Political leader resigns after rape controversy
After Respect MP George Galloway’s controversial comments on rape, Salma Yaqoob has resigned as leader of his party. Her announcement reignites a debate about sex and consent.
One rarely-uttered word has become inescapable this month. Journalists have studied it, activists have shouted it. Politicians have badly misjudged how to use it.
The word is rape – and its meaning has become a burning question.
Why? In Britain, the storm centres on Julian Assange – founder of whistle-blowers WikiLeaks. The activist has been accused of rape. Yet the case against him does not fit with what many people expect the crime to be.
The accusations have nothing to do with dark alleys or violent attacks. One woman has accused Assange of having unprotected sex with her, despite the fact that she insisted he use a condom. Another claims he had sex with her while she was asleep.
Both cases constitute sex without consent – the legal definition of rape. But some – including outspoken Respect Party MP George Galloway – have disputed this label.
In a podcast last month, Galloway suggested that ‘not everyone needs to be asked prior to each insertion’, after a woman had initially slept with a man. Assange’s alleged behaviour, he says, should be called ‘bad sexual etiquette’, not rape.
The comments caused outrage. This week, Salma Yaqoob – the leader of the Respect Party – resigned, implying that his ‘disappointing’ comments made it impossible for her to continue in her job.
The issue is also divisive in the USA. There, many disapprove of abortion – and some politicians argue it should be illegal, even for victims of rape. When Republican Todd Akin commented on this, he caused a storm. He claimed ‘legitimate rape’ – by which he meant rape involving violent force – rarely results in pregnancy: ‘the female body,’ he said, ‘has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.’
Akin’s biology was not up to scratch: rape trauma does not prevent conception; 5% of rapes are thought to result in pregnancy.
But for many, the most disturbing part of his speech was the word ‘legitimate’. Akin was saying that the only ‘real’ rapes are those that involve violence. And by that, he meant other examples of non-consensual sex should not be called ‘rape’. That would mean grooming vulnerable people for sex might not be a crime – and that a woman who could not consent because she was asleep, drunk or pressured would not be said to be raped.
Shades of grey
Many people are horrified by this. Everyone, they argue, should decide what happens to their own bodies. Sex with an unwilling partner is rape: by questioning the absolute need for consent, we deny women the right to control their own lives.
But some, like Galloway, do think that consent can be hard to discern. And these uncertainties cannot be ignored. Like all things in relationships, they must be discussed and debated.
- What do you think of the idea that abortion shouldnotbe made available to victims of rape?
- Is it time for a debate about what constitutes rape?
- In class, have each person write down a definition of ‘consent’. Discuss your answers. Do most people agree or is there doubt about what everyone thinks?
- Imagine you are approached by a friend who suspects she or he has been raped. Act out the conversation between you and consider the advice you might give.
Some People Say...
“Men have no right to talk to women about rape.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Rape isn’t something that can happen to me, though?
- Sexual violence and rape isn’t just about attacks from strangers – it’s something that can happen within relationships, or that can come from friends, family or people you know.
- A recent NSPCC survey showed that one third of girls and 16% of boys have experienced some kind of sexual violence at the hands of a partner. And further studies have shown that many young people aren’t aware that sex without consentis rape – even if violence is not involved.
- How can I help myself?
- Remember thateveryone has the right to define their own sexual boundaries. If someone forces sex without consent, puts a lot of pressure on you or keeps going despite you saying no, for example, you are within your rights to speak out.
- WikiLeaks is an international whistleblowing website, that releases secret documents from governments, businesses and other organisations. It was founded by Julian Assange, who remains its public face and outspoken organiser. It is best known for exposing scandalous evidence revealing the shooting of journalists and other atrocities during the Iraq war.
- George Galloway
- Galloway is a British politician, and the Respect party’s first MP. He was previously an MP for the Labour party, but was expelled for his public and vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Galloway is an outspoken figure whose more notorious achievements include praising the ‘courage and ‘indefatigability’ of notorious dictator Saddam Hussein, and pretending to be a cat on Big Brother.
- The Respect party is a British political party, founded as a left-wing alternative to the major political parties in the UK. It campaigns on issues like trade unionism, against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, raising the minimum wage and support for Palestine.
- The Republican Party – or the GOP – is the right-wing party of the United States. It believes in less state intervention in things like business, welfare, healthcare and gun control. But it is also guided by a strong sense of Christian morality, and is largely opposed to abortion. This means many Republicans are in favour of withdrawing funding from abortion services, or even outlawing it – even in cases of rape.