The Revealing Vocabulary of the WikiLeaks Scandal

What Women Really Think
Dec. 8 2010 4:02 PM

The Revealing Vocabulary of the WikiLeaks Scandal

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at

Scandals sprout their own vocabularies, not least the current uproar over WikiLeaks – both the organization’s ongoing dumping of confidential diplomatic cables and the rape allegations against its founder Julian Assange. Of course, we now have the term "Cablegate" – it is apparently impossible for a modern scandal to exist without having the –gate suffix unimaginatively attached to it. If there isn’t a –gate , it isn’t really a scandal. We are also getting a refresher in the definition of DDoS, or distributed denial of service attacks, the means by which anonymous Internet activists overwhelmed after the company announced it would cease to process donations to WikiLeaks.


But the most interesting vocabulary of this scandal involves words that revive what Amanda calls "every hoary slam" that has ever been used to discredit victims of sexual assault. This Daily Mail article casting (fairly thin) suspicion on the two women who accuse Assange of forcing himself on them has come in for a lot of smart criticism , in part because it offers lots of this creaky stereotyping terminology. We don’t know enough about the facts of the case to draw conclusions about Assange’s guilt and/or the motives of his accusers -- one of whom accuses Assange of having sex with her without a condom while she slept -- but that doesn’t stop reporter Richard Pendlebury and his editors from damning the women by insinuation.

Let’s review: There’s the notion that one of the accusers is a "radical feminist" and "seasoned feminist warrior" – which, as Amanda points out , is code for man-hater. There are the repeated references to the womens’ good looks ("an attractive blonde" and a "pretty twentysomething" in "an eye-catching pink jumper"). There are descriptions of the women's supposed sexual aggressiveness ("she had snagged perhaps the world’s most famous activist, and after they arrived at her apartment they had sex") and their questionable values ("she had traveled the world following various fashionable causes"). There are dark descriptions of possible motives for what Pendlebury believes are false accusations, delivered with soap opera histrionics: "How must Sarah have felt to ?discover that the man she’d taken to her bed three days before had already taken up with another woman? ?Furious? Jealous? Out for revenge?"

The most evocative term in the article is honey trap , which the Daily Mail article says has an analogue in Swedish, sexfalla . The term, also known as honeypot , is evocative of Mata Hari and of Bond girls, of the seductive spy willing to lay down her body for her country. It "turns out that both men and women are equally adept at setting [a honeytrap] -- and equally vulnerable to tumbling in," a Foreign Policy piece explained earlier this year. That may be, but the notion of a conniving female seductress carries a lot more currency, and helps explain the considerable fascination with the so-called Russian "spy babe" Anna Chapman.

Honey trap is one of those phrases that, by confirming a familiar archetype, feels true, even if it’s utter B.S. Ah, yes, a sexually entrapping female. I’ve heard about those. The idea goes all the way back to … well, to Eve, doesn’t it?

Photo of Anna Chapman by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images


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