. We know that myths propagated globally about condoms which in turn contribute to high HIV/AIDs rates. We know that women not being able to insist on condom use leads to higher STI infections and unwanted pregnancies. We know that women and men should be able to insist on when and how they have sex without coercion. And yet when a woman alleges that a request to use a condom was refused in Sweden then, well, it’s not treated as a credible rape allegation.

Assange supporters need to deploy mind-bending feats to dismiss these allegations. They need to forget everything they know about sexual rights, about sexual equality, about due process, about the rule of law and about justice. When this becomes uncomfortable, they have to rely on the great "USA Narrative"; that this is all a plot to get Assange to the USA to stand trial. This Narrative means that these women's justice is just not that important when global politics is involved. It means that we must presume an extradition where no extradition has been requested because of this narrative.

Julian Assange may well be at risk of an unfair trial in the US, but this doesn’t trump the investigation of rape accusations. Roman Polanski has made some fantastic films, but this doesn’t trump him serving time for raping a 13 year-old. Dominique Strauss-Kahn may be a darling of the French Left, but this doesn’t trump the repeated accusations of sexual violence against him.

Similarly, if you are against abortion in all circumstances then rape is a bit tricky for you. The emotional appeal to the “unborn child” and denigration of “callous, wanton women” who have abortions is somewhat undermined when the pregnancy has been caused through sexual violence. When you want to compound a violation against a woman by continuing to undermine her bodily autonomy. But you can often spot a hard-line fundamentalist position when you see someone having to resort to mind-boggling often surreal justifications. Todd Akin, a Republican senatorial candidate in the US, claimed that women rarely get pregnant from rape but instead: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Firstly, I worry for the state of biology education when a current Member of the House of Representatives thinks that human female anatomy is more akin to a mallard duck. But the important word in the Representative’s comment was “legitimate rape”, implying that if you get pregnant from rape then you clearly wanted it. Good rape victims don’t get pregnant, see?

Both the idolisation of accused celebrities and attacks on sexual and reproductive rights drive and deepen the undermining of what rape is and the undermining of its victims. This is as dangerous for male victims of rape as female as it makes any survivor less likely to go to the police when they see how the subject of rape is treated in public discourse. Who would blame a victim from refusing to come forward when they see others subjected to internet witch-hunts, the posting of their names and personal information, and the constant insinuation that they are liars and sluts?

If you find yourself needing to do intellectual somersaults to justify a rape or semantic back-flips to refine rape, then you might want to consider whether all your principles are so flexible.


Dominique Strauss-Kahn: a darling of the French Left, but this doesn’t trump the repeated accusations of sexual violence against him. Photograph: Getty Images

Naomi McAuliffe has led the Stop Violence Against Women campaign for Scotland as well as working at various times campaigning on refugee rights, electro-shock Taser weapons, extraordinary rendition, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, China and the death penalty. She tweets as @NaomiMc and blogs here.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.