George Galloway got a spade out today and made a statement in which he attempted to clarify his comments about the allegations against Julian Assange. He dug himself a little deeper, saying that 'what occurred is not rape as most people understand it'. Assange is wanted in Sweden - but not yet charged - on allegations of rape, unlawful coercion and sexual molestation.
Rod Liddle blogs that he thinks Galloway has a point. The law says he does not. There is a lesson to be learned from Galloway's comments, though, which is that rape is not well understood at all. When he says something is 'not rape as most people understand it', this is because society still largely imagines rape as an unexpected attack on a woman walking down a dark alley late at night. By describing what Assange is alleged to have done as 'bad sexual etiquette', Galloway demonstrates that he does not understand the legal definition of rape, or of sexual assault for that matter. Neither, he suggests, do many other people. It's worth reading this helpful list of 'rape myths' from the Crown Prosecution Service on this matter.
Lambeth Council has been running a striking campaign on rape over the past year. It was striking because it avoided giving the usual advice to women about not walking home alone. Instead, it was called 'Know the Difference' and targeted young men socialising in the borough. The campaign site says:
'We know that not all men are rapists or sexual predators and we in no way wish to suggest that they are. But we know that rapes and sexual offences are being committed in Lambeth by men. We know that there is confusion over the law, particularly around consent. We know that there is confusion about what is acceptable behaviour.'
It is probably worth Assange's supporters and Galloway taking time to read the section called 'do you know the difference?'. Fortunately the leader of the Respect Party, Salma Yaqoob, has a better understanding. She has condemned Galloway's words this afternoon, saying:
'Let me be clear, as a politician and as a woman. Rape occurs when a woman has not consented to sex. George Galloway's comments on what constitutes rape are deeply disappointing and wrong.
'There are many political issues entwined in the case of Julian Assange. These issues cannot be used to diminish in any way the seriousness of any allegations against him. Any individual accused of a crime, sexual or otherwise, is innocent until proven guilty. By the same token, any individual who believes themselves to be a victim has a right to have their grievances heard in a fair manner and not have their allegations belittled or dismissed. This is the cornerstone of justice.'
There is a question about what sort of disciplinary action the Respect party will take against its MP. Meanwhile, commentators have dismissed Galloway's intervention as an offensive attempt to garner some of Assange's limelight. But if there is one thing that is worth remembering, it's that myths about rape still abound in this country (and, as Todd Akin has taught us, in other western societies, too). Lambeth Council was brave to launch Know the Difference: perhaps the current row is a sign that other councils and police forces need to run similar campaigns.