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.)
Here's my story: I went out with friends and returned home, where another group of friends showed up with alcohol, hoping for a party. I was tired, so I said my goodnights and went to bed. I awoke some time later to find one of the latecomers in bed with me, with his hand in my vagina. I think he thought I was wasted and would sleep through it, but I wasn't. Still, I froze. To me, waking up like this was both terrifying and ludicrous, like finding a stranger in the house wearing a clown suit. Making sense of the situation took up too much brain space for me to choose the correct reaction. We all like to imagine ourselves as action heroes in our own lives, swiftly repelling those who threaten our safety. But indecision in such a moment is more common than most people realize.
I was lucky: A male friend of mine happened to walk in on his way from the poker table to the bathroom. I weakly squeaked out, "Help," and he pulled the guy off me. My friend turned into an eyewitness, a relatively rare advantage in acquaintance rape, and the difference between my rape and many others that go unprosecuted.
Still, it took a week for me to admit that I'd been sexually assaulted. Mostly I didn't want the baggage that comes with pressing rape charges. Some people believe you and respond with a humiliating pity. Some people believe you but wonder why you just can't let it go. And some people deny that you were raped, the most painful reaction of all. My assailant dropped in for a visit at least once between the incident and my decision to go to the police. I wasn't home, but if I had been, I probably would have acted normally. I can't even imagine how much harder it would have been to follow through legally if the person I'd accused had been an international cult figure.
I'm not noting these parallels to pronounce on Assange's guilt or innocence. We don't have the facts to decide that yet. But Naomi Wolf was simply wrong on Democracy Now when she denied that the charges against Assange aren't credible because the accusers didn't deny consent with enough vigor or because they acted like nothing was wrong for days afterward. By shaming these women, Assange's defenders are in danger of sending a signal to future rape victims that speaking out is just not worth the cost.
I was in the audience last night, when Michael Moore appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show, and my body tensed up as he walked on stage. It had been a hard few days, dredging up all my unpleasant memories of my mistakes and self-doubt. Then Moore said all the things that he should have said in the first place: that the charges were credible and serious, that Assange's work with WikiLeaks doesn't preclude the possibility that he had done something awful, and that the accusers deserve to have their side of the story told. Hearing him firmly support women who make rape accusations unclenched my shoulders. Now if only Naomi Wolf would get the memo.
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.