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Aug 22 2012

Rape and Activism Are Not Mutually Exclusive: The Case Against Assange

It’s disturbing that the debate about Julian Assange and the rape charges against him has taken on such a black-and-white quality.

Either Assange did a terrible thing with WikiLeaks and ought to be tried for treason and is a vile rapist to boot, or WikiLeaks was an important and necessary project and Assange was right to publish the information and all those women accusing him of rape are lying bitches just doing it for attention/money.

Could it be that WikiLeaks is an important contribution to activism, but that Assange is also guilty of sexual assault?

I would say so.

According to the allegations against him, Assange had condomless sex with a woman after she insisted he use a condom, and he also had sex with her while she was asleep. The former is illegal under Swedish law*, and the latter is just obviously not consensual. You can’t consent if you’re asleep.

A British MP, however, disagrees:

Woman A met Julian Assange, invited him back to her flat, gave him dinner, went to bed with him, had consensual sex with him, claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again. This is something which can happen, you know. I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.

First of all, congratulations to MP George Galloway for devising the most awkward and unsexy way to refer to penis-in-vagina intercourse.

Second, what he said is technically true. Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each “insertion.” But if they don’t need to be asked, that is something they must indicate to their partner in order for sex to be consensual. If someone says, “Hey, you can have sex with me while I’m asleep” (assuming they say it while sober and of their own free will), then they’ve consented to sex while they’re asleep. If they say, “Next time we have sex, I would like you to take control and do what you want without asking for my consent,” then they have consented to “nonconsensual” sex (although setting a safeword is a good idea). But if they haven’t said anything like that, then yes, you need to ask.

Sleep notwithstanding, consent is still a process (something that even Naomi Wolf, who describes herself as a feminist, does not understand). Even if you’ve had sex with someone five hundred times, you still need their consent before you have sex with them again. Even if they’ve had sex with half of New York City, you still need their consent before you have sex with them. Even if they’re your spouse, you still need their consent before you have sex with them. If you don’t obtain their consent and have sex with them anyway, you are raping them. Even if they choose not to accuse you of rape, you’re still raping them. This is not a difficult concept.

Even those who understand that this is rape may doubt that Assange actually did it. Perhaps people think that he’s too committed to his cause to be the sort of guy who rapes people. However, it’s pretty naive to assume that passionate activists who truly care about making the world a better place cannot also be abusive in their personal lives. (If that were the case, this important book would not have needed to be written.) People are complex and full of contradictions, and they can compartmentalize their lives in surprising ways. For example, last week’s shooting at the Family Research Council headquarters was carried out by someone who volunteered for LGBT causes. There is no group of human beings–activists, liberals, LGBT people, atheists, socialists, what have you–that does not contain immoral, abusive individuals.

Also, it really says something about our society when people are more willing to believe that a government (or several governments) tracked down a man’s sexual partners and paid them to lie that he raped them, than that a powerful man may also be a rapist. Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how ridiculous and conspiratorial that is?

And despite the constant hand-wringing over the supposed prevalence of false rape accusations, this, too, seems outlandish given the reality. What could possibly motivate a woman to put herself through the process of pressing charges (which is traumatic enough to have been termed the “second rape“), have her character and personal history eviscerated in the media, face retribution from the person she accused, and have her name associated with the scandal for the rest of her life?

While “tons of money” could be the answer, that explanation nonetheless fails Occam’s razor. Given how common sexual assault is, it seems much more likely that Assange really raped those women than that somebody offered them thousands of dollars to frame him.

It’s possible, though, that the charges against Assange are false–and I don’t think we should assume that he’s guilty until he’s been indicted. But the assumption that he’s innocent just because his innocence would serve our political goals is dangerous.

Laurie Penny writes brilliantly in the Independent:

Let’s be clear here: nobody should have to stifle one set of principles in order to allow another to live. If you choose to do so, that’s a matter for your conscience. For myself, I believe in freedom of speech, and in the power of journalism– it’s what I do for a living. I believe that governments need to be made to answer for pursuing profit in the name of peace and massacring thousands in the name of security. I believe in ending the age of secrecy, and I believe that the United States currently seeks to prevent that by pursuing and prosecuting hackers, whistleblowers and journalists across the world. And I also believe women.

I believe women when they say that their sexual consent is infringed, violently and by coercion, by men they trust and admire, as well as by strangers. I believe that rape and sexual violence are wilfully ignored and misunderstood by governments, except when they happen to be accusing radical transparency campaigners of assault. I believe that it is possible to believe women and to support WikiLeaks at the same time without moral hypocrisy, and I believe that those across the left who seem to have a problem with holding those two simple ideas in their heads at the same time need to ask themselves what accountability actually means.

Read the whole piece. It’s worth it.

And make no mistake–if Assange did what he is being accused of, that’s not just “something which can happen.” It’s not, as Galloway also put it, “bad sexual etiquette.” That’s sexual assault.

Or, you know, “legitimate rape.

