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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?

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Boris Johnson shows why he remains a contender with his best speech

The London mayor delivered plenty of gags - but passion and purpose too. 

After losing his status as the Conservative leadership frontrunner to George Osborne, Boris Johnson needed a special speech to revive his fortunes - and he delivered. For an address pre-briefed as "serious" there were plenty of (good) gags. Labour's "Ed Stone" was derided as the "heaviest suicide note in history", Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters were described as having "vested interests" and "indeed interesting vests". But this was also, by some distance, the most thoughtful and prime ministerial speech that the London mayor has given. 

Framing himself as a "one nation Tory", he declared that while he was "the only politician to speak out in favour of bankers", the party could not "ignore the gulf in pay packets that yawns wider year by year". Rather than mocking such rhetoric, Labour should welcome this ideological conversion and hold Johnson to his commitment. 

In a coded warning to George Osborne to soften the coming cuts to tax credits, he called for the party to "protect the hardest working and lowest paid. The retail staff, the cleaners, who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve. The people without whom the London economy would simply collapse. The aspiring, striving, working people that Labour is leaving behind." After Osborne poached "the living wage", one of his signature causes, Johnson has put a new dividing line between himself and the Chancellor on social justice. And he couldn't resist having some fun at his chief rival's expense. "We will extend the northern line to Battersea – or the Wandsworth powerhouse, as it is probably now called in the Treasury," he quipped. While his speech paid fulsome tribute to David Cameron (hailing his "extraordinary prime ministerial qualities"), the man he had positioned himself to succeed, there were no such plaudits for the Chancellor.

Addressing an irrevocably anti-EU audience (Tory activists back withdrawal by 2:1), Johson, like Theresa May before him, made immigration his red line. It was, he said, "up to this parliament and this country – not to Jean-Claude Juncker – to decide if too many people are coming here". Should Cameron, as seems likely, fail to achieve an opt-out from free movement, the logical conclusion would be for Johnson to support Brexit. 

Johnson's humour, wit and passion were rewarded with the best reception of any speaker. Five months after the Tories' election victory, it is continuity, represented by Osborne, that looks most attractive to activists. But today's speech showed why, should the party enter troubled waters, the cry will surely go up to "send for Boris". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.