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.