I haven’t blogged about Julian Assange and Wikileaks because I’ve been trying to understand before I judge. I’m still not willing to offer any final judgment on the rape allegations against Assange. That’s for a Swedish court of law to do, assuming that he’s extradited and the prosecution continues to press its case.
I feel confident about three things, though. If the Guardian’s article presents a good approximation of the facts, some sort of sexual assault occurred. (I’m well aware that Assange disputes his accusers’ accounts, and he deserves a chance to rebut them in court if formal charges are brought.) Secondly, anyone who dismisses the women’s accusations out of hand is out of line – and that goes doubly for feminists, who have every reason to know better. Lastly, even if the accusations never lead to a conviction, Assange is still an insufferable egotist who treats women like crap. That’s not a crime but it does raise questions about whether the left should continue to lionize him as a hero.
As I’ve already stated, I support what Wikileaks is trying to do. But as many other feminists have already argued, we can support its mission without preemptively assuming that Julian Assange is innocent of sexual assault. We don’t have to assume he’s guilty, either. We can instead support due process for Assange (including his right to bail) while also insisting that his accusers be treated respectfully, their allegations investigated, and their privacy protected. Or as Jill at Feministe said: “Seriously, we can chew gum and walk at the same time.” Seriously!
It’s still not clear what charges will be filed against Assange. Indeed, it’s still possible that Swedish prosecutors will decide the case is too difficult to win in court and decline to press charges. In that case, Assange just might be better off in Sweden than in Britain; should the U.S. cook up a brand-new crime and try to extradite Assange, I suspect Sweden would be less likely to cooperate than would Britain, with its “special relationship” to the U.S.
* * * * *
For the sake of conjecture, let us say that events transpired as described by the Guardian. Let us, for the sake of fairness, assume that the defendant is a fictional character we’ll call Albino Aussie. This lets us run a thought experiment without prejudging the actual real-world case. We will assume for this experiment that the women’s accounts are factual. In the real world, of course, the male protagonist disputes their statements, and we don’t have his side of the story. That would matter crucially in a court of law. The intent of my little thought experiment is more modest: to ask whether the alleged actions constitute sexual assault.
[The account of Miss A.] to police, which [Albino Aussie] disputes, stated that he began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.
According to the statement, Miss A then realised he was trying to have unprotected sex with her. She told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.
Ripping off clothing is standard fare in romance novels. It could be good fun in an established relationship where one partner knows for sure that their partner would like to be ravished in this way. But with no discussion about desires and predilections? Albino Aussie made some major assumptions. Once Miss A. started to put her clothes back on, he had a stop signal – a flashing red light – and he chose to ignore it. (Also, Albino Aussie was a complete asshole to wreck her necklace. Not a crime, but that would have been a deal-breaker for me.)
His attempt to keep her from grabbing a condom is not sexy by any standard. It’s coercive. By itself, it doesn’t constitute sexual assault, but it could be significant if it signaled his intent and he then did “something” deliberately to break the condom, as Miss A. alleges. Criminal intent (mens rea) is a key element in sexual assault law in the United States (except for statutory rape), and it would be surprising if it were irrelevant in Sweden.
Similarly, Albino Aussie ran roughshod over the insistence of the second complainant, Miss W., that he wear a condom:
Miss W told police that though they started to have sex, Assange had not wanted to wear a condom, and she had moved away because she had not wanted unprotected sex. [Albino Aussie] had then lost interest, she said, and fallen asleep. However, during the night, they had both woken up and had sex at least once when “he agreed unwillingly to use a condom”.
Early the next morning, Miss W told police, she had gone to buy breakfast before getting back into bed and falling asleep beside Assange. She had awoken to find him having sex with her, she said, but when she asked whether he was wearing a condom he said no. “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV’ and he answered: ‘Of course not,’ ” but “she couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”
Note that Miss W. never consented to sex without a condom. In fact, she was adamant that she would refuse consent to unprotected penetrative sex. Nothing changed between the evening and the morning, except that Albino Aussie chose to ignore the critical conditions on which her consent was premised.
Whether any of Albino Aussie’s actions constitute “rape” will depend on the specifics of Swedish law. But there’s every reason to understand them as sexual assault of some form, even if they don’t rise to the standard of rape. He violated the conditions of consent that Miss W. had explicitly and repeatedly stated as a categorical prerequisite to sex. He initiated sex while she was sleeping and could not possibly say no. While the Guardian doesn’t specify the exact type of sex, it’s reasonable to assume PIV since she responded that he’d better not have HIV.
