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."

So what's "Mooreandme"? Last week, Sady Doyle from Tiger Beatdown initiated a protest on Twitter under the hashtag "Mooreandme". Read all about it here.

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.

Let's assume, for a minute, that we are “only” talking about a refusal to wear a condom. So the guy refused to wear a condom. So what? We hear that all the time, don't we? But the truth is that refusing to wear a condom when explicitly asked is a type of reproductive coercion. It means taking control over someone else's reproductive choices, and thus taking control over their body. And there is no “just” about that: that's abuse. Reproductive coercion is often part and parcel of an abusive relationship that also contains other forms of sexual, emotional or physical abuse. For more on this, see this article on TheCurvature.com

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


I support Julian Assange, but not because he has some sort of Svengali power over me. Far from it, I think he's a pretty average guy. But every person is innocent until proven guilty -- no matter the crime. Especially considering I was raped myself, I think it's stupid for everyone to be pontificating on this issue. Actually I would describe it as maddening to have everyone and their dog acting as though people accused of rape don't deserve due process.

I'm going to have to agree with you. There's been enough cases in the past where people have been falsely accused of rape that this isn't a black and white issue as much as the article writer is making it out to be.

I fully agree with you that the good he's done shouldn't exempt him from being prosecuted, if there was indeed any wrongdoing. However, don't believe the official story. You can read the police report, sure, but that's entirely one-sided. It doesn't mention the twitter messages that both victims kept posting over the following days saying how great he was and how they loved being there. It doesn't mention the *alleged* CIA ties of one of the victims.

Let's not forget the fact that he was in Sweden long after the events and the beginning of the police investigation, and only left after being granted permission by the prosecutor's office, who stated the charges were unfounded.

This article isn't really about Julien Assange and whether or not he's guilty. It's about media coverage of cases such as this, and about the victim-blaming that can result from it. We have no way of knowing whether or not Assange is guilty, and yet a lot of people have been willing to come to his defense automatically, and willing to denounce the alleged victims as liars. And this is a dynamic that we can often observe when the person accused of such a crime is someone who is well-known, even someone who is respected for what they have done, that people are willing to come to their defense and in the process make light of the charges. This process is very hurtful and upsetting to those of us who have experienced assault, as it belittles and makes light of our experiences.

All allegations of sexual assault need to be taken seriously, and all those accused need to have a fair trial, etc., the truth must come out, the right's of the accused respected and the guilty be punished, the victims supported, etc. But, what makes this case so anger-inspiring for me is that Interpol doesn't usually ever care about sexual assault, women's rights, etc., many crimes against women go by completely without attention by national and international law enforcement. The only reason that Assange was accused and brought in was because of his political importance. I think we could use this as an opportunity to talk about how so few cases, many even more severe than this, are deemed unworthy of time and resources by the governments/Interpol/etc.

Making light of the charges is very wrong.

However, the fact is that the women's charges in the police report genuinely don't add up, and are wildly inconsistent with their behavior. *If* the charges are true, then Assange is a rapist. But the balance evidence so far indicates that they aren't true -- and all the evidence indicates that one could not prove rape beyond a reasonable doubt. Which is presumably why the prosecutor initially dropped the charges, until political interference from above caused them to be reinstated.

Which is why it seems clear this is part of a smear campaign against Assange.

Perhaps more troubling is that Assange does appear to be the kind of guy you do not want to go out with, a self-obsessed, disrespectful person. And yet clearly doing important things to expose governmental crimes. But this is all getting lost due to the combination of demonization of Assange on the one hand, and lionization of Assange on the other hand. The worst combinations of bad thinking are coming out: not only the rape apologia and general sexist bigotry on the one hand, but the sexual prudery as a tool to smear people on the other hand. It's kind of awful, as I don't think either helps the situation.

I published this analysis of Swedish rape law in the context of other European countries last year, when a comparative study was released in which Sweden had the highest number of accusations and the lowest number of convictions. It was published in The Local, an English-language media site in Sweden and may be helpful as background to the Assange affair: http://www.lauraagustin.com/is-rape-rampant-in-gender-equal-sweden

Best, Laura Agustín
The Naked Anthropologist http://www.lauraagustin.com

Thanks so much for sharing that link! There's been so much talk lately about Swedish laws around this, so it's nice to get some background.

Thank you for writing this. I'd been hearing a lot about the case and I was getting frustrated with how people are dismissing the rape charges.

You are so very welcome!

It was absurd of Wolf to use the term 'sexual negotiation' -- I've not read up on Swedish law, but the essential word would be 'consent'. Neither negotiation nor consent is a fact when someone is holding you down despite your protests, or when someone starts intercourse while you are unconscious. She also is perpetuating the rape myth that victims must act a certain way for their claims to have validity.

And then there are the trotted out claims about one of the women being a feminist and another accused of working with the CIA, or that this is all some conspiracy to eventually extradite this man to the U.S. How many have governments have went after international figures on so called trumped up rape charges again? Doesn't falsely accusing someone in rape, in the slim hope you could somehow convict him and then extradite him to another country to face other charges, strike anyone else as ridiculous? Feminists and women who work for the CIA can and are sexually assaulted -- it's a misleading and poor explanation as to why anyone would falsely accuse someone or rape. I'm disturbed by the numbers of intelligent, skeptical individuals who are buying into this no evidenced conspiracy theory that is, in part, being propogated by Assange's own laywers.

It's hard to respect this article due to its selective omissions, and creative copy paste from the allegations. For instance, in the case of Miss A, you say Miss A claim "he held her down forcefully, ripped her necklace, and removed her clothing even when she protested". Why stop there? The her full claim is:

Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.

Also regarding the comment, yes he insisted in not using it, and again he was pushy and physical with her. Her statement however says more:

The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.

Finally, to be fair, you do mention in the article that they went to the Police station to try and get him to be tested for STI. This is also quite relevant. They did not go to the police after the incident, and they did not go to the police to press sexual abuse or rape charges. They went to the Police when they found out about each other, and were afraid he had been having regular unprotected sex with women.

So there's a lot you could have done with an article about Assange. Clarify your readers about what really is rape and what is not. Talk about the dangers of unprotected sex. Discuss how you may regret some of your decisions later. But you just decided to do some cherry picking in a way that makes the woman look good and the guy look bad. Very disappointing.

I'm not sure that we can talk about cherry-picking quotes when the links to the entire document are supplied alongside with the quotes, thus giving every reader the option to look at the original source and form their own opinion on it. Further, I used those quotes to support my claim that manipulation and coercion are not consent: though they give in in the end (which I never denied), they give in after considerable struggle. And that's not consent, that's coercion.

If you're interested in a definition of "rape", you can click on the word which leads you right to our glossary, or you can look at any of our numerous articles on the topic.