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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.