Julian Assange, rape, and feminism

17 December 2010

I don’t know whether Julian Assange is guilty of rape — no one does.  I do know, from Jessica Valenti’s piece in the Washington Postthat all those crazy descriptions of the Swedish charges against him are untrue (there is no “sex by surprise” law in Sweden, nor is Assange accused of suffering a broken condom).  I fully believe that the case should be heard to determine whether he is guilty.  What I don’t understand — and what alarms me to no end — is the eagerness on the part of many to disbelieve all charges of rape levied against Assange in particular and powerful men in general, and to attribute those charges instead to ulterior motives.  In Assange’s case, obviously, commentators have suggested this is a cloaked attempt to dismantle WikiLeaks; in other cases, rape charges have been dismissed as mere vindictiveness by angry women.  During yesterday’s Slate/Double X Gabfest podcast discussion of the charges against Assange, not only did those “journalists” peddle in long-disproven rumors about “sex by suprise” et als, but they never once took it seriously that Assange might not be innocent. 

Again, I repeat:  I make no assumptions about Assange’s innocence or guilt; my concern is less with his case in particular than with the pattern.  When powerful men are accused of rape, those charges are pooh-poohed by members of the public — and this happens a lot.  Just google “athlete accused of rape” and take a look at reader comments on those stories, and you’ll get a chill.  Nor is the pooh-poohing limited to dudes.  Naomi Wolf wrote an unfunny yet purportedly humorous piece for the Huffington Post about the Assange case — a story so objectionable that Bitch Magazine pronounced her their Total Douchebag of the week.  And then, of course, there are the Slate women — Emily Bazelon, Hanna Rosin, and Margaret Talbot — who actually went so far as to write off the women as confused, paranoiac Assange groupies who felt some kind of vague post-consensual-sex resentment and then saw their stories snowball into international drama.  I’m not kidding.  Laughing about the “sex by surprise” account, Talbot joked, “That sounds kind of pleasant,” while Bazelon — ordinarily a highly informed expert in the law — first offered the bafflingly unenlightened observation that “I think one of the reason this story’s so titillating is that there’s no real way to know what went on” (Emily, have you never heard the details of a rape case before?) and then suggested that she saw two possible interpretations of the case:  either they are “avenging radical feminist devils, basically, who are out to get Julian Assange,” or, more likely (according to her):  

[I think] this kind of weird thing happened where all these people are kind of paranoid, right — they all, if you hang out with Julian Assange then you must have some streak of suspicion and anti-authority-ness in you.  And so these women, you know, had what seemed like, you know, just, like, sex with Julian Assange, they were hanging out with him the next day in both cases I think.  But then they got mad at him because he disappeared on them and somehow in the conspiracy-laden world they live in they decided they had to track him down, and that then they had to go to the police to do that, and then things kind of spun from there.

A quick enumerated response:

  1. Really?
  2. How much do you get paid to spout off on the Double X Gabfest podcast?
  3. Considering that Slate is a Washington Post affiliate, what is their excuse for not having read Valenti’s Post story of a week ago — at least to get their facts straight?
  4. Why do I still listen to this piffle?  (Answer:  it’s like picking at a scab. And it gets sent automatically to my iTunes with the wonderful Slate Culture Gabfest podcasts.)

This is not to say there hasn’t been an American feminist response to the story.  Jill Filipovic of Feministe had the tidiest statement yet asserting that we can take rape charges seriously at the same time that we can also see ramped-up international interest in the story being linked to the WikiLeaks controversy.  And the women at Tiger Beatdown are bound and determined to bring attention to those major media figures of the left, like Michael Moore and Keith Olberman, who have pooh-poohed the rape tale.

I keep insisting on neutrality about Assange’s guilt or innocence because I’ve become overly invested in other rape cases in the past, and had my heart broken at the results.  It’s a tragedy of our current political culture here in the U. S. that so many charges of rape have been stunningly and overwhelmingly proved to be false.  A tragedy for three reasons:  first, that such incidents contribute to the generalized skepticism I’ve already described, which hinder other women from using the law; second, that these women latch onto the charge of rape — a serious criminal offense — because they do not have other legal or cultural means of redressing lesser wrongs; and finally, a tragedy for the specific women who are so spectacularly discredited in public.  I’m thinking here in part, of course, of the woman who charged members of the Duke lacrosse team of rape in 2006; but that’s only the most vivid of many such cases in recent memory.  Thus, I know perfectly well that some women initiate charges of rape which are later proved to be false or exaggerated.

But in the meantime as Assange sits through house arrest while the charges are worked out, let’s get the facts straight, refrain from pre-judging the case, and — for heaven’s sake — stop giving powerful men the benefit of a culture that doesn’t take rape seriously.  Beware of doing otherwise, for the future looms before us.

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9 Responses to “Julian Assange, rape, and feminism”

  1. servetus Says:

    Good for you. I agree with you 100% here.