In the case of Miss A., Albino Aussie violated her conditions of consent by ejaculating inside her without protection. (If he was unaware that the condom broke – which is unlike if, as Miss A. claims, he ripped it himself – Swedish law might still allow prosecution on the basis of recklessness, though again I’m speculating since there’s precious little info on Swedish law.) He also ignored her clear signal to slow down and check in with her when she began to dress herself again in the midst of their encounter – an action that obviously signals NO.
To my mind, the clearest-cut example of sexual assault here is the allegation that he had sex with a sleeping woman. She could not possibly consent. What’s more, his decision to have unprotected sex clearly violated the terms of consent that she’d insisted on all night long. No way could he reasonably assume he was giving her something she wanted. (Jill at Feministe has a great analysis of the limits and nuances of consent; she wrote it before the Guardian piece appeared, but her basic points are still relevant. Plus, she’s a real lawyer … and I’m not even a fake one.)
Again, we don’t know what happened. But the substance of the allegations amounts to much more than “sex by surprise” (whatever that might be!). The allegations definitely fall on the spectrum of sexual assault. Everything else that allegedly happened – the fact that Miss A. let her guest continue to sleep in her apartment, partied with him, didn’t contact the police for days – is immaterial, if indeed events went down as she and Miss W. described them.
The allegations are not atypical for date rape cases. As a professor and as a feminist, I hear too many stories from students that echo elements of this case: the desire to normalize things the next morning, pressure to keep the social fabric intact by keeping accusations private, fear of character assassination if one does report, reluctance to label one’s experience as rape instead of – as Miss A. called it – “the worst sex ever.” (That last point is borne out by research done by Arnie Kahn, who found that many college-aged are reluctant to call nonconsensual sex “assault” if the perpetrator is a friend or lover. See Arnie S. Kahn, “What College Women Do and Do Not Experience as Rape,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28 (2004), 9-15.)
* * * * *
Feminists who’ve worked with college students and rape survivors should be aware of all this. And yet … Naomi Wolf is not. Or more likely, she chooses to repress what she knows, because she so fiercely wants Assange to be able to continue his work with Wikileaks. Here’s Wolf (in the HuffPo):
I see that Julian Assange is accused of having consensual sex with two women, in one case using a condom that broke.
Um, no. Compare with the accusations above. In the second instance, the allegation is that the sex was not consensual, because Miss W. had not consented to barebacking, and she had no opportunity to say yes or no while she was sleeping.
I understand, from the alleged victims’ complaints to the media, that Assange is also accused of texting and tweeting in the taxi on the way to one of the women’s apartments while on a date, and, disgustingly enough, ‘reading stories about himself online’ in the cab.
Um, no. Self-centered texting is not among the allegations. I’m no expert in Swedish law, but I don’t think they’ve outlawed egotism yet. Just file this nugget away for the last part of this post (on why Assange is a douche).
Wolf expanded on her flippant HuffPo piece in an interview with Amy Goodman, which also included Jaclyn Friedman. Wolf said one thing I agree with: We do need to expect women to behave as “moral adults.” Sure. We cannot expect men to simply intuit a woman’s every wish. But Wolf didn’t stop there:
If you read these allegations, he took off Miss A’s clothes too quickly for her comfort. She tried to tell him to slow down, but then, quote, “she allowed him to undress her.” This is what the report says. The second woman says she woke to find him having sex with her. When she asked whether he was wearing a condom, he said no. Quote, “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV.'” He answered, “Of course not.” Quote, “She couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”
So, if you’re going to treat women as moral adults and if you’re going to take the issue of rape seriously, the person who’s engaging in what he thinks is consensual sex has to be told, “I don’t want this.” And again and again and again, these women did not say, “This is not consensual.” Assange was shocked when these were brought up as complaints, because he had no idea that this was not a consensual situation. Miss A kept Assange in her home for the next four days and threw a party for him.
Thing is, the women did say and signal: “I don’t want this.” At some point, both of them gave up on him getting the memo. But dang it, Assange – or “Albino Aussie,” if you will – had every opportunity to see the yellow and red cards the women were pulling. And instead of saying, “OK, being ravished is not your thing – so what would really turn you on?” he just keeps going on autopilot, ripping bodices until Miss A. gives up resistance. Instead of asking, “Should we do something else, since I only want to fuck bareback?” he waits until Miss W. is sleeping and slips it to her against her express wishes.
These women did act as moral adults. They delineated their boundaries. They tried to negotiate a satisfying, sexy experience for both partners. They said and signaled no to activities they found disturbing or unacceptable. According to their allegations, he drove a bulldozer over their moral agency.
How many times should a woman have to say no for it to count?
A final beef with Wolf: In the Democracy Now interview, she insinuates that only violent stranger rape is real rape:
In 23 years, I’ve never seen any man in any situation this ambiguous, involving this much consent, have any kind of legal process whatsoever. And all over the world, women who have been gang-raped, brutally raped, raped in alleyways, pimped, prostituted, trafficked, you know, their rapists go free.