*On having sex without a condom against your partner’s wishes: as I mentioned, this is illegal in Sweden, but I don’t know how it works in U.S. law (anybody know?). Legal issues notwithstanding, it can be terrifying and traumatic–not to mention dangerous to your health–if a partner refuses to use a barrier and goes ahead with sex even though you’ve made barrier use a precondition for sex. I’ve known people that this happened to, and they felt violated just as any other victim of sexual assault might. It’s not something to take lightly.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Spanish Prof

    Ok, i’m am going to be in the minority here. I do believe the allegations against Assange, but I also believe that if he is extradited to Sweden there is a great chance that he will end up extradited to the United States. And what the US is interested in is Wikileaks. So I don’t trust the rule of justice if Assange were to be extradited to the US. I think he has a bigger chance of ending in a Bradley Manning situation. Furthermore, Ecuador has said more than one that they have sought reassurances from Sweden that they would never extradite Assange to a third country, and they were never given. Sweden has never denied the statement. 

    Also:
    “Also, it really says something about our society when people are more willing to believe that a government (or several governments) tracked down a man’s sexual partners and paid them to lie that he raped them, than that a powerful man may also be a rapist.” 

    I believe both, equally. 

    “Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how ridiculous and conspiratorial that is?”

    I don’t anything conspiratorial or ridiculous about the subject. From the CIA-backed Pinochet coup in 1973, to all the botched attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro (some quite funny), it sounds very normal to me. 

    The point is, the issue is complicated. If you send him to Sweden, there is a good chance that after a while he ends in similar conditions as Bradley Manning. if you don’t, a rape goes unpunished. Honestly, I don’t know which option to choose. But between England’s threat to raid the Ecuadorian embassy (they’ve backed down a little no), and the UK hypocrisy talking about human rights and what not when they decided to send Pinochet back to Chile not to be tried for his crimes, I’m leaning towards supporting the asylum. Yes, I know what it means on feminist terms, but issue are never so clear.

    1. 1.1
      Titfortat

      Throughout history conspiracies have not been unusual, but the norm. Could Assange be guilty of rape, most definately. Could it be that he is being set up for kicking a giant in the shins, most definately. The timing of the accusations do make you wonder though.

  2. 2
    Mauricio Maluff

    Great piece, though I do grant a bit more weight to the ‘conspiracy’ theories. You might enjoy this similar piece I read recently, which focuses on the extradition process. The important thing is to recognize that though it is almost certain that there is some shady business going on on the legal side of things, we must not minimize the claims of the rape victims.

    http://www.leninology.com/2012/08/assange-asylum-seeker.html

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Hm, I should’ve been more clear. My issue is that I’ve never heard of a conspiracy involving false rape accusations, and if they do happen, they are certainly much less common than powerful men raping people.

      I also intentionally didn’t discuss the extradition process because 1) I don’t understand it as well, and 2) I think it’s a separate issue. My argument was specifically targeted at people who deny that Assange could have committed rape, fullstop. As for what we do NOW, and how to take those charges seriously without also prosecuting Assange unjustly for the whole WikiLeaks thing, I think that’s a separate issue. And that’s something I have no answer for. (I don’t think anyone does.)

      I will read that link regardless, though. :)

      1. 2.1.1
        Mauricio Maluff

        No no, I agree. I realize your post serves a different purpose. I just think it’s important to also talk about the quite likely chance that there’s something funky going on in the Swedish side–though not on the victims’ part.

        1. 2.1.1.1
          Titfortat

          The truth is they are not victims presently. Assange hasnt even been formally charged with a crime. Supposedly they just want to talk with him about it. Calling them victims implies Assange is guilty. Not cool.

          1. Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

            Yo, I specifically avoided calling Assange guilty and kept saying “allegations” and “claims” rather than suggesting that they’re necessarily true. I even said that we should be careful not to assume guilt. So seriously, go troll somewhere else.

          2. Titfortat

            Try to chill Miriam,I was pointing that out to several of your posters in regards to the usage of the word victims. So, not trolling, commenting. Isnt that what public blogging is about?

          3. Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

            Do not tell me to “try to chill.”

          4. Titfortat

            Would “relax a little” be better? Tell you what, do me a favour and not refer to me as trolling and we should get along fine even if we dont see eye to eye. :)

        2. 2.1.1.2
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          I will refer to you however I want. It’s my blog. If you don’t like it, you’re free to go comment elsewhere. Your constant need to turn every conversation into one about men is the reason I refer to you as a troll.

          1. Titfortat

            Well, considering your writing has a gendered slant and Im a man we will probably run into it again. So if the slur makes you feel better I guess I am a troll.

          2. Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

            Alternatively, you can also write your OWN blog about men’s issues, and leave me to write about what I’d like to write about without derailing every conversation you take part in.

            I don’t have to write about men if I don’t want to. I am a woman. If you wrote a blog about men’s issues, I wouldn’t go on it and demand that you address the female perspective.

          3. Titfortat

            Miriam, you just wrote a post about women and a man. I didnt turn it into anything other than what it was. I referred to comments about this post.

        3. 2.1.1.3
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Should I link you to your previous commenting history, both on this blog and on Clarissa’s?

  1. 3
    Saturday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog

    [...] “Even if you’ve had sex with someone five hundred times, you still need their consent before you ha…” This is not supposed to be a difficult concept, I agree. Yet for some people it still is. I think the statement I quoted has to become part of  sex education everywhere. [...]

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