Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Murky musings on Julian Assange

So yesterday I hopped a couple of time zones to get back to my termtime home in charming Beijing. I’ve got a half-unpacked suitcase staring me in the face, my jetlag coping mechanism is frankly bordering on narcolepsy, and many of the things I wanted to write about are becoming progressively less and less relevant as time continues its tyrannical march forwards. A perfect time, in other words, to write about the timelessly tiring case of Julian Assange.

Now I’m aware that this blog has, thus far, not exactly been a multimedia experience. And that also, although I may spend several hours every day meditating on the feminist puzzles presented by Assange and his like, others may be less clear on who this man dude is and what he has got up to recently. In order to kill two birds with one stone, therefore, I present a mood board which should refresh your memory on everything Assange in one easy visual step:

This hopefully absolves me of having to actually go through all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of What’s Up With That Wikileaks Guy (transcontinental edition!), because frankly I’ve been going over the whole thing for hours and I still have no idea how to make a coherent story of this whole case. The basic tale is that Australian “Rockstar Journalist” Julian Assange, head of controversial news agency Wikileaks (which famously got hold of a whole load of US diplomatic cables a few years back thanks to a certain B. Manning- the USA was not pleased), went off to Sweden in 2010 and found himself in bed with a couple of women. Said women then went to the police, initially to force Assange to take a HIV test, but processes led to charges of rape being filed. Sweden filed extradition requests with the UK, who complied; Assange, however, had other ideas- fearing extradition to the USA, where he might face the death penalty for treason (or whatever Americans have that is treason but different, I can’t be bilexical all the time), he goes through various appeals against extradition, during which time he was placed under house arrest. Appeals fail, man takes logical next step and goes to Ecuador. Or, at least, the next best thing in London city centre, which is the Ecuadorian embassy. Ecuador, for its part, gets to be a paragon of upholding the values of human liberty, at least among certain circles. How novel.

It’s all a bit murky, even before one gets into the sex bit. For instance, there have not yet been any formal charges by Sweden against Assange, because these can’t be filed before a second round of questioning with the man, and prosecutor Marianne Ny refuses to do this until Assange is extradited. Fair enough, but Assange doesn’t need to be extradited for these interviews to take place, as arrangements between the UK and Sweden are in place to allow the whole thing to take place in Britain- but for reasons of her own, Ny hasn’t. Meaning the case drags on, Assange remains in “Ecuador” and the Wikileaks website gets to put up the number of days Assange has been arrested without charge in angry black letters at the top of its homepage.  And the whole business regarding potential extradition “onwards” also seems weird, given that Sweden does not habitually send people to countries where they face the death penalty. The part of the story where Ecuador- a country currently trying to outlaw protest so the state can acquire resource-rich land with less social uproar- becomes the chosen land of diplomatic freedom is probably more darkly amusing than confusing, although it does give me a fabulous reason to hate Rafael Correa, who publically sympathised with Assange’s plight by basically saying “that’s not rape in Ecuador”.

Yes, here we go, onto what you knew was going to be the subject of this Most Feminist Inquiry into the Life And Sexytimes of Julian Assange. I mean, we’re hundreds of words in and yet I’ve only mentioned three or four women, right?* So let’s move on to the murkiest, and most disturbing, and, As A Feminist, most depressing, part of this story: rape. Or “surprise sex”. Or “sexual assault”, or “harassment”, or “molestation”, or whatever words we want to use to get out of applying that rather unpleasant r-word to a case which, really, we’d rather just be about the politics.

Because that word is scary, and we therefore want it to be narrow. If anything, I’d say that the vague obsession with talking about Swedish rape law as “surprise sex” is because whatever happened in two Swedish apartments in 2010**** was emphatically not, to throw another silly descriptor into the mix, “attack sex”. It wasn’t a Bad Man standing in a dark alley waiting to attack an innocent virgin girl; it was a meeting between two adults that turned bad. The women even wanted him there to begin with, and say that they engaged in consensual sexual acts before the non-consensual ones. In other words, this was the kind of sex that Republicans think you can become pregnant from (for the record, just typing that hurt me a little). Throwing a rape allegation into a case about freedom of information and the legitimacy of secret intelligence networks is extremely discomfiting, so we are offered all these “softeners” to help it go down easier. It wasn’t really rape, it was surprise sex- and what an odd law that is, eh?

