Is it possible to oppose rape and defend Julian Assange from extradition to the US? It really has to be, if we have learnt anything from the struggles of the last forty years. But judging from some of the debate over the past few days, it seems that some on the left don’t get it.
Supporting Assange’s right to asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London does not require denigrating the women in Sweden who have made allegations of sexual assault against him. It certainly does not require the development of our own definitions of what we might think constitutes rape and what does not.
Since the 1970s, legal and social attitudes to rape have been changed as a result of changes in wider society and, in particular, opposition to judicial attitudes to women in rape cases. Anonymity for women accusers, and the acceptance that rape can occur in marriage or between acquaintances who have previously had sex have become much more widespread. There has been an outcry against cases which have deemed the woman’s past sexual history or mode of dress relevant to whether or not sexual attacks on them were justified.
Women are now seen as able to make a free choice about whether they want sex at any time - and to change their minds at any time.
George Galloway’s attempt to defend Assange in his recent podcast got this seriously wrong. Just because a woman consents to sex with a man at night doesn’t mean she will feel the same way in the morning. It happens. And to ignore this fact is rather more than a breach of sexual etiquette. It is an abuse.
This is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps mostly because, as endless commentators and campaigners have pointed out, rape does not mainly occur, Hollywood-style, by crazed strangers attacking totally unsuspecting women in dark alleys, or breaking into their homes. Most rape occurs between people who are in some way known to each other.
So evidence is often more contested: did she invite him into her flat? Had she been with him before? Did he have reason to believe she wanted to have sex with him?
That’s all the more reason to allow the woman the right to say and to accept her right to change her mind, if that is what she has done.
In the 1980s, US magazine Ms ran a survey funded by the National Institute for Mental Health, published as I never called it rape. It found that 25 percent of women in college had been victims of rape or attempted rape; 84 percent of these victims were acquainted with their attackers; only 5 percent reported their rapes to police and more than a quarter of them didn’t see themselves as rape victims.
We live in a highly sexualised culture where women are expected to be sexually available - but at the same time are still treated as if they in some way contributed to a rape or sexual assault when they dress or behave in a certain way.
The conviction rate for rape in Britian is astonishingly low - around 7% - but this is mainly because so few cases actually make it to court. Although some police attitudes towards victims have changed in the past 40 years, many women still find the questioning and legal process an unbearable burden, reliving the whole case. In other situations, the authorities deem there is not enough evidence to convict the alleged rapist.
In these circumstances we should look at the Assange case in perspective. Yes, he should submit to questioning, and answer any criminal charges that might be brought against him. But if I were Assange, I, too, would do anything to avoid having to go to Sweden while the threat of extradition to the US looms.
I am amazed at the gullibility of those on the left who see Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act, solitary confinement and lengthy fights against extradition from those like Babar Ahmed as nothing to do with the Assange case.
Wikileaks did terrible damage to the US and its interests around the world and it wants revenge. That’s why Bradley Manning is treated so badly, and why Assange will join him in indefinite solitary confinement if he goes to the US. There is already a legal case being prepared against him in the US, and he is being accused by some right wingers (bizarrely) of treason.
That’s why William Hague is so insistent on Assange’s extradition to Sweden, when his predecessor refused to allow such process to remove Chile’s former dictator General Pinochet (how many women were raped and tortured there after his coup in 1973?).
There is a simple answer to the conundrum of defending Assange from extradition while saying he should account for the Swedish allegations: the British, Swedish and US governments could all make it clear that they will not pursue further extradition from Sweden. Or, as the Ecuadorian government have offered, the Swedish authorities could come to London and question Assange to determine whether further charges are made.
The refusal to do either speaks volumes, and suggests that this high-level government concern for the women is less than sincere.
It cannot be too hard for the left to grasp a rational position on this, which I suggest should be as follows. We should demand that the US, UK, and Swedish government immediately declare that Assange has no case to answer over Wikileaks, and support Assange’s right to asylum until this is the case. And then when and if these undertakings are given Assange should answer the allegations made against him.
Meanwhile those on the left who imagine that defending Assange means denying the reality of rape need to, firstly, acquaint themselves with the easily available facts on the issue, rather than give vent to their own saloon-bar sexual theories; and, secondly, stop damaging the fight for freedom of speech by denying the rights of rape victims.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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