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Leader: We must not dismiss or diminish allegations of rape

Rape happens everywhere. It is happening today in Syria, as the Assad government’s thugs rampage and humiliate, and as a weapon of war in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It happened in mass rape camps in Bosnia in the 1990s. It happens to women and to men and to children. In June, it happened to a 14-year-old boy in a department store in Manchester. It happens on one-night stands and in marriages. It happens between strangers and friends.

No one can say for sure how many rapes happen every day, because the shame and stigma that surround the crime prevent many victims from going to the police. There seems to be a widespread misconception about rape victims. If a woman, the “perfect rape victim” is a virgin or, at least, monogamous. She does not wear short skirts or low-cut tops. She does not drink to excess or walk alone at night. She does not have sex with a man once and then change her mind. She is raped violently and knows instantly that she must report the crime. She does not wrestle with her experiences or wonder if a man she has previously liked and trusted can have invaded her body without her consent. She remembers every detail perfectly, despite the trauma she has been through, and can still recall it with perfect clarity many months later, when – or if – the case comes to court. If a rape victim breaches any of these unwritten rules, she is liable to be dismissed.

English law is clear about what constitutes rape: the intentional penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with a penis, if that person does not consent to the penetration and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the person consents. Consent to a previous sexual act does not matter; neither does the use (or not) of violence.

That has not stopped a series of men lining up in the past weeks to perpetuate some of the most pernicious myths about rape, particularly as a by-product of supporting the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in his fight against extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused of rape and sexual molestation. Monty Python’s Terry Jones wrongly claimed that Mr Assange was accused merely of “sex without a condom”. George Galloway, the Respect Party’s only MP, said that the Australian national had displayed only “bad sexual etiquette” to someone who was “already in the sex game” with him. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, named one of Mr Assange’s accusers on the BBC’s Newsnight, before suggesting that her complaint could be dismissed because she had subsequently gone to a “crayfish party” with him. (He dismissed the outcry against him as a “fake campaign of indignation”.)

There is a reason why rape allegations are tested by juries – not by columnists, or blogs, or social media – and the New Statesman makes no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Mr Assange. Yet the misinformation spread by many of his supporters is cause for concern in a country where rape reporting rates are already low.

On 19 August, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist sex crimes operation, Sapphire, announced that the number of reported rapes had fallen by 14 per cent compared to last year. This is a grave human rights issue: roughly 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 women raped each year in Britain, according to the British Crime Survey. It is estimated that nine in ten rapes go unreported.

Recent events have shown us that the gains made for women’s rights over many decades are more fragile than we might have thought. It is therefore incumbent on those who would call themselves progressive to acknowledge how widespread this crime can be and not to promote the myths that surround it.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?