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6:32pm on Wednesday, 8th December, 2010:



That Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is wanted in Sweden on two counts of rape is not as ridiculous as it sounds. The reason is that the Swedish law on rape is itself ridiculous, such that what wouldn't count as even assault in most countries counts as rape there. If you were going to stitch someone up on a trumped-up rape charge, then of all Western countries it would be Sweden where you'd choose to do it. You may not even have to trump the charges up, either: when I was over there earlier this year, a friend of mine (who is a Swedish lawyer) explained that under Swedish law some 60% of all men in the world are guilty of rape.

I'm not an expert, of course, but the way it was described to me it seems that consent is not an issue and can happily be withdrawn a day after the event. What's important is the woman's "sexual integrity": any violation of this counts as rape.

OK, so far so good, except that violations include things like "force", which can be very minor: moving a woman's limb that she doesn't want to move, for example, or preventing her from moving when she does want to move — as might happen if, say, the man were lying on top of the woman and the force involved were gravity. Mr Assange appears to be accused of this particular act of rape. Another example of "but — !" is that if a woman wants to have protected sex and the couple have unprotected sex, that's rape. That sounds reasonable, too, until you discover that a burst condom means that what started as protected sex ends up as unprotected sex, and therefore the man is guilty of rape. Mr Assange appears to be accused of having fallen foul of this one, too.

As I said, I'm not an expert, and I may well be misinterpreting and over-extrapolating what was told me by someone who is an expert. However, what does seem to be clear is that if you extend a word as emotive as "rape" to cover cases that are this far from the core concept, you're stretching the meaning too far. The intention may be to make men think twice about having sex, because they don't want to be branded a rapist and sent to jail; however, in the long term all it will do is dilute the meaning of the word "rape", which will reduce its power. This always happens when people try to extend a meaning too far: swear too much and swearwords lose their potency.

I don't know whether Mr Assange is guilty or not of the charges that have yet to be brought against him. I do know, however, that if he's found guilty of rape, it's not the same notion of rape as we have in the UK.

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