If you were reading The Washington Post Tuesday, you may have come across this terrifying headline: “27% of Europeans say rape may be acceptable in some circumstances.”
27% of Europeans say rape may be acceptable in some circumstances https://t.co/ezsnlcesdQ
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) November 29, 2016
“A rape victim was drunk? He or she flirted beforehand or wore ‘revealing’ clothing? In some European countries, up to 55 percent of the population says such circumstances would make sexual intercourse without consent justifiable or acceptable… Overall, about one-fourth — 27 percent — of all Europeans held that opinion,” reports The Post.
At first glance, it’s a story that everyone can craft a #HotTake around. For liberals, it’s the dangers of rape culture, naturally. For conservatives, there’s the spectre of the mass sexual assaults reportedly perpetrated by young refugees in European cities like Cologne. There’s something for everyone.
But much about the story doesn’t pass the smell test. I can buy widespread misogyny in Romania, but 40% of liberal Belgians and Luxembourgers are secret rape supporters? If it really is dudebro rape culture or young Muslim men that are behind these problematic attitudes, why do nearly as many women (20 percent) excuse rape as their male peers? Are 1 in 5 European women really okay with being raped in certain circumstances?
So is it true? Well, The Washington Post is citing an actual survey carried out recently by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union. But it turns out the methodology of said survey is very suspect.
First and most importantly, the question wording was downright atrocious:
“Some people believe that having sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain situations. Do you think this applies to the following circumstances?”
The “this” in the second sentence is very, very vague. Respondents might have thought that they were being asked to identify the circumstances in which “some people” say non-consensual sex is justified, not the circumstances in which they believe it’s justified. (Also, I suspect that priming the question by saying that “some people” believe that non-consensual sex is okay might induce respondents to agree with statements they ordinarily would not.)
That, in my opinion, is enough to discount drawing any sort of broad conclusions from the survey. But for the sake of argument, let’s say every respondent understood the question. Some of the circumstances they asked about were vague enough to include sex that– legally speaking– simply isn’t rape.
On one hand, some of conditions listed are legally and morally reprehensible. Among them:
- “Wearing revealing, provocative or sexy clothing”
- “Having several sexual partners”
- “Being out alone at night”
But there are others are so broad or confusing, that they cover circumstances where legally and ethically, it isn’t difficult to think of cases where the initiator’s actions would be “justified” despite the lack of explicit consent.
- “Not clearly saying no or physically fighting back”
- “If the assailant does not realize what they are doing”
- “Being drunk or using drugs” (This was the most popular response)
The first one is baffling. There are cases of non-consensual sex where the victim’s passivity does not absolve the perpetrator: the rape of an unconscious woman, for example. But 99.9% of the time, sex where one’s partner is “not clearly saying no or physically fighting back” actually is consensual.
And remember how vague the first part of the question was: “Do you think this applies…”. It isn’t difficult to see how participants could be confused and think they were being asked whether or not sex where the other person isn’t actively saying “no” is rape. Most of the time, it isn’t.
More importantly, along with the second bullet point, it seems to cover cases where the perpetrator is genuinely unaware that the victim has not consented. Again, there are cases where legally that’s rape: such as when their lack of awareness is a result of their own, willing intoxication. But most European societies do not adhere to the “affirmative consent” standard, where someone has to proactively receive consent from their sexual partner. Most (like nearly all the U.S. states, California be damned) do not throw people in prison for a crime they had no reasonable basis to believe was occuring.
So if you were a barrister in England and were asked, “Is non-consensual sex justified if the assailant does not realize what they are doing?” the correct answer would be, “Often, yes.” But knowing that correct answer when asked by the EU would be tallied as rape apology.
The last bullet point is the thorniest. Again I would peg it as too vague. For one thing, it doesn’t even say who is supposed to be intoxicated in the hypothetical. WaPo states definitively in its lede that the respondents where talking about when the victim is drunk, but the actual question wording doesn’t say.
There’s a whole seperate controversy at play here I don’t feel like wading into. But suffice it to say, I’d imagine nearly all sexually active Europeans (and Americans) have had sex where one or both participants were intoxicated, but would chafe at the notion that they raped their partner. Again, there are incidents of intoxicated sex that are unequivocally rape, but others that legally aren’t.
If I were a bit more hackish, this is the part where I’d start snarking about “fake news.” But I’m not about to condemn The Washington Post for taking a government agency at its word. Instead, I see this more as a lesson in lazy journalism. There was an intersting angle here and some important qualifiers that got missed, and the story suffered because of it.
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.