Rant the first: Assange, Rape and the “We Can Never Know” fallacy

Posted on 12 February 2011 by


The following was written in response to a post called The Truth About Assange and Wikileaks, that was published (some time ago now) on the blog Infantile Disorder and also in The Commune.  The author of this article has been a Friend of AWOL since way back when, and I generally have a lot of time and respect for Adam and for his blogs, which I highly recommend.  However, there are a few things about this post on the Assange case I want to take issue with, not because he’s outright wrong[0] but because there are errors of ambiguity and omission in the article and a general reticence – shared by a lot of otherwise pro-feminist bloggers – to really engage with the issues that arise from these allegations.  There is an overwhelming reluctance, even by those who’ll admit the possibility that “good guys rape”[1], to go as far as criticising any of Assange’s actions, and while I’m referring predominantly to Adam’s article here, the idea of this post is to explore more generally how this reluctance is impeding the discourse on the whole Assange affair and on rape culture generally.

The premise that we can’t possibly know what happened relies on dismissing the detailed testimonies of two women, and the rather vaguer one of Assange himself.  I’ll talk later about the reasons why this isn’t as neutral a position as it might initially seem, but the most immediate problem with it (in terms of Adam’s article) is that the claims of Assange’s lawyer, who’s already been shown to have outright lied to the press, are still cited in good faith as reason to suppose the rape allegations part of an international conspiracy.  So a lawyer who has told demonstrable falsehoods about Swedish rape law, making Sweden out to be some kind of matriarchal dystopia where men are routinely consigned to jail for consensual sex without a condom, is considered, by implication, a more reliable source than two women who give entirely credible testimonies of being raped.  Even when taking a “can’t know, don’t speculate” approach to the question of Assange’s guilt, it would be evasive not to note that he and his legal team have obfuscated, belittled and misrepresented the content of the allegations against him, and that this is, in itself, reprehensible.  Rather than just protest his innocence, Assange has chosen to paint the allegations themselves (not the sudden Interpol interest in them) as a conspiracy against him, while his lawyers have lied to the press in order to make the allegations seem trivial and the women hysterical.  This is despicable behaviour, whether he’s guilty or not.

There seems to be a fear that even talking about Assange’s attitude to these allegations is mud-slinging.  Assange says in his interview with John Humphries that some 30 million web pages come up in an internet search for his name and the word “rape”, and he calls this evidence of a “successful smear”.  Adam finds a different number and notes that it’s around a quarter of the sites that come up in a search just for “rape”, citing this as evidence that “mud has undoubtedly stuck”.  All that this means is there are a large number of websites[2] that contain the words “rape” and “Assange”, not necessarily even in the same article.  What I can tell you for nothing is that nearly a quarter of all references to rape on the internet are not saying unequivocally that Assange is guilty of it, because I’ve been looking for ones that do, and they’re not easy to find.  What I’ve seen is a very small proportion of the articles on Assange pointing out that the allegations against him are, legitimately, allegations of rape (not broken condoms or refusing to take a test for STDs), and almost all of these making it clear that this doesn’t mean he should be considered guilty without trial.

The only place I see mud-slinging, in the form of blatant dismissal, insult and unfounded accusations of lying, is at the women who made the allegations – most notably on a blog that I won’t link to, though its claims have been repeated and referenced in numerous other places (including a previous post of Adam’s), which names the two women concerned and paints them as part of some Swedish Feminist conspiracy with the CIA via Cuban anti-Castro protestors.  It’s an insane blog by an anti-semitic, misogynist conspiracy nut, and I’ve frankly no idea why somebody as usually careful and incisive as Adam would cite it at all.

Yes, the sudden international concern over the kind of rape case that gets rejected by prosecution services across the world as a matter of course is cause for comment.  Highly suspicious, certainly.  Politically motivated – very probably.  But wrong?  No.  This is how seriously rape allegations should be taken.  Before brushing aside the process of rape prosecution as too big a topic to broach, it would seem reasonable to at least point out that the wrong here is in that process, rather than in the fact that, this once, for whatever reason, the allegations were actually (eventually) followed up.

Nobody is denying that the prospect of Assange being extradited to America on charges of spying/terrorism/pissing-off-powerful-people, if true, is entirely fucked up.  The dilemma hiding between the lines of Adam’s article, and others like it, is what should supporters of Wikileaks be calling for in relation to Assange? Keeping an “open mind” on his guilt is a non-answer to the wrong question – there are key issues here that we can express an opinion on.  Should he face trial? Should he walk away? Is keeping him out of US clutches more important than prosecuting rape allegations?  Side-stepping these questions in favour of a sort of helpless neutrality just adds weight to the societal default on rape, which always comes out in favour of the accused.  The 5% conviction rate that Adam cites doesn’t indicate that juries think rape isn’t a serious crime, it’s a symptom of that same attitude of “We can’t possibly know, we weren’t there” that he is himself displaying.  A neutral attitude ends in a passive decision – we can’t prove lack of consent beyond reasonable doubt, so the verdict’s got to be “not guilty”.  To convict somebody of any crime that they deny requires an active engagement with the case and the will to decide whether the witnesses are more credible than the defendant.  In short, a conviction requires conviction, and keeping an “open mind” about a man’s “private life” is easier than asking questions like “Why would she lie?”, “Does this man understand what is meant by ‘consent’?” and “Isn’t proving the absence of consent a logical impossibility, anyway?”

I support Wikileaks (as do both the women who have made allegations against Assange, and every feminist blog I’ve seen that criticises the reaction against those allegations), but Julian Assange is not Wikileaks, and if Wikileaks is worthy of its reputation it should be able to survive without a figurehead.  Guilty or not, Assange’s response to these allegations has already done massive damage to the women who made them, and to women everywhere, by reinforcing everything that’s wrong with the way the courts, the media and society in general perceive and discuss rape.  Of course we need to oppose extradition to the US, if it is suggested – but from an objective viewpoint, we have much more reliable evidence that Assange raped those women than we do that Swedish authorities intend to hand him over to the US.  We know that Assange’s lawyers have lied, and continue to lie, about the allegations and about Swedish law, while the only evidence we have that his accusers have lied comes from a holocaust denier, fixated on the Swedishness and Blondness of the women in question, whose primary evidence against them is that one of them is a feminist who has a beef with Castro.

Frankly, even if this does all turn out to be part of some convoluted conspiracy to discredit Assange[3], he has still shown himself to be an arsehole of the first order, and until he shows some sign of willingness to take responsibility for his actions, I don’t feel inclined to defend him in any way.

[0] Except on one minor point – the case in Sweden was re-opened by Marianne Ny, Chief Prosecutor, not by Claes Bergstrom, the minor politician who is acting as lawyer for the two women who made the allegations.

[1] This quote of Laurie Penny’s has been seized on in many places, but out of context it gets slightly warped, seeming to suggest that rape doesn’t make someone a bad person.  What it really suggests is that there is no cosmic, karmic counter-balance whereby a person’s good actions negate their bad ones.  Rapists who volunteer in soup kitchens and rescue kittens and puppies at the weekend still have to take responsibility for their actions.

[2] 30 million according to Assange, 7,900,000 according to Adam and only 3,440,000 by my reckoning.  It would seem reasonable for this to fluctuate a little over time, but still, 30 million seems like something of a stretch.

[3] Leaving aside that, if this were the case, the allegations and the women making them would surely have been much more carefully tailored to elicit public sympathy.  They wouldn’t be feminists, for a start.