‘Rape Myths’ and the Case of Julian Assange
June 27, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
Columnist Sian Norris discusses the Julian Assange case, focusing on what it suggests about attitudes towards rape and ‘rape myths’.
This month Julian Assange sought bail in the Ecuadorian Embassy, after the Supreme Court decided that, despite his appeal, he could still be extradited to Sweden to face questioning about two alleged sexual assaults against two women.
Here’s a reminder of the defence team’s description of the charges made against Assange, during his appeal hearing last year:
“AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly.
“’They fell asleep and she woke up by his penetrating her. She immediately asked if he was wearing anything. He answered: ‘You.’ She said: ‘You better not have HIV.’ He said: ‘Of course not.’ She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.”
Every time Assange’s case hits the headlines, the same things happen. The same rape apologism emerges and the same Assange myths are parroted. Despite the fact that so many of these myths have been shown to be untrue multiple times since his arrest in 2010, they are still being repeated as though they’re gospel.
Firstly, we have the myth that what Assange allegedly did (as spoken by his defence) is not illegal under UK law, and so therefore he can’t be extradited to Sweden. It wasn’t rape, the myth goes, it was ‘sex by surprise’.
Well, sex by surprise, however and whichever way you swing it, is rape. Penetrating someone when they are sleeping is rape, in the UK, in Sweden, in the USA – in fact in any country where rape is illegal. Blogger and lawyer David Allen Green has the info here about how the allegation is still illegal in the UK.
Of course, Assange is innocent before proven guilty. It might be that when the evidence is presented, and he answers police questions, he didn’t commit any offence. But if anyone penetrates a woman whilst she was sleeping, as the defence describes, and if anyone physically coerces a woman into sex, as described, then that is illegal. No ifs, no buts. If a person is found guilty of doing either of those things in a court of law, then they are found guilty of rape and sexual assault. It isn’t just illegal in Sweden because they have a wacky ‘feminazi conspiracy government hell bent on repressing men’. It’s illegal because it’s rape, it’s sexual assault, it’s a gross violation of another person’s bodily autonomy.
The idea that what Assange is accused of is not illegal in the UK has become incredibly embedded in the popular imagination of this case. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who I respect, who are really smart, who still believe that he’s only accused of some leftfield Swedish law, that what he did is perfectly fine in the UK. Not only is this hampering a lot of reporting around the case, but it’s also setting a very worrying precedent about what we understand rape and sexual assault to be.
If we continue down a line where we’re openly saying that penetrating a sleeping woman without consent isn’t rape, then we’re creating a culture where we’re redefining what we mean by rape. There’s already a huge amount of confusion among young people about consent. When public figures defend Assange on TV, when they imply and say that what he’s accused of isn’t rape, they are perpetuating and encouraging rape myths that disempower victims and survivors, and silence their voices. They’re saying to thousands of women that what happened to them wasn’t rape. The impact this could have on women who are raped whilst asleep or unconscious is much more far reaching than they realise. They’re encouraging a culture where these women won’t be believed, and where the right we all have to name what happens to us is taken away.
I think Assange apologists need to think about that. They need to understand that it isn’t for them to tell women who’ve been raped whilst they’ve slept that what happened to them isn’t really rape. It is.
Sian Norris is a columnist for The Fresh Outlook. She is a feminist campaigner and writer. She co-ordinates the Bristol Feminist Network and has written for a range of publications, including the Guardian, Rockfeedback, The F Word, UK Feminista as well as her own blog, www.sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk