Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A response to George Galloway, and what we mean by consent

TRIGGER WARNING contains discussion of rape and sexual assault, and descriptions of allegations of rape

Dear George and others who believe the accusations against Assange aren't 'real' rape,

I wanted to write to you after reading the transcript of your podcast about the rape allegations made against Julian Assange, to tell you a little bit about myself. 

I’m a woman in my late twenties who over time has had numerous sexual partners and who, for the last five years, has been in a lovely and happy relationship with my boyfriend.

Up until this point, I thought my sexual history and present would have no bearing on my highly treasured right to bodily autonomy. You know, my right to consent to the sexual activity I want, and not consent to that I don’t want, and to consent to have sex with the people I want to have sex with, who equally want to consent to sex with me. 

But I now see that, thanks to your podcast, I may have been wrong all this time. By consenting once to sex, or, as you so… how can I say… clinically put it, ‘an insertion’, I may well have given up my right to bodily autonomy. The way I read your podcast, it would seem agreeing to that first ‘insertion’ means that my body is in a constant state of consent, and asking for my consent on other occasions is no longer necessary. Please, correct me if I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

Because the way I read it, my body, as the common parlance would suggest, is ‘fair game’ to anyone who has ever had sexual access to it. If those people tried to have sex with me without my consent, it seems you believe they would merely be guilty of ‘bad sexual etiquette’, rather than rape. 

This is what you apparently believe happened in the case of Assange. You seem to believe that, because one of Assange's accusers had consensual sex with him, after cooking him dinner no less, then she immediately consented to any other sexual contact. That by consenting once, she consented to sex with him afterwards. That she gave up her right to bodily autonomy. If I’m reading it right – and again I hope I’m not – according to your podcast when she allegedly woke up to find him having sex with her, the fact that it was impossible for her to actively consent whilst asleep is simply not important. 

After all, as you so tastefully put it:

I mean not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”

Because, according to you, once you get into bed with someone, you’re:

already in the sex game with them

Thankfully the law does not share this opinion of the unimportance of an individual’s bodily autonomy. It recognises very clearly that what Assange is accused of is rape. That women’s bodies aren’t open access to any man who has had sexual contact with them before. That saying yes once does not mean yes forever more. As you can see from paragraph 109 of the Supreme Court’s assessment of the European Arrest Warrant for Assange, the law has respect for everyone’s rights to bodily autonomy: 

109. On this approach, then, intentional penetration achieved by coercion or where consent is lacking to the knowledge of the defendant would be considered to be rape. In our view on this basis, what was described in the EAW was rape. Coercion evidences knowledge of a lack of consent and lack of a reasonable belief in consent. . .

The recognition that women are not the sexual property of their partners is one reason why marital rape was made a crime in this country in 1991. And why we don’t have laws that recognise degrees of rape. Such degrees don’t exist. 

Because I am sure that comments of this nature come from nothing more than an ignorance around what we mean by consent, sexual assault and rape, I’m going to help out with some facts. 

Firstly, 1 in 3 women will experience rape and sexual assault across the world in their lifetimes. That’s over 1 billion women. This stat is from the UN Commission on the State of Women. In the UK, it’s estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 women will be raped each year. That’s according to stats from numerous sources, including the British Crime Survey 2011. According to a survey conducted by Mumsnet, 1 in 10 UK women respondents have been raped.

According research collected by CWASU,  most rapists are known to their victims, and most rapes happen in a familiar or a private space such as the home, hotel room, or workplace. In fact, CWASU’s analysis of Rape Crisis Lines found that 97% of victims knew their assailant at the time of the assault. Stats quoted on the site from Canada found that 83% of victims knew their attacker, and Kelly research from 2005 also found that most women knew the men who raped or assaulted them. 

By refusing to believe the allegations made by Ms A and Ms W are ‘rape as anyone with any sense would understand it’, by calling it nothing more than ‘bad sexual etiquette’, you are invalidating and silencing the very real, very traumatic experiences of billions of women who have been raped by men that they know, men that they may even have consented to sex with on previous occasions, the millions of women raped by men whilst they slept. 

Now, in the UK, English law understands that a woman is not in a constant state of consent, and believes that when someone is asleep, they are unable to consent. In the case of allegations against Assange, that law looks like this

what is alleged here is that Mr Assange “deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with her by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state”. In this country that would amount to rape.

Consent is pretty easy to understand but because so many people seem a bit confused, I’ll just go through it for you quickly. 

Consent is not an absence of ‘no’. It is not a permanent state of being. It is the presence of an enthusiastic, mutual ‘yes’. It’s present, for example, when your partner is responding enthusiastically. It is NOT present when your partner is asleep, or when it’s dependent on using a condom and no condom is used, or when you’re trying to fight off a man pushing your legs apart (the other allegation made against Assange) and that woman is trying not to cry, or when, out of fear, you’ve frozen and can’t speak that ‘no’. Those are just a few examples of when consent is absent. 

Consent can be withdrawn at any point, even when you’re having sex that started out as consensual. 

Sex without enthusiastic consent is rape. It’s not bad sexual etiquette. It’s rape. 

If you agree with George that:

Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100 per cent true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don't constitute rape. At least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it.’

…then I have a piece of advice for you. Until you understand what consent is, until you understand the difference between consent and rape, please don’t go near any women. If you truly believe that women are in a constant state of consent, even when they are unconscious, because consent once given is permanent, just keep away. 

Because if the allegations are true, 100% true, then they are 100% rape and sexual assault. Under English law, under Swedish law. 

And the fact that so many people don’t understand that? Don’t wish to accept that? Well, that terrifies me. 

Next - I'll be writing to Paul Akin...

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