No. Hell no. It seems that this is a point where my feminist goggles truly do make me different from quite a lot of the world, because despite the apparent prevalence of the above opinion I cannot fathom how any intelligent, humanity-respecting individual can’t process something as simple as “no consent = rape”. We’re not in caricatured feudal Europe here, where roving castle lords get to take lusty maidens whenever and wherever they want. Women are not “asking for it” every time they wear an outfit that reminds men that they are a woman. Sex slavery might still an awful reality, but it’s not legal. I’m sorry to say- and I really, truly hope that this is not coming as news to you- that you cannot buy a season ticket to a vagina. Not even a full-day pass. Consent is a moment to moment thing, and without consent, sex is rape.*****

It’s really, truly, not rocket science. After all, in this day and age sex is supposed to be fun! Many women have freed themselves from semi-compulsory babies and semi-compulsory marriage, and whilst it’s still not an equal playing field out there in terms of gendered social stigma, things have got better for women who like shagging. If sex isn’t fun, then the prevailing opinion is that you’re doing it wrong. People who advocate consent aren’t suggesting that sex partners sit down beforehand and thrash out a legal contract- just to be crystal clear on what is no (the word “no” is a good start) and what is yes (again, the word “yes” works wonders, at least in the English speaking world), and to have enough respect for the other person (or people) to ask what’s going on if the signals aren’t clear. So why are we not automatically, as humans, condemning people who are fully aware that their partners don’t want to have sex, but are carrying on regardless (or even enjoying the lack of enjoyment)? How can that be anything, ever, except rape? Why are we trying to turn it into something decent- not how we’d want sex, of course, but if that’s what they’re into, and if person B didn’t like it then they shouldn’t have let person A into their house in the first place, and so on? After all, men aren’t werewolves (and nor are women)- no amount of horniness in a impairs judgement to the point where one “cannot stop”. We can all stop, if we’re decent human beings. Rapists choose not to.

None of this has anything specificity to Julian Assange. If he did what his two accusers said he did- use his body weight to pin down a woman so he could have sex with her after she’d asked him to stop, or initiate condomless sex with a sleeping woman he’d only known for a day (after she’d been arguing with him the entire previous night about using condoms every time, because STIs are kind of a thing Assange, and so are babies)- then under Swedish law and under what I truly wish were commonly held standards of interpersonal decency, he raped them. If that’s not true, he didn’t. Unfortunately, there’s a whole deeper level of murkiness which throws doubt on whether this will ever play out in a court of law. Naomi Wolf (more on her later!) made the feminist world cringe with a lot of her reaction to the rape allegations, but her remarks about the weirdness of the case are pretty insightful. The depressing take-home message is that the case isn’t being prosecuted like a rape, because on some levels it’s being taken seriously, and even in “feminist paradise” Sweden that’s not a normal state of affairs for a non Bad-Man-In-Dark-Alley rape. Maybe that’s a necessary evil in a realm of law which is so tied up in people’s most private lives, where almost every case is going to be one person’s word against another. The percentages of deliberately misreported rape- these “honey pots” that various men in power just tragically seem to fall into on occasion, pretty women put there just to tempt weak silly men, poor things- are on a par with other misreported crimes, at around 2-4%, but it’s always going to be hard to prove things that happen (usually) between two people in very intimate settings. But surely that just makes it more important to stress what consent is and how we can police ourselves.

And that’s why Assange’s case is so depressing. Because behind the murk and the politics, there’s just a whole lot of doubt about these rape charges and why they’re around. Maybe this individual instance really is a honey trap, a cunning ploy by a CIA agent to get Assange double-extradited to the USA where he can sit in a jail cell for revealing what the world’s dictators eat for breakfast. But that wouldn’t change what they would mean if they were true. Focusing on Sweden’s “odd” rape laws rather misses the point of what they are trying to achieve- even if Swedish authorities have little interest in enforcing them. Whatever happens here, we’ve tied up what should be a progressive definition of rape into a web of skulduggery and intrigue that throws scepticism on the entire process. And unfortunately that means, whatever happens to Assange, women lose.


*Although I’ve also only mentioned two or three men**, so my closet misandrist ratios aren’t suffering too much. Plus an excellent picture of William Hague on a waterslide! His throwing of that little diplomatic wobbly where he threatened to revoke the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian embassy didn’t make it into my earlier summary, which is a very tragic state of affairs. I hope you are nobody is relying on this blog as a sole news source***, you would be missing out on a fair bit of important contextualisation…

**If my counting is confusing you, this may be of interest.

*** Related: I’d just like to extend a very special welcome to the six visitors who apparently found their way here through a Russian sex site earlier today. It’s great to see my audience getting so cosmopolitan this early in the blogging process.

****And I’d just like to stress at this point that we don’t know what happened, Assange is not a convicted rapist or even a charged one. He is, however, a man taking a lot of pains to avoid being charged and brought to trial.

***** This goes for people of all genders, but I think bias towards rape as a women’s issue is somewhat justified both in terms of statistics (i.e who gets raped) and through the simple fact that there are fewer men who find themselves in bed with women who can physically coerce them. But of course it happens, and we should take it just as seriously.