For a word that so immediately and powerfully conjures such specific images in our society (white panel vans, sketchy men in trench-coats, drunken girls in mini-skirts), we have an awfully hard time describing rape in exact terms. The recent controversies surrounding Todd Akin and Julian Assange prove that as a society, we still are not sure what rape is and what rape isn't.
I’ve spent the last two years as a rape crisis advocate and educator going into high school and college classrooms to speak with students about rape — a potentially awkward task to say the least. Teenage gawkiness and freshmen giggles aside, the real challenge is actually defining what rape is.
At the center where I worked, we defined rape simply as sexual intercourse without consent.
The tricky part lay in explaining consent, which we said was an active and willing "yes" rather than just basic permission. This is where things get nuanced. In order for a yes to be active, something has to be explicitly done or said. Consent cannot be given passively; the absence of a “no” does not equal a “yes.”
Beyond that, the “yes” must be given willingly, meaning free from force, fear, or coercion. It also must be given by a person capable of consenting, as in someone who’s not asleep, extremely intoxicated, or mentally or developmentally incapable of understanding and consenting to sex.
We also stressed that there is no such thing as “blanket consent.” You must get consent from your partner for each sexual act, even if they’ve consented in the past.
Our simple definition got complicated pretty quickly, and my students easily (and understandably) got wrapped up in all of the “grey areas” and “what ifs." What I boiled it down to was this: instead of getting caught up in trying to find loopholes, or worrying about not raping someone, focus on making sure that you’re having sex with someone who wants to have sex with you.
Given all of this (and the swirling controversy over Rep. Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”), I’m saddened but not at all surprised to hear that British MP George Galloway has joined the ranks of those attempting to "clarify" the definition of rape.
In his weekly video blog, Good Night with George Galloway, he came to Julian Assange’s defense, saying that even if everything that his alleged victim states happened (which is that he had sex with her while she was sleeping, after they’d had consensual sex) did happen, that Assange's actions “doesn’t constitute rape; at least not as anyone with any sense can possibly recognize it.”
He explains his view this way: "Woman A met Julian Assange, invited him back to her flat, gave him dinner, went to bed with him, had consensual sex with him, claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again. This is something which can happen, you know. I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion."
Instead of rape, he equates Assange's behavior with “really bad manners.” (You can see the full video with the link above.) He has since been fired as a columnist for political magazine Holyrod for his remarks.
Most of press is running this story under the headline that Galloway said having sex with sleeping women is not rape, a statement that has provoked much outrage — even my sixteen-year-old students would agree that this is ludicrous.
I’d argue, though, that the point Galloway is really making is that you cannot rape someone whom you’ve already had consensual sex with, especially if they’re still lying in bed with you. This point, while no less disturbing, is much more subtle. I believe it also poses a question that much of the general public still can't answer conclusively —namely, can you be raped by someone you’ve already consented to have sex with?
The law says yes. (Although it hasn’t always. It wasn’t until 1993 that spousal rape was criminalized in all 50 U.S. states, and only recently have state legislatures explicitly included non-forcible or “date rape” in their penal codes.)
Despite the law’s firm answer, Galloway isn’t alone in doubting the legitimacy of rape when it comes to previously consensual partners or spouses. And despite the outrage that Galloway’s comments have provoked, I don’t know that the public has made up its mind either.