Yeah, well, most rapists will never be convicted. But does the existence of violent stranger rape make date rape irrelevant, trivial, or harmless? Wolf and I are almost exactly the same age. It was our generation of college students that first started talking about date rape in the mid-1980s. Wolf knows that date rape is real rape. Just a few years ago Wolf accused Professor Harold Bloom groped her inner thigh back when she was an undergrad. That might not have been a case of sexual assault, but it was at least sexual harassment. No trafficking or gang-rape occurred, yet Wolf saw fit to publish the incident in New York Magazine. I’m not saying she was wrong to do so, only that she seems to have lost her compass since then. How else to explain her assertion that Assange and Miss W. were “making love”? (She said it in her Amy Goodman interview, at 5:27 – sorry, no transcript.)
It’s not just Wolf who’s twisting herself into pretzels to defend Assange. AnnaAnastasia at Shakesville directs us to Laurie Essig’s essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Titled “Assange, Morality, and Desire,” it’s remarkably devoid of morality. Instead, Essig – a a sociology professor at Middlebury – is channeling some combo of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Harlequin romances:
One can imagine the summer air in Stockholm, ripe with possibilities, seducing Mr. Assange into thinking it was a good idea to hop into bed with his host, known as Ms. A in the court papers, and then hopping into the bed of one of his fans, Ms. W, just a few days later.
Essig doesn’t even try to make Assange into a moral actor. He’s giddy with optimism, opportunity, and the seductive air of Stockholm. Potential entrepreneurs, take note: there’s an untapped market for bottling Swedish air and selling it to frustrated men (the Seduction Community might buy in bulk). Poor Assange was defenseless; he was seduced, perhaps even entrapped, by Swedish women who, Essig suggests, subscribe to a moral code that is wholly foreign to an Australian man.
While Essig initially concedes that Assange is charged with”having sex without a condom (without full consent of the women),” she backpedals a moment later:
And while Sweden might consider having sex without a condom against the law, most countries do not. Perhaps more confusing is the issue of consent. Although this young woman clearly found being taken while asleep upsetting, some women would be turned on by being the object of that much desire.
This is pure disingenuity. Essig has just noted that the problem is a lack of full consent, not laws against barebacking. She damn well knows better! What’s so “confusing” about consent here? Consent to one sex act doesn’t imply consent to another. Just as consent to vaginal sex doesn’t imply consent to anal sex, consent to safer sex doesn’t imply consent to condomless sex.
As for being “taken while asleep” – in a longer-term relationship, partners might let each other know they’d welcome sleep sex. To just presume it? When it’s your first time hooking up? When your only real communication revealed your incompatible expectations vis-a-vis condoms? That’s more than just stupid and presumptuous. That’s rape.
Then again, Essig seems to consider “date rape” to be something quite distinct from “rape.” Channeling Whoopie Goldberg, Essig digs herself in even deeper in a follow-up post:
Based on what we do know, I do not think Assange is guilty of rape. I am not sure whether he is guilty of date rape, but if he is, then the date rape is incredibly murky since no one seems to have been drugged or beaten or even particularly coerced.
So if Miss W. had taken drugs before sleeping, then Essig might entertain the possibility of “date rape”? I can only imagine how she might respond when her students report having been raped. “No roofies? No worry! Just be more careful next time … and remember, some women get off on lack of consent.”
Essig wants us to understand that sex is messy and complicated. She strikes the pose of a sophisticated libertine, a connoisseur of heterosexual behavior. Essig teaches classes on heterosexuality – but in her essay, she offers up a vision of female heterosexuality that’s cartoonish, not complex:
According to press reports, Assange held one of the women down in a sexual manner. Yes, and many women like that. Assange started having sex while one woman was sleeping. Yes, that too some women like. Because people like all sorts of things—clothes being ripped off, dirty threats whispered in their ears, even somewhat violent sexual encounters. Not everyone likes these things, but many, many people do. Clearly someone in Assange’s past sexual encounters thought it was a turn on or at least didn’t think it was rape. That’s why he was doing it. Is that gross? Sure. Is all sex gross when you’re not the one doing it? Pretty much. Is it rape if the woman doesn’t wake up and say “Stop” and “No, I don’t want that”?
Many (most?) heterosexual women will cop to some un-PC desires. Fantasies about non-consent are quite common – among hetero men as well as women. But when we go beyond fantasy, the desire to submit and be ravished is virtually always predicated on consent. Partners can ethically incorporate violent activities, even “nonconsensual” scenes, into their sex lives – if they negotiate. If they agree on a safe word. If they consent in advance, with an option to bail if the scene goes wrong. Two people who disagree on whether a condom must be used are in a whole ‘nother universe than partners who communicate their edgier desires. Essig surely ought to know all this too.
