I’ve been very uneasy reading the commentary about the pending rape and sexual misconduct charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Of course, I’m suspicious about the timing of Assange’s recent arrest in London, and the effort which international law enforcers put in to ‘catch’ him (whereas dude handed himself in, after keeping in touch with UK police for several weeks prior).

But I should point out at this stage that I’m a feminist. That is, I believe that men and women should be treated with the same respect at an interpersonal and an institutional level — and this extends to their presumption of innocence in media coverage of pending criminal proceedings.

As a commenter pointed out at the feminist blog The Dawn Chorus, where I’m a contributing editor, there’s been a pretty distasteful tone to the Assange trial coverage. The media seem to want to both pruriently detail the allegations against Assange, and to suggest these charges aren’t that serious.

Despite their identities being reduced to single initials, Assange’s two accusers have been named and “slut shamed” in the media. Their personal and professional histories have been analysed. Their online activities, hair colours and even the clothing they wore have been scrutinised with the aim of determining whether we should believe anything they have to say.

There have been various suggestions that the actions of the women, before and after they went to police, indicate that they were not really raped, but rather were vindictive, jealous or embarrassed at having been “played” by our snowy-haired Lothario (a media narrative we often see in allegations of sexual assault against famous men). Alternatively, they made up the rape allegations for political reasons: they want to “bring Assange down”.

I was pretty disappointed to find Crikeys own WH Chong participating in this speculation, opining that “the most sensible reading [of the ‘sex by surprise’ charge] comes from the mouth of babes, Assange’s son Daniel”. What? Someone on the other side of the world who knows as little about these incidents as anyone, and who hasn’t seen Assange for ages?

I was so disappointed, indeed, that I responded, “Political commentary doesn’t suit Chong; he should probably confine his thoughts to arts and culture, which is the remit of his Crikey blog.”

This angered Chong and his commenters, who called me variously a “loudmouthed bully”, “arrogant” and “anxiously reactive”. To be fair, it was kinda mean of me. Sorry.

Also, in a later response, Chong did clarify his position: “If Assange is guilty of rape, he should get what he deserves. And if the women have falsely accused Assange of the crime, then let’s be clear how malign and wicked that act would be. But clear is the last thing we can expect.”

Chong added that prejudging participants in such a media circus is “only human nature”. That’s may be true. But it’s not right.

Whatever our personal prejudices, it is the role of a Swedish court — not anyone in the media — either to vindicate or discredit the women who brought these charges. And no matter what we believe about the role of Assange and WikiLeaks in public affairs, we should strive to preserve the basic principle of presumed innocence. But that’s not happening in this case.

This Salon article is probably the best rebuttal of all the subtle, hearsay misogyny in the media coverage of this case, while this Feministe post neatly rebuts all the disbelieving sniggering that’s been going on over the charge of “sex by surprise”.

But most troublingly for me, some media accounts have suggested that these vexatious charges could only have been laid in Sweden, where feminism has become institutionalised. As Salon’s Kate Harding sarcastically puts it:

The only reason the charges got traction is that, in the radical feminist utopia of Sweden under Queen Lisbeth Salander, if a woman doesn’t have multiple orgasms during hetero sex, the man can be charged with rape. You didn’t know?

The feminist project has long aimed to reach and reform the highest political institutions, and this has happened in Sweden, “where even conservative male politicians call themselves feminists”.

Swedish law has also eliminated many of the subtle anti-victim legal biases that deter many women from reporting incidents to police. It is not being “politically correct” to point out that women are often treated callously, contemptuously and dismissively when they report sexual harassment or assault to authorities, and when these cases are reported in the media. We’ve previously documented many such incidents at the Dawn Chorus.

The idea that women can withdraw their consent is the backbone of the “sex by surprise” charge, and Swedish activists are now agitating for further reform that recognises that women can signal their non-consent in non-verbal ways.

But I’m getting the disquieting feeling that for the mainstream (and especially the conservative) media, Sweden is becoming a case study in the crazy, Kafkaesque shit that happens if we let those wacky feminists get their hands on the wheel.

Media have taken pains to report the statistic that in 2006, six people were convicted of rape in Sweden, though almost 4000 people were reported.

The fact this is being couched as a “bad thing” betrays an alarming misconception that women “cry rape” purely to punish men. But what if it’s the other way around — that the Swedish system encourages women to believe that they won’t be punished for reporting a crime that — for myriad reasons — may not result in a conviction?

And it’s curious that another key statistic is missing — an analysis of the Swedish media’s reporting of rape cases. It would be interesting to see if women who bring charges are as routinely — and as viciously — prejudged and shamed in Sweden as they are in Australia, the US and the UK.

The central hypocrisy of the Julian Assange coverage seems to be that it’s a good thing for information to be free, but women should be kept down as much as possible — or where would society be then?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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