Strange moment: The right and the left have taken to debating the legitimacy of rape at the exact same time. In order to defend his bill banning abortion in all cases, even of rape, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, Neanderthal that he be (apologies to our ancestors) has, infamously pointed out that women can’t get pregnant if it is a “legitimate rape.”* **
But don’t start laughing too self-righteously yet: Much of the left has questioned the legitimacy of the rape allegations awaiting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as he has tried to challenge his extradition to Sweden. It’s not quite the same thing, but these events do have some points in common: A lot of folks, especially men, have felt gratuitously entitled to denounce the legitimacy of the rape allegations that are being raised against Assange. Gratuitous, because the issue of extraditing Assange to Sweden has little to do with the legitimacy of the allegations; they have to do with the concern that Sweden will allow him to be extradited to the US for leaking documents that show the US engaging, or collaborating with others, in massive wrongdoing.
That’s an important concern. Does it mean that Assange is being set up? To ask that question is to assume that the rape allegations are false. Even though we don’t need to weigh in on the allegations, many men have done exactly that: British MP George Galloway, revealing his own Neanderthal tendencies, rejected describing as rape the allegation that Assange had sex with one woman when she was sleeping. The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, after naming at least one of them publicly, asked why the two women in question went to dinner with him after said activities, why they saw him again, why they waited to go to the police, why they were very public on their twitter accounts and elsewhere about their activities. The implication here seems to be that if these women had “truly” been sexually assaulted, they wouldn’t have wanted to see their assaulter socially, and they would have turned their backs on him right away.
We could have a field day with these kinds of ignorant views (how exactly does one resist a sexual encounter when one is sleeping?). To be fair, there is evidence to suggest that at least one of the women was quite distraught to hear that her testimony was being extracted to buttress potential rape charges against Assange: when she realized that this was the goal of Swedish prosecutors, she decided to cut short her cooperation. She has also suggested that she never felt threatened violently by Assange.
But let us assume that there was some sort of unwanted sexual activity imposed on either or both women: For those, like Craig Murray, who insist that if it was “really unwanted,” both of these women would have immediately distanced themselves from Assange: This translates into “it’s not really rape because they didn’t publicly, openly, visually reject Assange.” In effect, the lefty denunciation amounts to VERY similar assessment of rape that the rightist Akin asserted: it’s not legitimate because women who are really raped will behave in ways that we expect; women who aren’t really raped will behave in ways that we expect.
It’s not a LEGITIMATE rape because the women didn’t exhibit what both groups wanted them to exhibit?!? C’mon, folks. To question the legitimacy of sexual assault charges is to question whether others should behave as you (think you) would in those same circumstances. It assumes that the nature of coercion is always violent. It’s not. We have long known that coercion takes all sorts forms. Coercion can take all kinds of insidious, quiet forms—in relation to ethics (see US Soldiers dropping drones); finance (see Financial Crisis and Sub-Prime Loans); and rape: which is why we have categories called sexual molestation, incest, acquaintance rape and statutory rape. The latter is what Huckabee was ostensibly distinguishing from ‘forcible’ rape.
It is counter-productive for sympathetic lefties to denounce the allegations of rape against Assange. We don’t really know all the facts surrounding what happened between Assange and the two Swedish women in question. But we don’t need to know. What we do know is that the U.S. has also put much pressure (invisible—yes—coercion) on the UK to extradite Assange—because of the Obama Administrations’s now well-established track record of punishing whistle-blowers. That should be enough to question. We don’t also need to stoop to the level of the right.
What is disturbing, however, is the possibility that these rape allegations are being pursued without the consent of the women involved. And therein lies a return to the question of coercion: When these women (or at least one of them) decided to report her encounter with Assange to the police, it appears to be because he was uninterested in responding to her request to be tested for STD’s. It might have also been for other acts that resemble what we associate with sexual assault or rape. It is unclear whether the women in question are translating their interactions with Assange as rape or sexual assault.
And so, unrelated to Assange or whistleblowing altogether, is the question of how to protect women (or anyone) who translates what happened to them as rape, without undermining those women who interpret certain acts that happened to them, not as rape but some other violation. This is an issue that urges the importance of making distinctions—not by those who are bystanders—but by those who were the subjects of these violations. Whether someone is raped (assuming they are adults) is best determined by s/he who is subject of the violation–and if with her consent, the procedure goes further—by a properly instructed, properly selected jury that has heard ALL the evidence. We may not like the outcome, we may disagree with the interpretation. But short of imposing a colonial judgment (that a woman is the victim of false consciousness, or doesn’t know better), we need to let those who are directly subject to an offensive act decide what it is, and ask for help accordingly,—without the denunciations of bystanders, or other nations pursuing barely-concealed designs on the accused.
*Mike Huckabee, former presidential candidate and governor of Arkansas, has tried to defend Akin by distinguishing between forcible rape and “unforced rape. Frankly, it’s hard to know how Huckabee’s comment is helping to “defend” Akin; doesn’t his point about how “extraordinary people are the result of “forcible” rape kinda disprove Akin’s point about rape-induced non-pregnancy?
**President Obama, realizing that this was a win-win-win situation (he could simultaneously 1. denounce Republican Akin, 2. Julian Assange AND 3. put in a plug for his own healthcare plan) didn’t miss out on a chance to offer a meaningless tautology: “Rape is rape.”