Let’s begin with a thought exercise: imagine a right wing politician that you do not like. Or maybe a commentator who enjoys distorting the truth for his or her own purposes — such as blaming environmentalists for bush fires because they are against forestry.
Now imagine that this person is accused of a sexual assault.
The third step of the thought experiment is to imagine that the majority of the right-wing media commentators come running to their defence by, get this, blaming the victims, arguing there is a conspiracy theory or claiming the women who are making the accusations are from a country which makes persecution of such assault crimes relatively easy.
Imagine that one piece of evidence raised against the women making the accusations was that one of them once wrote a pamphlet against George W. Bush or attended a rally against the Iraq war.
Blaming the victim in circumstances of sexual assault would have progressives everywhere jumping up and down — and so it should!
The picture we have drawn is, quite obviously, linked to the way that many progressive commentators and supporters of Wikileaks have responded to the case against Julian Assange.
You do not have to look hard to find impassioned responses from Assange’s supporters to the charges against him.
Sure, we can begin with the Assange fans that have set up a Facebook page asserting by claiming a conspiracy against him.
Then there are those that have claimed that Assange cannot get a fair trial in Sweden, including Geoffrey Robertson QC. These supporters make Sweden sound like it is a haven for women who want to get revenge on someone by claiming they have been raped.
Others have been harsher in their judgement. The American anti-feminist blog The Spearhead commented on the Assange case that "Julian Assange’s rape accusers are nothing more than lying feminist slags" and that "Assange’s "victim" is a twisted, man-hating bitch who was bent on getting revenge for being played." Only a few days after the allegations were made, the names of the women were published on the internet by Swedish antifeminists. A false Twitter account with the name of one of the women (only now with the last name "whore") was created and used to spread hate. Explicit and implicit threats such as the ones published on The Spearhead have been common for these women as a result of this exposure.
Even Naomi Wolf has had a go at those making the allegations for "using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings".
Many have been a bit more subtle, placing the word "rape" in quotation marks: Katie Harding notes a distinction between the usage of rape, "rape" and "rape rape".
Rape is one of the most complex crimes to prosecute, no matter what the jurisdiction.
In Australia, there is both a low case of reporting and convictions — something that has been described by Mary Heath as a "self-perpetuating cycle". Of the relatively few cases that proceed to the criminal justice system, few reach trial and only a fraction of reported sexual offences actually result in convictions.
A recent Australian Institute of Criminology study found that attitudes and biases influence the outcomes of sexual assault cases more "than the objective facts presented, and that stereotypical beliefs about rape and victims of it still exist within the community".
Jurors are drawn from the community — these beliefs about rape reflect something harrowing about us. The way that Assange’s accusers have been attacked will do nothing to alter such attitudes.
The focus in the Assange case has been Sweden.
Recently in The Guardian Swedish journalist Karin Olsson noted that the relationship between Assange and Sweden started out with a "honeymoon". Sweden is a country of a lot of net activism and wholeheartedly supported Assange and Wikileaks. The relationship ended in an acrimonious divorce after the allegations made toward him were met with more and more paranoid, antifeminist arguments.
Since the third wave of feminism in the 1990s, many debates have been held in Sweden around the issue of "victim-blaming" in rape allegations. In 2004, Katarina Wennstam published a book called "The Girl and The Guilt" which focussed on the treatment of victims of rape in the court rooms and stirred up plenty of debate on why women are made responsible for the violence men expose them to.
According to a survey comparing several EU nations published by The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention in 2005, Sweden has generally been at or slightly above average for the countries studied in proportions of victims of sex crime. Sweden is the country in Europe where the highest number of reported rapes and sexual crimes are made in the EU. This is largely explained by the relatively high awareness of women’s rights and high measure of sexual equality that "is a matter of national pride", as Karin Olsson states in her article for The Guardian.
According to Christain Diesen and Eva Diesen in a 2009 paper entitled "Assaults against Women and Children", in Sweden 2008, there were 5379 cases of rape reported. Approximately 100-200 of these cases are convicted each year. This is a very small number. The same authors calculates the "dark numbers" (the ones who are never reposted) to 85 per cent, based on a comparison with the "dark numbers" on domestic violence (in Sweden).
The most interesting outcome of the reaction to Assange in Sweden was, as Olsson notes, the discussions held on Twitter and blogs named under the tag "Let’s talk about it" (#prataomdet). Many people, women and men, came forward with their stories about situations that seem to belong in the "grey-zone" between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour. The campaign was slandered by antifeminists but helped in interesting ways raise the question of what is OK in the bedroom — and how conservative views on male and female sexuality still affect us in our most private sphere.
There is no doubt that when a figure as controversial as Assange has such allegations raised against him, difficult questions will be raised. Journalists and commentators should be investigating the complex issues associated with both Wikileaks and sexual assault.
One of us has already written in New Matilda about the way Assange responded to the accusations. The problem here goes much further: it’s not just Assange, but his supporters who have been feeding myths about rape victims.
The feminist blog, Barefoot and Progressive reminded us last year that the Assange case has brought the "lying slut narrative" back:
"… those who would normally be feminist allies have been pretty quick to slut-shame and victim-blame (or, at best, victim-dismiss), while people who have demonstrably proven to be enemies of women’s bodily autonomy in the past so suddenly seem to give a shit about a few sexual assaults across the world".
There is an important difference between Assange and Wikileaks: too many of us have forgotten this and the results are concerning. The US response to Wikileaks also requires us to consider the power of state — but to manipulate such considerations into dismissing claims of assault without knowing the evidence creates a disturbing trend.
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