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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Let’s Talk about Julian Assange.

So all we’ve been talking about the last few weeks is WikiLeaks, it seems. Yes! Powerful relevant political topic! Fascinating real-life drama! But I turned to my husband and said, “Why is no one talking about the rape charges against Julian Assange?”

Oh, be careful what you ask for.

Because now people are talking about them. They’re talking about them all over the place. And, of course, the consensus seems to be “we like what WikiLeaks is doing, so Assange must be innocent.”

Shades of Roman Polanski, right? “We like his movies, so he must be innocent.” Umm, no.

I’ll set a few things out right now, regarding my approach to this whole thing:

1. Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is not Julian Assange. Whether you approve of what WikiLeaks is doing or not has absolutely no bearing on this case.
2. I’m not declaring him guilty. I wasn’t there; I don’t know what transpired. I’m just saying we shouldn’t declare him innocent just because people approve of work he’s doing, or because he’s “persecuted”.
3. Yes, the timing is “convenient”, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. I’ve head people draw parallels to Al Capone getting busted for tax evasion instead of his more criminal activities, because that’s what they could nail him for. Well, Al Capone was actually guilty of tax evasion, you know.

So let’s have some facts. What is Julian Assange accused of? “He is accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010.”

“...the first complainant, Miss A, said she was victim of “unlawful coercion” on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. The court heard Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner. The second charge alleged Assange “sexually molested” Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” one should be used. The third charge claimed Assange “deliberately molested” Miss A on 18 August “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. The fourth charge accused Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on 17 August without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.”

The story that’s being spread by Assange supporters is that he was having consensual sex with a woman (we’ll call her Miss A., following the above format), the condom broke, and she accused him of rape. This is so widespread that my boyfriend thought it was the case! As you can see, the actual charges are completely different, and a lot less ambiguous. Let’s take them charge by charge.

1. Unlawful coercion, and Assange allegedly used his body weight to hold her down. Does that look like anything other than rape?

2. Sex without a condom. Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. Both of the women consented to sex only if Assange used a condom. “It also sounds like in one case, condom use was negotiated for and Assange agreed to wear a condom but didn’t, and the woman didn’t realize it until after they had sex; in the second case, it sounds like the condom broke and the woman told Assange to stop, which he did not. This is of course speculation based on the bare-bones reported description of events, but it’s at least clear that “this is a case of a broken condom” isn’t close to the whole story.” Okay, y’all, work with me here - when someone says no, and their partner doesn’t stop, what do we call that? If you said “rape”, you get a gold star. Also, consent to sex with a condom does not equal consent to sex without a condom any more than, to cite a different case, consent to breathplay equals consent to anal sex.

3. The deliberate molestation charge I don’t know anything about, and I can’t suss it out from context. I’ll get back to that when more information is available.

4. “Having sex” with a woman who was asleep. When you are unconscious, you are, of course, unable to consent. This is unambiguously rape.

Again, I am not declaring Assange guilty; that’s what the trial is for. What I am saying is that the charges describe rape. Not just a broken condom, rape.

So we’ve established what the charges are. Let’s move on to the media coverage.

Oh sweet fancy Elvis on a pogo stick, the media coverage.

We have, of course, gone straight to the victim-blaming.

One of the alleged victims is a feminist. So of course that means she’s lying, according to Assange defenders. And she dared to try to carry on with her life as normal afterward. Kate Harding, Jim Hines,  and Liz Henry have great posts on the victim-blaming; I encourage you to read them. Ferrett Steinmetz expands on the criticism of the accuser’s reactions here. Please read that post, because he hits the nail on the head. “When you are traumatized, you do not necessarily act in a logical fashion. That’s the nature of being traumatized. Applying everyday logic to something as harmful and psychologically devastating as rape is a falsity, especially when you’re deciding whether a given rape victim was faking or not based on third-hand, unverified reports and a couple of Tweets from a million miles away. There’s no gold standard we can use to determine what an “appropriate” response is. So stop trying to read the bones of someone’s potentially post-traumatic reaction to determine whether it’s appropriate. You don’t know what appropriate is under the circumstances, and neither do I.” (Read more about common reactions to rape here.)

The main tacks Assange’s defenders seem to be taking are that a) the timing is “suspicious” and that b) they like WikiLeaks, therefore Assange is a Good Guy.

Is the timing “suspicious”? Look, obviously the pursuit of the charges is politically motivated. That doesn’t mean he’s innocent. What it means is that this was a convenient way for Interpol to get their hands on him. The stark truth of the matter is that rape charges don’t get followed up on as often as they should, that it is damned hard to get justice. I have no doubt that the charges would have been ignored had Interpol not needed a reason to seize Assange. That does not mean they’re not legitimate charges.

