Brief article explaining what "rape apologism" is, specifically with reference to left-wing defences of Julian Assange. Trigger warning for mention of sexual violence.
Rape apologism is when someone says that rape isn’t really rape, or that rape is not really that bad, or makes an unfounded claim that allegations of rape are untrue, or claims that rape allegations in general are often untrue and should not be taken seriously. In reality the rape of false rape allegations is around 1-2%, the same as for other crimes.
Because rape apologism is so widespread, survivors of rape often don’t tell anyone about their ordeal because they know they are unlikely to be taken seriously. Because of this the survivor doesn’t get the support they need from family, friends, doctors, and the police, and this lack of support makes it much less likely that they will overcome their trauma. Rape apologism literally destroys lives. In addition, rape apologism promotes rape, since it assures rapists that it is unlikely their victims will come forward and be taken seriously.
Some examples of rape apologism:
She wasn’t really raped, she made up the accusations.
She wasn’t really raped – she just changed her mind.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim knew the rapist / was the rapists girlfriend / wife.
It wasn’t really rape because the rapist didn’t use force.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim didn’t immediately report it.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim wore a short skirt / had a reputation / flirted with the rapist beforehand / had previously had sex with the rapist / was friendly towards the rapist afterwards.
Rape apologists often have an idea in their heads which I like to call the Idealized Rape: this is a scenario where a woman is walking alone at night when a stranger attacks her and beats and rapes her. The survivor then immediately goes to the police to demand justice. Whenever the rape apologist hears that a woman was raped he compares her experience to the imaginary Idealized Rape that he is carrying around in her head. If the survivor’s experience matches up then she is deemed worthy of sympathy and support, but if not the rape apologist will dismiss her experience and tell her it ‘wasn’t really rape’.
The problem here is that in real life only a minority of rapes follow the script of the Idealized Rape. More often the victim knows the attacker, often the attacker uses intimidation or alcohol or other drugs rather than physical force, and often the victim is too shocked and/or scared to physically fight back. Sometimes a person who has been raped doesn’t behave the way you’d expect: they may be in shock, they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance where their mind simply won’t let them understand what has happened to them, or they might be trying to normalize the experience as a coping strategy.
Just for the record: the only reasonable definition of rape is this: rape is sex without consent. This may not be the legal definition of rape in all parts of the world but to me it’s clear this is the only morally defensible definition. A person who maintains that only a rape that fits the Idealized Rape script is ‘really rape’ is a rape apologist, since they are dismissing and silencing millions of rape survivors.
Some examples of rape apologism with respect to Julian Assange:
- The whole ‘sex by surprise’ thing. The phrase ‘sex by surprise’ puts a cute cozy gloss over the ugly reality that if you touch a person who is asleep (and thus hasn’t consented) in a sexual way, it is sexual assault.
- The whole ‘he was arrested for not wearing a condom’ thing. According to the allegations Assange was arrested because his partner withdrew her consent for sex but he continued having sex with her. This is rape. That she withdrew consent because he wasn’t wearing a condom is irrelevant.
- Naomi Wolf’s ‘Captured by the world’s dating police’ article, in which she alleged, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Julian Assange’s accusers made up the accusations because they were angry that he hadn’t called him back.
- Michael Moore claiming, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that the accusations were ‘hooey’.
Rape apologism is part of Rape Culture: a culture that facilitates rape. Another manifestation of rape culture is punishing the victim by publicly making lots of unfounded accusations against them. Unfortunately Assange’s accusers are now experiencing this. This victim-smearing makes it less likely that future victims will come forward, and thus adds to the already-cushy safety net which our society provides to rapists.
Although rape is often dismissed as being just a personal problem with no wider political meaning, the fact that 1 in 6 women will experience serious sexual assault in her lifetime shows that rape is a form of systematic oppression. Just as the fact that Blacks are disproportionately stopped and searched, beaten, and arrested by police is one manifestation of racism in our society, the fact that women have a 1 in 6 chance of being raped, and the fact that we have a whole system of rape apologism and victim-blaming set up to make sure that it stays that way, points to the fact that rape is a manifestation of our society’s structural, systematic hatred toward women. With this political understanding of rape in mind it becomes clear that all progressive people have a duty to educate themselves about rape and to work towards dismantling the culture of rape apologism and victim-blaming that continues to make rape possible.