  2. Rob Says:

    I agree that this resolutely agnostic approach is precisely the right one. Also, the idea that there is a general tendency to assume rich or powerful men are innocent, which seems to emerge from the usually unspoken idea that they could get consensual sex if they wished, which in turn relies on the notion that rape is born of something like sexual frustration. I do think, however, that Asange’s case presents an additional wrinkle: it seems likely—not certain, but likely—that the charges against him are politically motivated. Lacan says that jealousy is always irrational, even if your partner really is cheating on you; these charges look to be politically motivated, even if Asange really is guilty of them. It would be nice if we had minds complex enough to sustain an appreciation of that level of moral complexity, but I doubt it. The right response would be to investigate Asange for rape, and to simultaneously investigate those who brought the case against him for bias and political corruption. And, as you suggest, wait to see what actually emerges in the way of real evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, not either/or (either he’s a rapist or he’s a victim of judicial corruption), but potentially considering both/and (he could be a rapist and a victim).

    • didion Says:

      Servetus, many thanks! And Rob, you’re absolutely right that we don’t need to ignore the political convenience of these charges to take them seriously. A wholly separate story is what Swedish officials were thinking in August, when they released news of these charges then quickly set them aside, and how that thinking changed by November, when suddenly they determined to take the charges seriously. Ah, for a public capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time (to use Jill Filipovic’s analogy).

      I’ve heard several stories recently of professional athletes charged with rape who retort that these charges are solely about extortion — they claim that there is a cottage industry of women who put themselves in the way of highly-paid men only to charge them with rape and walk off with settlement funds. How convenient an explanation — and how perfectly designed to mollify fans already eager to trust their heroes rather than women. Honestly: I think we need an international come-to-Jesus moment about rape, both culturally and legally.

      • servetus Says:

        Wow, if it’s true that there’s a subculture of women who do this, why aren’t athletes a little smarter and why don’t they just NOT HAVE SEX with random women? Why is a male athlete who sleeps around cool and the woman who sleeps around with him a slut?

  3. A.H. Scott Says:

    Great commentary!

    It’s nice to see someone out there in the feminist galaxy has an even handed approach to this situation. I don’t know whether Assange committed a crime against either of these two women. If he is extradited to Sweden and goes through the legal system and found guilty; then, so be it. But, if he goes through the system and is found not guilty; then will he be placed on a list of angels.

    Of course not.

    The tornado of so called feminists, who have come out of the woodwork to put their two cents into this conversation about Julian Asssange’s legal woes, are not holding the hands of the pair of women who are his ‘victims’. For the moment, I use the word ‘victim’, just in describing the two women’s status in the Swedish judicial system.

    I don’t know them. And, I don’t know him. But, what I do know from my perch here in cyberspace, is that the founder of Wikileaks has become the cause celebre for some feminists to plant their flag of opposition to.

    For me, there are 2 issues here;

    1. Rape/sexual molestation charges
    2. Wikileaks’ continuing document dump.

    First off, I don’t think anyone, be it female or male is diminishing the terrible action of rape/sexual assault. I for one, am in no way belittling the two women who stepped forward and went to the Swedish authorities. No woman or man should ever be forced to do anything they do not wish to do, in a sexual relationship with another.

    As for the second issue, I think that is one that we all should keep our eyes on. In some ways, Wikileaks dump of those docs, is under the anvil of attack from govt’s and other circles. Whether those in positions of power want to acknowledge it, Wikileaks (and it’s founder, Julian Assange) are journalists. They need to be held in the same esteem (or, lack there of), as The New York times, Washington Post, and every other highly prized publication in the world.

    No matter what happens to Julian Assange, we all must remember the truth is in black and white. And, it is for all the world to see. From all corners of the globe, the information affects every citizen in our society.

    Information is the key. Whether it be about wars and mankind’s inhumanity towards man. Or, the complexities of an intimate relation between two people.

    Assange might not be angel.

    Governments might use fine silk to obscure their horns….

    – A.H. Scott
    December 21, 2010


  4. The principal tragedy of false rape claims is to the men and boys falsely accused, of course.

    One need not look to the hanging trees in the Old South to know that the public scorn from false rape claims has caused more damage to innocent males than the scorn from any other type of false claim. False rape claims have caused innocent men and boys to be killed and to kill themselves; to be beaten, chased, spat upon, and looked upon with suspicion long after they are cleared of wrongdoing. They lose not only their good names but often their jobs, their businesses, and their friends. It is often impossible for the falsely accused to ever obtain gainful employment once the lie hits the news: for the remainder of his life, a falsely accused man will have prospective employers Googling his name and discovering the horrid accusation.

    • didion Says:

      It may well be true in many cases for ordinary men — I agree, Pierce. In fact, I’ve known women falsely accused of sexual harassment, too. But I want to maintain the spirit of this post by keeping the focus on accusations of rape against powerful men like Assange. In those cases I remain alarmed at the public’s eagerness to exonerate them before any evidence can be gathered, as well as to vilify the women doing the accusing. And those men often have the financial and media resources to either pressure the women to withdraw charges or disappear for a settlement before the law has the chance to assess the charges. Thus, I think we’re talking about two different sets of men; and my larger concern is with rape claims being dismissed by the culture at large when the statistics for sexual abuse (at least one of six women is abused in her lifetime) simply aren’t changing.


  5. […] Julian Assange, rape, and feminism « Feminéma A Remarkable Book from Wiley-Finance […]


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