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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

Shira formerly served as a volunteer with BARCC's Survivor Speakers Bureau and Prevention Services. She also formerly worked as BARCC's volunteer and program assistant. Shira also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories and poetry, and much of her outreach was done within the community of science-fiction fandom and the closely-allied local polyamory community.


  1. You present a well-reasoned and quite possibly accurate picture of events. And you are correct, wikileaks and the rape charges ought to be two different stories. Is the timing politically motivated? It's hard to come to any other conclusion. Has Assange misbehaved and jeopardized the important work he's been involved in? Quite possibly.

    Wikileaks IS the media story. It's one of the most important media stories since the falsehoods (okay, lies) told by the White House and others to justify the Iraq War.

    There is a second story now, and that is about human frailty. It's rather ironic that while Assange is crusading to "reveal the truth" about the relationships between the powerful and weaker states, he is engaging in his own sexual power games with women.

    My expectation is that this story of rape will totally erode any credibility that Wikileaks has in the current seat of world power - the US. (I've lived in Canada, US and spent time in Brazil as well). It has amazed me how different the American psyche is compared with perspectives elsewhere, even amongst American "progressives". My hope is that we listen carefully to the secrets revealed by wikileaks and that our attitude about the world we live in matures.

  2. Again, that's not what this post is about. I'd like to keep discussion here focused on the actual topic at hand - thanks!

  3. sorry, I didn't make that clear. I was objecting to this comment: "Considering the incidence rate of false rape accusations, it is extremely statistically unlikely that these are false accusations. Sorry, but the data doesn

  4. As I said in the post, I'm not arguing for or against his guilt.

  5. I agree that the rate is extremely low and that recanting/withdrawing charges do not imply a "false accusations". What I was saying is a statistics technicality. If the false accusation rate is, say 2% (number pulled from my rear), this means that there's a 2% chance of picking a "false accusation" case if I pick a case at random. The Assange case is very non-random, and thus we cannot say anything about the probability of that particular case being one thing or the other.

    I'll go as far as to say that based on the information available right now it seems likely he is indeed guilty of rape. But I don't think we can use statistics to argue for or against his guilt.

  6. Thanks, Lisa and Jax!

    Rowyn: Yeah. Statistically, rape doesn't *tend* to be what Whoopi Goldberg would call "rape-rape". If there were no broken bones, that doesn't make it not rape!

    Kim: It's unfortunate that the jury probably won't be able to separate WikiLeaks from Assange, you're right. AS for the possibility of false charges, I stand by the probability being very low, especially because the incidence of false rape reports when the perpetrator is a celebrity is no higher than when they're a non-celebrity. What we see more of it people deciding not to go to trial and/or withdrawing charges because the victim-blaming media nightmare is too much, but recanting/withdrawing charges is not "false accusation".

    Sady Doyle has a great post that unpacks a bit of why people are unlikely to falsely accuse in general, and why this case in particular doesn't look like a false accusation:

  7. Good observations. I would add that in practice the Wikileaks stuff IS affecting the rape case. While I agree that we should withhold judgment when there is no conviction, there's also a real risk that the current political climate surrounding Assange will make it difficult to conduct a fair trial.

    Secondly a note on statistics. While it is significant that false rape charges are rare, this does NOT imply anything about whether it is the case with the Assange charges. His case is a single non-random sample, so we cannot use that logic to say anything about the probability of the charges being false or not. I wish we could, but that's not how statistics work.

  8. A columnist I regularly read did the "it must be a lie because it's toooooo convenient and oh also that's not rape-rape" schtick and GAH IT PISSES ME OFF. I can't believe crap like that is everywhere. :(

  9. LOTS AND LOTS OF THIS!! Once again, kiddies, let's review:

    A. Two women have charged that Assange sexually assaulted them.

    B. The powers that be are, in all probability, using these charges towards political ends, not some grand campaign to Stamp Out Rape (TM).

    C. B can be true without making the claims of the women in A false. The fact that the governments may very well be pursuing the charges for political reasons can exist in the same space-time continuum with the possibility that Assange really did assault the women.

    D. This isn't hard. No, really, it's not.

  10. Thank you for this post. I have linked to it EVERYWHERE, because you said what I so badly wanted to but couldn't find the words to do.


  11. Considering the incidence rate of false rape accusations, it is extremely statistically unlikely that these are false accusations. Sorry, but the data doesn't support that.

  12. The idea that he actually raped those women is exactly as plausible as the idea that there was no rape, and that these women were paid and/or coerced into laying charges against him, no matter what stereotypes that plays into, or how unsavory that idea may be to you.

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