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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.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn
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

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.