This is a piece that I posted on Liberal Democrat Voice originally.
In recent days, on both sides of the Atlantic, there have been not one, but two expressions of the kind of attitudes on rape you had hoped died with the Dark Ages.
First, a US Republican Senate Candidate, Todd Akin, suggested that most women do not become pregnant after being raped as their body can, and I quote, ‘shut that whole thing down’.
Then Britain’s own George Galloway, while offering his opinions on the Julian Assange case, took it upon himself to assert that certain acts of sexual violence are nothing more than ‘bad manners’, and that having sex with a woman who is asleep, and therefore unable to give her consent, could not be considered rape ‘by anyone with any sense’.
On one level, these comments are so self evidently ridiculous we could reasonably roll our eyes, whisper to ourselves ‘what an idiot’ and click on the next ‘most read’ story on our news website of choice.
The wall of disgust which has blown up online and in the media points to how unacceptable and marginalised comments like these have thankfully become.
But as marginal and unacceptable as they are, they have an effect.
The backward, misinformed myths propelled by comments like these do real damage.
They matter because these men hold, or might hold, public office which means they are not just expressing an opinion but are attempting to convince others of their views. These men seek to be law makers, and yet they proclaim as truth factual, legal and biological inaccuracies about rape.
They matter because of the chilling effect it has on vulnerable, often shell-shocked victims of sexual violence, who fail to report rape because they are scared they will be mocked, smeared or dismissed by people such as Mr Galloway.
And they matter because of the signal they send to perpetrators. What signal does this send to them? That it’s not rape as long as it’s in warm bed as opposed to down a dark alleyway? That some rapes are less serious than others, and that even after the event women have coping mechanisms to get on with it?
We will rightly dismiss them both as fools, but their comments matter because they infiltrate the debate on sexual violence. They reinforce outdated prejudices. They allow the reopening of a debate that should long ago have been won: there is no difference between ‘sex without consent’ and ‘rape’ and that is that. And ultimately they give legitimacy to those who would wilfully see violence against women swept under the carpet. Talking about rape in a manner that is both casual and callous only hampers the fight against it.
Luckily, I know that Mr Galloway is in a tiny minority inside and outside parliament in this country, and that Mr Atkin’s comments will in all likelihood cost him his election.
That we must continue to fight these falsehoods in 2012 is saddening but emboldening. I am glad that the backlash is as loud and as damning as it is. Long may it continue, because the biggest risk we run is thinking it’s no longer needed.