For those of you who haven’t heard, Julian Assange, founder and editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, the non-profit media organization responsible for releasing a host of otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous news sources, including, most recently, thousands of classified diplomatic cables in an incident now known fondly as “Cablegate,” has been arrested for rape allegations.
Whew. That was a long sentence. And this is a sort of complicated story. But the situation is basically this. Assange made lots of trouble for lots of people by exposing all these secret messages, but he also became a kind of hero for some champions of freedom of information. Then, word got out that two Swedish women had brought charges against Assange in August for rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. And now, he’s being held by Swedish authorities, without bail.
Since I don’t personally have access to either of the women who brought the charges, nor to their testimonies, it is hard to get a good sense of the details of the case and the charges against Assange. But it sounds like it has something to do with negotiations around condom usage. And despite the fact that no one has all the facts, many have been weighing in on the case anyway, rushing to defend one side or another (mostly Assange’s side) and inevitably engaging in the same old patterns of victim blaming and shaming. Feminist blogs have already done a pretty good job of responding to the messed up media narrative around Julian Assange’s rape allegations already. So rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll provide a quick roundup of coverage below and then provide a brief take of my own.
Jill offers some thoughts on “sex by surprise” over at Feministe:
“Commenters are saying that Assange didn’t really rape anyone, and these are trumped-up charges of “sex by surprise,” which basically means that Assange didn’t wear a condom and so days later the women he slept with are claiming rape.”
But she make no bones about it:
“Withdrawal of consent should be grounds for a rape charge (and it is, in Sweden) — if you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.”
Jezebel weighs in with a similar perspective, noting that the “the case against Assange isn’t cut-and-dried” but that “piecing it together is what the legal process is for” and criticizing the rather systematic media habit of trying to discredit the alleged victims.
Kate Harding does an equally noble job over at Salon.com of criticizing the rush to smear Assange’s rape accuser despite a lack of credible evidence. “When I see a swarm of people with exactly zero direct access to the facts of a rape case loudly insisting that the accusation has no merit, I usually start to wonder about their credibility,” she says. Zing. She goes on with a bit of fantastic sarcasm:
“The fact is, we just don’t know anything right now. Assange may be a rapist, or he may not. His accuser may be a spy or a liar or the heir to Valerie Solanas, or she might be a sexual assault victim who now also gets to enjoy having her name dragged through the mud, or all of the above. The charges against Assange may be retaliation for Cablegate or (cough) they may not. …So, it’s heartening to see that in the absence of [public evidence], my fellow liberal bloggers are so eager to abandon any pretense of healthy skepticism and rush to discredit an alleged rape victim based on some tabloid articles and a feverish post by someone who is perhaps not the most trustworthy source…What a fantastic show of research, critical thinking and, as always, respect for women.”
Lindsay Beyerstein offers a feminist lawyer’s take on the case over at Big Think, distinguishing between the case and the allegations. “The case against Assange may be baseless, but that doesn’t mean the very allegations against him are trivial or nonsensical.” Beyerstein concludes by finding a bit of a happy medium:
“We can agree that the legal response to what Assange allegedly did reeks of politically-motivated prosecution without passing judgment on the merits of the allegations against him.”
And, of course, there’s Naomi Wolf. Oh, Naomi Wolf. The bona fide feminist superstar and author of the beloved Beauty Myth has been catching some flack lately, and deservedly so. First, she showed her own ignorance when at a recent panel in New York, she admitted to not knowing the definition of cisgender. Then, she goes on to publish this pretty embarrassing defense of Assange, in which she refers to Assange’s arresting authorities as the “World’s Dating Police” and accuses the alleged victims of “using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings.”
Our very own Jessica Valenti was quick to point out the shortcomings of Wolf’s ill-informed position:
“I’m sure Wolf thought she was being clever and pithy by writing that Assange was arrested by the “dating police.” But for those of us who have been paying attention to the case – be it by tweeting, blogging, or taking the two seconds it requires to Google what the actual charges are – it just comes off as victim-blaming and callous…I guarantee you that her glibness about this case will be quoted by rape apologists the world over.”
Now that you have a basic sense of what’s been said by whom on this issue, I’ll share a little opinion of my own. But instead of weighing in on the host of unknowns that haunt this situation– Did Assange refuse to wear a condom that his partner demanded, and thus commit rape? Is he being unfairly prosecuted because of his role in Cablegate? — I’ll take this opportunity to issue a reminder of the reality of sexual assault and the importance of continued investment in technologies that place the power of prevention and consent in women’s hands.
Last week marked World AIDS Day, and in recognition, I published a piece on RHRealityCheck centered around woman-initiated HIV prevention methods. I wrote that these are key to the fight against HIV because they offer agency and protection to a disproportionally vulnerable demographic—women. I feel strongly that these are important because globally, many girls and young women, especially the very young, cannot refuse unwanted sex or negotiate condom usage and thus protection from pregnancy and STIs, including HIV, when they fear retaliation.
Regardless of what happened between Assange and his accusers, the reality is that women face situations of sexual assault and violence every day, all over the world. While we don’t have the power to change what happened between Assange and his accusers, or even know the details for ourselves, we do have the power to support technologies that empower women to negotiate their own safety and give them more control over their bodies and their sexual activity. Click here for more information about one such technology– the female condom– and read my whole piece over at RHRealityCheck for more. Hopefully, in the wake of this Wikileaks/Assange incident, we feminists can facilitate a different kind of “information leak”: one that draws attention to women’s global and diverse experiences with negotiating condom usage, and that focuses on new and emerging technologies that offer women more choices and greater empowerment.