Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Defending the rights of men, denying the voices of women.

Since the arrest of Julian Assange last week, there has been a lot of discussion about several important issues. Some of this discussion has been amazing, but some of it has been really disturbing. I spent a few days reading a variety of blogs, articles and opinion pieces on the issues and even after all that research, I was still unclear as to what was really going on. What I was sure of is that a great many people are confused. They seem to believe that defending Assange is akin to defending free speech. But the complication here is that they’re defending someone who has been charged with several counts of sexual assault. So if they believe that these allegations are a plot to have him extradited to the USA, they are ignoring a very important factor: the women who accused him of sexually assaulting them are real women who he did indeed have sex with. If we instantly assume he is innocent, we by default assume these women are making false allegations and that they are tools of the state. The problem with this is that feminists have been working really hard for several generations to have our voices heard, to be believed when we disclose that we have been assaulted, and to have the criminal justice system take appropriate action. I thought we were getting there, but after this, I realise that I’m wrong.

There are several issues at play here:
that two women have made statements to the police that they had sex with Assange, and that he did things during sex that they did not consent to (eg: he didn’t use a condom, did not stop having sex when he was asked, and used his body weight to hold one woman down when she tried to get up). These allegations are serious criminal offences in a country that has relatively progressive rape laws. This isn’t about not using a condom, like so many have assumed. It’s about not using a condom without consent. See the difference?
that several countries were hoping that they would catch up with Assange at some point to hold him accountable for holding governments accountable. It could have been anything that eventually got him arrested. But it was this.
Assange is not Wikileaks. Wikileaks should be defended, that is without question. Governments and big business should be held accountable, but Assange is not Wikileaks. Wikileaks existed before him, and it will continue without him. Let’s not drag these women through hell to defend freedom of speech.

Let’s not silence all victims of sexual assault in order to defend freedom of speech.

If we assume these women are making false allegations, we call into question all women who make allegations.

Driving home from work last week, after thinking of nothing else but this for 8 hours, I tried to figure out why this was affecting me so. Why had I trawled through what seemed like an endless blogosphere, feeling so infuriated and alienated that I didn’t even take my lunch break? I’ll tell you why. Because I was sexually assaulted in the same way that these women were. I had agreed to sex, but then I changed my mind. I withdrew consent. I asked him to stop but he didn’t. He raped me. He knew I said stop, and he intentionally continued. And you know what? I didn’t do anything about it because he was my boyfriend and how could I possibly prove it? I was young, and I had no idea where to go. I eventually did speak up – publicly in fact. And whilst some people were supportive, others weren’t. One person even said ‘I don’t believe that someone like you would let themselves be raped’. So this, with Assange, this is personal. This is about me as much as it is about these two women in Sweden.

The stuff with Assange has triggered me in a way that even working with survivors for 10 years hasn’t. It has silenced me, it has alienated me, it has terrified me and it has set woman back years. So many rape myths are being perpetuated, people are making jokes about ‘rape parties,’ ‘feminist rape victims’ and ‘CIA ties’. It’s crazy. It’s indefensible. What message are we sending to women and girls who have been assaulted? Why do people think it’s ok to joke about rape, to belittle these women’s experiences and to assume they’re lying? Why are we victim blaming?

What I hope we get out of this, at the very least, is some further understanding about consent. Women know that rape is not always about force, but it is always about consent. 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, most of us by people we know. These women knew Assange and had consented to sex with him. When that consent was withdrawn, the sex should have ended. The very second it didn’t, it was rape. This is not a complex concept by any stretch. Sex without consent is a crime. Let’s not make light of it, ever.