The Perils of Charging Rape
The women accusing Julian Assange of sexual assault deserve to be taken seriously.
When Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, was targeted for arrest by Interpol in late November, the right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail was first on the scene with a widely linked but error-ridden article about the charges. The Daily Mail characterized Sweden's rape laws as those of a radical feminist dystopia, where men can be thrown in jail for consensual sex that doesn't involve a condom, and the police file rape charges on behalf of women upset that a phone call didn't follow a one-night stand.
The falsehoods quickly spread in part because many liberals invested in protecting WikiLeaks were eager to find ways to discredit the allegations, even if that meant characterizing the female accusers as hysterics and liars. Michael Moore went on Keith Olbermann's show and claimed, falsely, that Sweden would charge a man for sexual assault for consensual sex involving an accidentally broken condom. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf mocked the accusers, claiming that Assange's "crime" was merely dating multiple women at once.
In the initial days after Assange's arrest, when there was little solid information beyond the tabloids about what exactly the Swedish government may charge him with, some of the reaction was perhaps understandable. To a degree, even Slate's DoubleX podcast repeated the Daily Mail's misinformation. But as of Dec. 17, there has been no excuse. At that point, the Guardian obtained the depositions taken by Swedish police from the alleged victims. In these documents, one of the women alleges that Assange behaved threateningly with her and held her down to prevent her from reaching for a condom. He did end up wearing one, but she thinks he ripped it and deliberately ejaculated inside her. He also later rubbed up against her with his pants off, she says, against her will. The other alleged victim claims that she struggled with Assange over the condom all night, had consensual sex with him when he finally put it on, and then woke up later in the night to find Assange having sex with her, without her consent and without a condom. In my personal and professional experience with rape, these kinds of allegations are both credible and common. It's a bad idea to forget that, even when the alleged bad guy is a leftist hero.
And yet after the Dec. 17 revelations, Naomi Wolf doubled down. In a debate on Democracy Now this week, the author of The Beauty Myth read aloud part of the women's complaints—including the part in which one alleged nonconsensual sex while she was sleeping—and claimed that this couldn't be rape. Wolf's theory is that because this woman (as well as the other one) had consented to other sexual activities, and because she continued to socialize with Assange after the fact, she couldn't be telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. It's an odd hypocrisy from Wolf, who has written in the past about her own inability to speak out when, she says, she was sexually harassed by Yale professor Harold Bloom. When it came to her own experiences, Wolf was quite eloquent in describing how shame and the fear of reprisal can silence a victim of sexual abuse. Why is she now trotting out the same old hoary story about how the only believable response from a victim is to make a big immediate stink about it?
To express their discontent with the knee-jerk defenses of Assange, angry feminists took to Twitter. Blogger Sady Doyle started the hashtag #mooreandme to push Moore and Olbermann to apologize. (Wolf doesn't have a Twitter account, so there was no point looping her in.) Last night, Michael Moore went on Rachel Maddow's show and, without directly apologizing, shifted toward taking the rape allegations and the accusers seriously. He said, "Every woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted or raped has to be, must be, taken seriously. Those charges have to be investigated to the fullest extent possible." After initially denigrating the #mooreandme hashtag as a "frenzy," Olbermann also softened his stance by engaging on Twitter.
Moore's change of position is particularly gratifying for the feminist protesters. And because of my personal history dealing with sexual violence, for me the fight against taking on faith badly sourced efforts to discredit Assange's accusers was more than an intellectual exercise. Many of the details in the fleshed-out accounts the women gave, as published in the New York Times and the Guardian, paralleled the rape I experienced in the spring of 1998, when I was a 20-year-old college junior. I didn't fight back. I didn't report what had happened for a week out of confusion and shame, just like the women accusing Assange. I also said that someone had sex with me while I was sleeping, without my consent. I call what happened to me a rape because that's how the state regarded it, in obtaining a guilty plea from the assailant after making it clear he didn't have a good chance in court. (And at the time, there was another case based on allegations of attacking a sleeping woman on the docket.)
Amanda Marcotte is a journalist, opinion writer, and author of two books on progressive politics. She originally hails from Texas, but now lives with all the other internet writers in Brooklyn.
Photograph of Julian Assange by Peter Macdiarmid-WPA Pool/Getty Images.