Rape is having a moment. And not in a good way. Women who assumed that basic goals of equality were set in stone have been badly shocked over the past few days. On both sides of the Atlantic, from the left and the right, male politicians and two-bit ''public figures'' have made common cause on rape. Not to condemn it, or to pledge tougher action in policing it; but to minimise and dismiss it as a crime.
It started with Julian Assange, and the repellent decision of Ecuador to grant him ''political asylum''. Assange is not accused of any political crime. He is accused under Swedish law of raping one woman and sexually molesting another. The belittling of the accusations began. What had allegedly happened was ''not rape'', they argued. This, even though it is clear that one woman claims she was asleep and unconscious when, she alleges, Assange raped her. An unconscious person cannot give consent. The allegation that the woman had consented to safe sex with a condom but not to unsafe sex without one was rubbished; her right to withhold consent for possible pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was apparently non-existent.
Assange has had his day in the English courts - several days, in fact. And more than once, British courts have made it clear sex without consent constitutes an offence of rape under English law.
Feminists of the right and left, myself included, lined up to condemn both Assange and the zealots that supported him. Left-wing media outlets like The Guardian and the New Statesman, whose internet pages are full of commenters minimising the charges, were obliged to run pieces explaining why Assange had to submit to a Swedish court.
But then in waded MP George Galloway. ''Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,'' he said in a video podcast on Monday. ''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.'' Then he made matters worse. ''It might be really bad manners not to have tapped her on the shoulder and said, 'Do you mind if I do it again?' It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning.'' Er, no. It is Galloway that is bankrupt of meaning: rape is when a woman does not consent. Because she is, for example, asleep and unconscious. If conservatives were smug over the discomfiture of the left, though, they did not have long to rejoice. At the same time, the Republican candidate for the Missouri Senate race, Congressman Todd Akin, was going on television to defend his pro-life position - no abortion in the case of rape. He came up with a cracker: ''From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare,'' Akin said. ''If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.'' And if ''maybe that didn't work, or something'' then the rapist should be punished, not the child.
How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Akin cites purely imaginary ''doctors'' - and this is a politician who sits on the House Science and Technology committee. He states it is ''really rare'' for a pregnancy to occur from rape - but more than 31,000 of them occur in the US a year. Then we have the lovely phrase ''legitimate rape''.Here Akin makes Galloway's point; that there is true rape and something less, where the woman is to blame even if she withheld consent - perhaps she'd agreed to sleep with the man before under different conditions, as in the Assange accusations. And lastly, we have the mediaeval contention that the ''female body'' can ''shut that whole thing down''. And just when women were reeling from the dies horribilis on Monday, it was capped by Craig Murray, former Liberal Democrat (though luckily for Nick Clegg, he left the party) and self-described ''human rights activist'' going on television again to support Assange. He attempted to discredit the two women who have brought the rape and sexual molestation allegations, but he also named one of them. If the alleged offence had been committed in Britain, it would be illegal to name the complainant.
Why do male politicians get this so wrong? Unfortunately, the answer is simple: because they believe what they are saying. Galloway, Akin and Murray represent the tip of an iceberg of resentment and base sexism. Before his defection to UKIP, Roger Helmer MEP shamed the Conservative Party when he distinguished on his blog in May 2011 between ''classic stranger rape'' and ''date rape'', where a boyfriend is ''unable to restrain himself'' when his lover gets ''cold feet and says stop!'' He wrote: ''Most right-thinking people would expect a much lighter sentence in the second case. Rape is always wrong, but not always equally culpable.'' Helmer added that, in this case, ''the victim surely shares a part of the responsibility, if only for establishing reasonable expectations in her boyfriend's mind''.
What a loathsome thing, and by a then-member of my own party. I spoke out to condemn it; the party distanced itself, as the Republican Party is now doing from Akin.
A year on from Helmer's remarks, the Justice Department has no women in the most senior roles; it stumbled both on trying to grant anonymity to men accused of rape, a Lib Dem idea, and in Ken Clarke's own unfortunate comments about rape. I hope (and expect) that the Prime
Minister will use the opportunity of the reshuffle to promote some of the talented female lawyers on his benches into the department that governs rape, sexual trafficking and other crimes against women.
Women are fed up with male politicians diminishing, dismissing and demeaning the horrific crime of rape.
All too often, the media pretends that feminism's work is done. This week shows us what so many male politicians really think about consent, and sex, and the rights of a woman to withhold it, or attach conditions to it.
There is a long way to go. The Daily Telegraph, London
Louise Mensch is a writer and Conservative Party MP.