Julien Assange, Rape Apologism and the Media
If you haven't been living under a rock the past few weeks, you'll have noticed that there's big media hoopla about one Julian Assange. Everyone seems to have an opinion and something to say about him, and between Swedish arrest warrants, Interpol searches, public defenses by people like Michael Moore, and protests to these defenses by many feminist bloggers, it's getting hard to separate fact from bias and get to the bottom of what is really going on.
So, what IS going on here?
As you probably know, Julian Assange is the founder and main spokesperson of WikiLeaks, a media organization that publishes classified documents. The aim is to release information that is otherwise kept confidential in order to expose secret, and possibly illegal or questionable going-ons in international politics. The website was launched in 2006, and initially received mostly positive attention for its fight for freedom of information. But increasingly, governments have been accusing WikiLeaks of presenting a security risk and endangering international diplomacy. The conversation around WikiLeaks has become increasingly visible over the course of this past year due to several particularly highly publicized releases on the platform.
Then what happened?
On December 7th, Assange was arrested in the UK. This seemed to happen out of the blue, and the assumption was made that false allegations were being made against him by governments who feared exposure via his media platform. That is a valid concern, certainly, and even upon closer examination the suspicion remains that the investigation against him is being pursued with an uncommon, and likely politically motivated, ardor. Because over the past few years Assange has become a hero in the progressive community, a lot of people have been willing to come to his defense. They feel that, because of what he has done with his work, he is above reproach in every arena, and that the allegations against him must be false. So, some have dismissed these allegations as false, trickery, and a smear-campaign.
However, the allegations were not invented, they are serious, and they certainly cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand. In August of this year, two women in Sweden went to the police to find out whether they could force Assange to submit an STI test. The police, upon hearing their stories, opened a sexual assault investigation and confronted Assange with the allegations. They scheduled a further interrogation with Assange for October. However, Assange left Sweden in September and did not return for the interrogation – hence his arrest in December.
Both women described sexual assaults by Assange. The details of the police report were released in the UK newspaper The Guardian on December 17th, and, if true, fit the legal definition of sexual assault and, in one case, rape. The first woman, Miss A, claims he held her down forcefully, ripped her necklace, and removed her clothing even when she protested. The second woman, Miss W, claims that she woke up to Assange having sex with her, asked him to at least use a condom, and then let him go on regardless because she “couldn't be bothered” to keep asking him. Apparently, she had been having that conversation with him all day, and he had continually refused to use protection.
And this is where this becomes a topic that's worth writing about on Scarleteen. The way this case has been handled in the media has been both hurtful to rape survivors and harmful to the cause of fighting rape.
At RAINN and other organizations which publish data about sexual abuse and assault, you can find statistics about the number of rapes that are reported, and the number or rapes that result in an arrest or prosecution. According to RAINN, only 39% of all rapes are reported to the police. Of those, only 50% result in an arrest (thus, less than 20% of all rapes result in an arrest). Given these statistics alone, it's clear few survivors of sexual assault or rape have their stories taken so seriously, and their alleged perpetrator pursued so enthusiastically, even though all rape charges should be taken this seriously and pursued this avidly. Consequently, to a lot of survivors who had their reports dismissed out of hand, it can seem like a slap in the face to see how such a case can be handled when the alleged rapist happens to be an international person of interest.
Secondly, in an attempt to defend Assange, some otherwise progressive people have belittled the charges made by these women. They dismissed them as coming from a desire for revenge, or for money, and they claimed that the charges were blown out of proportion and do not, in fact, constitute rape.
The most vocal of these voices came from Michael Moore and Naomi Wolf. Michael Moore, with two others, posted bail to have Assange released from prison in the UK until his hearing, scheduled for January 11th. As part of his explanation why he was doing this, he insisted that the allegations are purely politically motivated, and that there was no reason whatever to take them seriously. On his blog, he writes:
"For those of you who think it's wrong to support Julian Assange because of the sexual assault allegations he's being held for, all I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey. Please -- never, ever believe the "official story."
Naomi Wolf, prominent feminist and author, wrote two articles for the Huffington Post claiming, for the most part, the same thing: that the allegations are baseless and motivated by revenge. She goes further, stating that, in 23 years of working with rape survivors, she's never come across a case so ambiguous and so full of consent. In a discussion on Democracy Now with Jaclyn Friedman on December 20th, she goes so far as to call the sexual assaults described by the two women in Sweden as "model cases of sexual negotiation."
As a woman, as a feminist, as a survivor, I cannot read these articles (or listen to that discussion) without tearing at my hair and feeling an intense desire to scream.
It should be possible, especially for people within the progressive community who are interested in nuances and aware of how one-sided popular media representations can be, to see both sides of the issue, rather than painting in black and white. It is possible to concede that the way in which Assange is being pursued here is uncommonly enthusiastic and is likely politically motivated, and still remain respectful of the women, take their charges seriously, and concede that it is possible even someone who's considered a progressive hero could also be a rapist.
What's been reported here DOES constitute sexual assault. Contrary to a popular myth, we are not talking about a dispute over a condom, which would not be legal grounds for an investigation in Sweden, UK or the US. What we're talking about here, in the case of Miss A, is sexual assault, if nothing else. She claims that Assange held her down, took off her clothes against her wish, and ripped her necklace. When non-negotiated, that's not part of consensual sex (contrary to what Wolf insinuates on Democracy Now, we're not talking about a pre-negotiated scene here). Miss W alleges that Assange started to have sex with her while she was asleep: a sleeping person cannot give consent, and again that's the case in Swedish law as well as in UK and US law. This is not at all ambiguous – it's a clear violation of consent. Further, Miss W asking Assange to use a condom and giving in when he refuses does not constitute sexual negotiation, and it's certainly no model example of anything other than coercion. Miss W states that she could not be bothered to continue to have that discussion – apparently she had asked him several times to use a condom, and he had refused several times. She's expressing being worn down. Giving in because you've given up is not the same thing as giving consent. Coercing and pressuring someone into having a kind of sex they do not want to have is sexual assault. It's not harmless, it's not ambiguous, and it is not consenting.
It's sad but true that we are used to hearing allegations of rape and sexual assault minimized and dismissed in the media by certain people. There is no question that this is offensive to rape survivors and harmful to our society as a whole, as it normalizes rape and thus makes it easier for people to rape, as they either do not realize that's what they are doing, or feel confident that they will not have to face any consequences. But when these dismissals come from our own community, from people we thought we could count on, it's doubly hurtful and disappointing.
This is not the first time that this has happened. Some of you may remember a similar controversy surrounding Roman Polanski, who was kept under house-arrest in Switzerland for sexual assault charges last year. Here, too, many people had a hard time separating his fame, power and talent as a filmmaker from the charges against him. But however unfortunate it may be, it's entirely possible to be a gifted filmmaker and a rapist at the same time, just like it is entirely possible to be a gifted athlete and a rapist at the same time, or a crusader for freedom of information and a rapist at the same time. Being basically a nice guy, having a talent, fighting for a right – none of that means that someone can't also be a rapist. Claiming any different helps to perpetuate the myths that only rape committed by a deranged criminal with a knife in a dark alley is “real” rape, and that anything else comes in shades of grey, or is probably not rape at all.
And the more often this myth is repeated, the more people believe it, and the more rapists get away with it.
Here is some further reading:
Statistics on rape reporting
NYT coverage of the allegations
Guardian coverage of the allegations
Naomi Wolf/Jaclyn Friedman discussion on Democracy Now
Comment by Feministe
Comment by Kate Harding