After all, Essig teaches in Women’s and Gender Studies as well as sociology.
* * * * *
Even though I think the allegations are serious and credible, I’m still not committing myself to the “Assange must be guilty camp.” I do think that if the two women set out to smear him, they would have constructed a much smoother story. Someone setting a premeditated trap would have avoided the details that Essig and Wolf find damning, such as Miss A. continuing to host Assange in her home, or Miss. W. giving him a ride the next morning. They would have continued to say no throughout the encounters. They would have called the police immediately and filed sexual assault charges, instead of just demanding Assange take an STD test. In short, they would have sought to fit the ideal of how a sexual assault victim ought to act, rather than behaving in the way that actual survivors often act – confused, trying to not to make waves socially, and unsure what to call their experience.
Does that make Assange guilty? No. I would want to hear Assange’s side before drawing any conclusions.
What we do hear from and about Assange doesn’t exactly cover him in glory, though. He comes across as a user and a sponger. Given that he now draws an income from Wikileaks, why did he keep squatting in Miss A.’s apartment even when she moved into a friend’s place to avoid him? Why did he apparently have Miss W. pay for his train tickets to and from her home? (He told her he had no cash and feared being tracked by his credit card – a thin excuse for a guy who was easily trackable via his public speaking schedule in Sweden.) How narcissistic do you have to be to immerse yourself in online stories about yourself even as you’re trying to get laid? Why did he order Miss W. to bring him orange juice (as Essig reports)? Couldn’t he pour his own damn juice?
And why didn’t he just get the STD tests? He claimed that Miss W.’s demand for testing was “blackmail,” but it’s a pretty reasonable request, given how open he was about his predilection for barebacking. If he’d agreed, the whole matter would probably never have come to the prosecutor’s attention.
The interview Assange granted the BBC last week hints at the answers to these questions. Here are a couple of especially prime slices:
Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.
JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more. …
Q: But you haven’t denied having sex with those women?
JA: No, I haven’t denied that.
Q: So you did have sex with those women?
JA: I have always tried in this case and in my other dealings to be a private person and to not speak about matters that are private.
Q: This is now public. So I’m asking you the question. Did you have sex with those women?
JA: It’s a matter of public record as far as the courts are concerned but I am not going to be exposing other people’s private lives or my own more than is absolutely necessary. That is not what a gentleman does, that why I have also never criticised these women. We don’t know precisely what pressures they have been under, exactly. There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears. That doesn’t mean that they got in there in the very beginning and fabricated them. …
Q: The allegation against you, the very broad allegation that’s been made over and over again in the media over recent days is that you’re some sort of sexual predator who has sex with a large number of young women, ideally without a condom, and that you do it because you can, effectively, because in some cases they’re groupies or they’re enthralled to your fame or whatever it is. Are you a sexual predator?
JA: That’s ridiculous. Of course not.
Q: How many women have you slept with?
JA: That’s a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell, not only does a gentleman like to talk about his private life, a gentleman certainly doesn’t count.
Q: Many, without being specific?
JA: I’ve never had a problem before with women. Women have been extremely helpful and generous.
Q: Not quite the question I asked you.
JA: No, women have been extremely helpful and generous and put up with me. But…
Q: Does put up with you mean having you in their beds?
JA: Of course on occasion, I mean I’m an adult man, but women have been generous to me over many years.
(Read the full BBC interview here. Ellipses are mine except for the one in Assange’s second-to-last statement.)
Of course, a gentleman wouldn’t argue when his partner insisted on a condom. That’s what a foolhardy narcissist does.
A gentleman might not keep count of his lovers, but then again, a gentleman would keep some mad money in his pocket, so as not to mooch train fares off his lovers. A gentleman gives as well as takes. Relying on women to be “generous”? That’s what a sponger does.
Also, a gentleman doesn’t relish martyrdom. That’s a role better suited for a someone with a messiah complex.
In a profile of Assange as a dark-hatted hacker, Bruce Sterling calls him a sociopath. I don’t see proof of that. But a wannabe martyr? A cheapskate mooch? A narcissist? An exploiter of groupies? A misogynist with no understanding of women? An antifeminist who says “Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism”? A jet-setting, globe-trotting, world-class douche? I think the evidence is in.
None of this makes Assange guilty of sexual assault. But it does indicate that Assange has some grave character issues. He’s too self-centered to earn my trust – too entitled and narcissistic. The Wikileaks organization would be better served with a leader driven more by public interest than by self-interest.