The Great Feminist Smackdown: Rape Allegations against Julian Assange

I want to begin by quoting in full a letter to the Guardian, written by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape:

Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations (Report, 8 December). Women in Sweden don’t fare better than we do in Britain when it comes to rape. Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that “up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported”. They endorsed Amnesty International’s call for an independent inquiry to examine the rape cases that had been closed and the quality of the original investigations.

Assange, who it seems has no criminal convictions, was refused bail in England despite sureties of more than £120,000. Yet bail following rape allegations is routine. For two years we have been supporting a woman who suffered rape and domestic violence from a man previously convicted after attempting to murder an ex-partner and her children – he was granted bail while police investigated.

There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.

Katrin Axelsson

Women Against Rape1

Since Axelsson wrote that letter, Swedish police documents have leaked—again to the Guardian and there has been a highly emotional debate about the allegations—still not made into actual charges—against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Michael Moore, who in a defense of Assange cited the above letter and an Amnesty International report on rape enforcement in Nordic countries,2 has been attacked vociferously for slandering Assange’s accusers despite having written only of them two things, first that he doesn’t “pretend to know what happened between Mr. Assange and the two women complainants (all I know is what I’ve heard in the media, so I’m as confused as the next person)”3 and:

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.” And regardless of Assange’s guilt or innocence (see the strange nature of the allegations here), this man has the right to have bail posted and to defend himself.4

Moore, along with a lot of other people, has noticed the elephant in the room, namely an infuriated United States government that is determined to prosecute Assange and seems to be torturing Bradley Manning—a young Army private who allegedly leaked the documents to WikiLeaks—in order to coerce Manning into testifying against Assange.5 6 Yet somehow, according to many on Twitter7 and elsewhere, that translates into an attack on Assange’s accusers.

That’s not to say these women have nothing to fear. A Counterpunch story is much less restrained, mocking the accusations and naming both of Assange’s accusers.8 I’d go into hiding, too.

More interesting yesterday was a debate on Democracy Now! between Jaclyn Friedman, co-author of Yes means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape9 and Naomi Wolf.10 Both of these women’s feminist credentials are in order. But according to Mary Elizabeth Williams, Wolf is now “bananas”:

It’s not that the rush to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on “one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape” wasn’t mighty questionable. After all, it’s pretty funny how often individuals accused of sex offenses gallivant around the globe with relative impunity — until they start publishing classified documents. And since the allegations first arose back in August, there have been several conflicting accounts, massive mishandlings and plenty of speculation over whether this is a case of abuse or just of a man who doesn’t like to wear condoms.

But just because a story smells a little off, that doesn’t make it completely rotten. It shouldn’t anyway — unless you’re Wolf, who, in a snippy open letter to Interpol this week, decided Assange had been a victim of “the dating police,” because he’d been “accused of having consensual sex with two women.” Actually, among other things, one of the alleged victims accused him of having decidedly nonconsensual sex with her while she was asleep, and the other has accused him of “using his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.”11

By my standards, and if these allegations are true, Assange was quite a jerk. But the trouble I’m seeing comes in two different visions of consent. One casts women in a traditional gender role as sexual gatekeepers. While all feminists insist that “no means no,” this view understands ambiguity to be just that. It effectively casts women as passive receivers of men’s advances and allows them to not take the initiative in sexual or in romantic matters. It allows women to mean yes without seeming aggressive or “forward.”

Wolf seemed to me to fare better in the debate on Democracy Now!, but in her book, Friedman articulated a vision where women could take the initiative with an understanding that sex would only occur when all concerned explicitly said yes.

In her match-up with Wolf, Friedman argued from a standpoint that the vision she advocated in her book was already in effect. Wolf never even acknowledged this but relied on the more traditional understanding.

To be frank, I would prefer that Friedman’s vision were in force and widely understood and accepted. It would eliminate a lot of misunderstandings and I agree with Friedman that it would put men and women on a more equal footing. But I also see how some people—of both genders—who indulge in various games of dominance and submission, perhaps without labeling it as such and practicing the forms of consent that such communities demand, might see it as limiting. And it is quite clear to me that the traditional view remains in effect across the wider portion of our culture.

And judging from the Amnesty International report, while Sweden has made considerable advances in promoting women’s rights in the public sphere, these advances do not extend within the home or to police investigations of rape allegations. That’s why Axelsson’s and Moore’s writings on the allegations against Assange carry so much force.

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