Rape and the left: Assange, Galloway and the problem with women

It's been a tough week for the left. Ecuador's decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange triggered an outbreak of highly questionable comments from some of the pillars of progressive politics and now more sensible thinkers are taking stock.

The giants of the radical left came out, one after the other, and issued statements which we can only hope they will regret. Tony Benn, one of the godfathers of the British left, John Pilger, its most committed foreign correspondent, and Ken Loach, who turns left-wing thought into beautifully conceived, internationally celebrated drama, revealed that their critique of America far outweighed their consideration for women's rights.

George Galloway went a step further. In a series of blush-inducing pronouncements on sexual morality, he alienated many of those who have stood by him during previous controversies. For memory's sake, Assange is accused of holding a woman down so he could have sex with her without a condom and, days later, having sex with a second woman while she was asleep, again without protection. This, Galloway observed, was a case of "bad sexual etiquette".

He went on: "Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100% true, they don't constitute rape. Woman A… had consensual sex with [Assange]. Claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again. This is something which can happen, you know. Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion. Some people believe that when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes, and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you're already in the sex game with them."

Several days have passed since Galloway's outburst, but when I talk to Harriet Harman about it she's still livid. "Thousands of women who have suffered rape, who wonder if they dare report it, will have read Galloway's comments," she says. "The message will be: 'Don't, because you won't be believed.' It has a practical impact. We don't want commentary which reinforces the notion women are asking for it."

Harman's response to the outburst is to frame it in the history of victim blaming and the belittling of rape complaints, rather than any particular failure of a political viewpoint. She's not the only one. While much of the left looks on aghast at the comments from their own troops, rape campaigners seem broadly unsurprised at the standard of debate. "Ignorance and misinformation around the type of women who become victims of rape – and the type of men who rape – are unfortunately cross-cutting and have never been solely issues for either the left or the right of the political spectrum," Katie Russell of Rape Crisis tells me.

Ignorance about rape – and in particular the obsessive attention paid to 'stranger-rape' – also contributes to the misunderstanding. "The disproportionate focus on 'stranger rape' in the media is a significant factor in the endurance of that particular myth," Russell says. "In practice, around 85% of women and girls who experience sexual violence know their attacker. The stranger myth is confusing and unhelpful in a number of ways, not least of all in the way it can be used to restrict women's behaviour."

But even if myths around rape are present across society, the Assange drama revealed something specific about the left: how blinded it can become when supporting one of its own. As Dan Hodges wrote in the Telegraph, "they have become infected by some form of ideological virus… blinded by their hatred of the United States". Labour activist and blogger Emma Burnell put it rather more starkly: "What if I were raped by a comrade?" She goes on: "After what I have seen this week, I believe that if I were to suffer such an attack, there would be those who believe themselves to be my comrade in the fight for equality who would seek to deny me justice."

But if the Assange saga had a moral lesson to teach the left, events across the Atlantic this week will also serve a warning to the right.

Over the weekend, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin was asked if his anti-abortion views would hold in the case of rape. His answer was staggeringly ignorant. "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." In an excruciating and damaging moment of indecision, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took two days to demand Akin step down. At the time of writing, Akin still hasn't.

Charlotte Vere of Women On, a British centre-right think tank which focuses on women's issues, admits that the relationship between religion and politics on the right can cause it certain unique problems which often emerge during discussions around abortion. "The right side of politics is much more tied up with the conservative religious angle and that's what will sink Romney and [vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan], she says. "They are utterly out of touch. Only 20% of people in America support no abortion in any circumstance. The Republicans have that as part of their platform. They're just out of their depth. It's going to sink them and I hope it will sink them."

The Americans have a far more heated and ideological political debate than in the UK, but it's always possible Britain could edge closer to their way of doing things. The Tories' 2010 intake pushed the party noticeably to the right on several issues, leading to some speculation about a renewed focus on abortion. Backbencher Nadine Dorries then started trying to chip away at the status quo with demands for time reductions and independent counselling. But Vere thinks the anti-abortion movement is primarily an American phenomenon.

"In the UK we've basically seen a few nutters popping up and not understanding rape," she says. "The Republicans in America have a much bigger problem. If you look at their polling amongst women – even amongst Catholics – they're completely out of line on public attitudes towards abortion. I don’t think the same thing can happen here. You can't compare the Republican party to the Conservative party."

That may be the case, but the Tory party still has a dodgy track record on women's issues according to Harman. For the deputy Labour leader this is about "the politics of gender" and the Tory party has an unfortunate habit of siding "with the man against the woman".

She adds: "Ken Clarke himself made a very unfortunate comment about rape and he's the justice secretary. Women in the Labour party have struggled over the years to make sure Labour is much more strongly fighting on behalf of women. We've had a long way to travel and we've still got a long way to go, but if you look at various attempts to strengthen rape laws it's been led by women in Labour. It's been Tories who decried it, who argued for anonymity for rape defendants as if by definition they're not guilty."

Regardless of the Tories' history with rape legislation, the rape rows of this week show how readily campaigners on the right and left are willing to ignore their concerns about rape victims when it gets in the way of their mission. The Republican party's religious agenda leads it to disrespect rape survivors and the left's anti-imperialism has seen it do the same.

Somewhere in Sweden, two women will have doubtless watched a news story reduce their own complaints to footnotes. They will have been appalled that anti-imperialism and the fight for freedom of information have been used to question their behaviour and lionise their alleged attacker. It will hardly have consoled them that this process is now prompting soul-searching on the left. But if there is a morsel of comfort to be had from a depressing week, it's that at least the left is doing some soul-searching. Despite the horrific comments from Akin, there is precious little of that going on in the Republican party.