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 Post, that 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:
- How much do you get paid to spout off on the Double X Gabfest podcast?
- 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?
- 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.