As for the latter point, I’ve heard that before. “Linder and her graduate researcher, Rachel Johnson, found that a great many women whom they surveyed reported serious boundary violations (including sexual assault) at the hands of male feminist allies. Anecdotes turned into hard data (the study is unpublished, but we were given a summary of the findings) and that hard data revealed that the problem of misconduct by men who claim to be doing feminist work is far more serious than we had previously imagined.”

The fact that someone is doing work you approve of does not mean that they can do no wrong; in fact, many serial perpetrators deliberately place themselves in situations where accusers won’t be believed because the perpetrator is “such a good person”. (Read about tactics employed by serial perpetrators here.)

As Jill at Feministe says, “In fact, it is totally possible to support the WikiLeaks project and to think that the international response to Assange and the project is thoroughly fucked up and to think we should withhold judgment on whether or not Assange is actually a rapist and also to think that we should withhold judgment on whether the women are lying, and to not discredit the women involved, and to not create a hostile climate for rape survivors, and to not play into every tired old stereotype about women and rape.”

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Posted by Shira on 12/09 • (12) CommentsPermalink

Friday, December 03, 2010

Making it visceral

Hat-tip to Jaclyn Friedman for alerting me to this. It's Friday, today was my last day of class, I'm totally mentally spent and I have exams in two weeks. Sorry I didn't have much of my own to contribute here this week, but Jaclyn found this amazing, powerful website: 16 Impacts of Sexual Assault. Written by a survivor, the blog covers her experiences facing her assault. It may be triggering. It's powerful, and it's necessary for allies like myself who want to do this work to remember all of the manifold ways sexual assault can affect a survivor's life. For anyone trying to get a better sense of empathy (I say better because I believe that non-survivors probably can't completely understand what a survivor experiences) for survivors, this is the place to find it.

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Posted by Dave on 12/03 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quick Monday Shot: Holly Gets it SUPER RIGHT

As usual, my writer-crush Holly over at the Pervocracy pretty much gets everything right forever with her post about men and feminism.  I don’t have a lot to contribute; I just want her awesome writing to get out there more.  Read the whole thing here, but this is my favorite part:

The other big thing men would get out of feminism is happier, freer women. Don’t smirk, ‘cause I’m serious. When you treat someone like a trophy, an enemy agent, a sex toy, a child, or a space alien, the response you get is going to be about as bizarre as those options suggest. When you treat them like a person, asking no more and expecting no less, they’re going to respond like a person.

Powerful people don’t nag - they can get things done themselves. Powerful people don’t cling - they can survive on their own. Powerful people don’t manipulate - they can get what they want honestly. Powerful people don’t complain - they have less to complain about. Powerful people don’t make guys pay for dinner - they can afford to pay their share. When women are happy with our lives, we don’t subtract from the finite happiness pool held by men; we spread it around and make everyone happier.

Shira and I have repeated, over and over and over again in this space - if we continue to train men to view women as something other than human, what we’re going to get is a society that treats women as other than human.  It’s not real complicated. 


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Posted by Dave on 11/29 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Value of Training

This is the first in a vaguely two-part series about the importance of training, mentorship, strategies and tactics in ending sexual violence.  This week deals primarily with training.

In September of 2006, I was unemployed and frantically looking for work.  In between my daily job applications and short-term employment stints helping paint fences and answer phones, I found I spent a lot of time in the Boston Public Library in Copley.  I found Ariel Levy, and her book Katha Pollitt, over at The Nation.  I started to feverishly devour any critical thinking/feminist tract I could find - it was intellectually satisfying, I had the time, and it fit my liberal world view.

Naomi Wof’s Emerge  Emerge is an anti-domestic violence organization and runs several trainings throughout the year.  The next set is coming up in January.  While the training is specific to domestic violence, sexual violence and DV share a lot of characteristics.

  • Mentors in Violence Prevention    MVP is a program of the Sport in Society Center at Northeastern University, and uses a unique model challenging mainstream perceptions of gender to fight against sexual violence.  They run the MVP Institute once a year, I believe, either in the late Spring or Fall.
  • BARCC! Come volunteer with BARCC!  The BARCC 40-hour training is intense but thorough, and each volunteer area also has its own program specific work, too, along with ongoing peer supervision time to try out new things and discuss specific tactics for fighting sexual violence.  If you don’t have the time to become a regular volunteer, though, you can always request one of the many CAPS trainings available.
  • The Network/La Red runs great trainings about working with the LGBT community, and is one of the best resources for anti-violence activists and volunteers who want to better understand how to talk about abuse and violence with the trans community.  That’s a topic that gets virtually no discussion in any mainstream cultural source, and their trainings make it approachable and understandable.
  • It would neither be wise (nor legal) to allow a person with an interest in engineering to build a bridge - the chance that something will go wrong is almost 100%.  Likewise, when we’re talking about pushing back on all of the cultural messages we’re receiving, and talking about rape and sexual assault in a way that is reasonable and supported by evidence, we have to have some time and ability to practice, to build skills, and to learn best practices for fighting for a more just world.  If you’ve got more suggestions for places doing good anti-violence and gender-justice trainings, throw ‘em in the comments!

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    Posted by Dave on 11/17 • (2) CommentsPermalink

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    On Private Practice

    About a month ago, my husband pointed me to this article regarding an upcoming storyline on Private Practice, which we don’t normally watch. The line To that end, the Nov. 4 episode will be unlike any previous hour of Private in that it will revolve solely around the immediate aftermath of the attack. “It takes place all in one night, and it’s [set] almost entirely in the hospital”, in particular, piqued my interest. Setting an entire episode in the immediate aftermath gives you a lot of chances to handle the presentation of the assault right - and an equal number of chances to handle it wrong. We watched the episode and the one after it (viewable online) last night, and I’ll discuss them below the fold - this is your spoiler warning and your trigger warning.

    Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about this plot arc so far. Please keep in mind that this is not a show I normally watch, so I don’t know what these characters are generally like. I found many of them tremendously unlikeable, but I don’t know if they’re supposed to be unlikeable or if it’s just their behavior in the wake of trauma.

    So, in very brief:

    KaDee Strickland’s portrayal of a rape survivor was fantastic. This is one of the things I was most concerned about, but no, she was fantastic. She was raw, angry, struggling for control - it felt completely real and honest. Mad props to her and to the writer. Much has been made of the character’s decision not to report; this interview with Strickland lays out the reasoning behind that decision, and it seems internally consistent. And also realistic. The columnist is bothered that the three characters mentioned all chose not to report, but all the research shows that many survivors don’t report. I don’t see this as an inaccurate reflection of the reality of rape. (Note also that Katey Sagal’s character is gang-raped specifically to punish her biker-gang-leader husband - her not telling him what happened is her way of keeping the rapists from having the effect they wanted, and that’s internally consistent as well.)

    So. Addison. Are we supposed to hate Addison? Because I gotta tell you, I’m not a fan. Since she’s the character this show was created for, I have to believe we’re not supposed to hate her. And yet. This character does everything wrong. From her “You have to report it or he will do this to other women” line to her telling her partner and getting him to spread the news through the hospital, this is a textbook example of how to do it wrong. As with the not reporting, this is also realistic, and I have no problem with realism - but what I worry about is that we’re not being shown that this is the exact opposite of what she should be saying and doing. (She also scoffs at the idea that a woman could possibly be beating her husband in the second episode, so maybe she’s just an idiot, but I don’t know.) Charlotte does take her down a peg when she’s doing an “I know just how you feel”, which is great, but I’d like to see more reinforcement of that from characters who aren’t the survivor - some positive examples to contrast this. As more people become aware of what happened, we may see that. I live in hope.

    Speaking of doing it wrong, there was one part of the second episode that just absolutely infuriated me. Violet, who is apparently a psychologist - and apparently the worst psychologist ever - figures out (given many hints) that Charlotte was raped. And she chooses to confront Charlotte about this. In the office where the assault happened.

    By describing her own rape (years ago, in college) is extended graphic detail.

    I am not kidding.

    Point by point, blow by blow, in extremely vivid detail, this person stood there and told her recently-raped co-worker all about her own rape. You could see Charlotte pressing back against her chair, clearly appalled, clearly triggered. And Violet ends with a sappy “so I totally know how you feel,” smiles, and walks out, leaving her shaking, retraumatized coworker behind.

    Do I even need to say you should never do this?

    Charlotte refers to Violet earlier in the episode as a terrible therapist, and Violet refers later to projecting her issues onto Charlotte. So it may be that the character is supposed to be horrifyingly insensitive. It’ll be interesting to see that, and Violet’s possibly-repressed issues around the topic, develop.

    So they’re doing some things right - most notably everything Charlotte does. They’re doing some things wrong - Addison and Violet’s reactions. What I would like to see - hopefully soon, before viewers internalize Addison and Violet’s actions as anything other than messed up - is for Addison and Violet to get called on their appalling behavior. We’ve seen some of the “normal” reactions - now I’d like to see some examples of the way this should be handled. I hope Private Practice steps up and gives us that.

    Anyone else watching the show? Thoughts?

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    Posted by Shira on 11/15 • (1) CommentsPermalink

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