What to say about Julian Assange and rape

As a result of this renewed furore about the Assange asylum case, about the rape case in Sweden and about the objectives of the US and UK government forces targeting him, I’m going to try to make the hard argument.

I do not think it is inconsistent to hold the view that these particular charges in this particular circumstance may well stem from harmful instances of sexual assault deserving of some kind of justice, while simultaneously holding the position that the extradition orders should be fought. I do not believe it requires pseudo-objective assessments on the seriousness of particular ‘kinds of rape’ over others (and all the problems that brings up, not least the silencing of victims) or a denigration of these particular women in this particular instance.

Firstly, though, I think it is incredibly naïve to believe that all the state attention on the Assange case has anything to do with sexual violence. The US has made it clear that they want to shut down WikiLeaks, that they consider Assange and the organisation an immense threat, and they will go great lengths in order to stamp them out. The Guardian has a neat summary of many of the reasons why. I don’t think there can be any doubt that the threat the US poses to Assange is real. And it seems obvious we should fight extradition for that reason – in the same way we fight against sending refugees back to war zones, or the surrender of any other individual into the custody of forces we believe would harm them.

Nevertheless, these claims of sexual violence have been made against Assange and we need to take them seriously. They need not impact on our opposition to extradition, but they too need a political response, for a whole host of reasons. We don’t have the knowledge to pass judgement on the truth of the charges but that shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss the possibility of their legitimacy. And it is critical that we do not use this situation as an excuse to redefine rape, or tell people how they should or shouldn’t feel about their experiences, or denounce those people who say they’ve been assaulted.

Rape is a social problem taught and enabled by particular power structures and property relations: colonialism, imperialism, capitalism. These structures do not empower women and survivors of sexual assault. They do not administer justice, except in a handful of cases, which more often than not make the experience worse for victims in the process. Furthermore, they incorporate and uphold institutions that enable the perpetration of these acts. One example is the prison system, in which a staggering number of rapes occur. Another is the military, which wields sexual violence as a weapon of war, as well as an internal control tactic. These very same forces have a vested interest in upholding the sexist status quo in its other incarnations that further enables violence of this kind: entrenching gender roles; denying women access to birth control, abortion, equal pay, maternity leave, healthcare, childcare; selling us profound insecurity that can only be sated by the market; alienating us from ourselves and from each other. Despite the efforts of those valiant individuals trying to change the system from within, there are still persistent and repeated attacks on hard-won rights, and those forces are not losing ground. In fact, one only needs to look at the political situation in the US in the lead up to the presidential election to realise that actually, these forces are getting stronger. (Closer to home at the tip of the iceberg we have Tony Abbott and the increasingly rightward-moving Labor party.)

These forces do not care about women and they certainly do not care about victims of sexual assault. So why, when these structures fail us again and again, when we have been arguing about how ineffectual they are for years, are we attempting to uphold them now? Why, when these forces have a clear political interest of their own in pushing this rape case – an interest that has nothing to do with justice for sexual assault victims – do we trust them to administer justice for these particular women in Sweden? And for that matter, why do we think that they will then engage in due process and pay heed to Assange’s rights once he’s in their custody? It is an assault of its own kind on the rights of everyone involved, not least these two women caught up in it.

But beyond that, the Assange case has exposed a serious fissure in the left-wing response to sexual violence. I think we are at serious risk of dismissing the conversation about how to appropriately respond to it – how to respond to it now, not just in an ideal world. It would be arrogant of me to start posturing about how this should be done in Sweden – a society with which I am completely unfamiliar, involving a legal system I have no experience in and a political history I know nothing about. But for the sake of exercise, if this were happening in Australia, I would begin by saying: I have never seen any evidence that the police care about or would be interested in prosecuting a case like this. I think the experience would be highly traumatic for victims who attempted to push it – assuming the police even took them seriously – particularly if they were Indigenous or Islamic or Sudanese or a sex worker, and especially because it so often comes down to one person’s word against another’s.

This suggests that misunderstanding, disrespect and miscommunication in sex as well as rape and sexual assault persist outside of the capacity of a courtroom or the current legal system to deal with it. This makes it a social and political problem that needs to be dealt with accordingly. Rape and sexual violence needs to be talked about, it should be condemned and perpetrators should be held to account. But given all of the above, it shouldn’t automatically follow that we agitate for the state or the law to be given more power. Our political responses should reflect that. Perhaps one of the problems we have in making this argument is we find it very difficult to conceive of a way to see justice done in individual cases without recourse to existing institutions and legal bodies. But the first way to do that is to stop pretending that those bodies have any real capacity or inclination to administer justice in instances of sexual assault and rape. Or, indeed, that the state has any interest in overturning those very structures that enable them to continue.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

More by


  1. I’m starting to feel like a serial commenter these days, but I just wanted to say, super post Stephanie. This might be the best thing I’ve read on the politics of rape as it concerns Assange. I hope it is read far and wide.

  2. There has been so much comment flying around in the last few days that has been so disheartening for so many reasons.

    This post very eloquently expresses what I’ve been at a loss to say and reminds us that there are numerous difficult concepts all tied up together in this case.

    Additionally, unrelated to Assange but related to current rape conversations; the Todd Akin comments and the response by the Onion are worth a look.

  3. all sorts of issues raised in this case. firstly, like you i do not know very much about sweden legal system, but i would applaud them for seemingly extending the definition of rape.

    and i would very much agree that the ruling classes could not give a fig about protecting the rights of women. as the SI famously said ‘there is nothing they will not do to increase the level of boredom.’ here we have a new slogan we can raise, there is nothing they will not do to increase the level of confusion. the rape charges, like the moral panic over child rape which led to the NT intervention, are no more than a smoke screen, and like every good smoke screen it is used to cover an attack. personally i would have rather the army was sent in to intervene in the catholic church. but that is another matter.

    what all this exposes is the fragmented nature of the left in the west, and how the ruling classes use this fragmentation to divide and conquer.

    something that has troubled me in all this, is the almost complete lack of interest in the documents released via wikileaks. in tunisia wikileaks lead to a revolution and began the arab spring (a narrative i am not 100% behind, but true to a certain extent), while in the west it was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, a cynical meh, and a holier than thou response of ‘i knew it all before’ and then quickly forgotten. where are the keen journalists who could spend a lifetime sifting through this mountain of data and writing countless articles? oh yes they are too busy ganging up on the PM, and licking LNP arses.

    in a nutshell we have too much egoism wrapped up as too cool for skool cynicism and not enough organising of the organised.

    War Is Over!

  4. I’ve been trying to follow the entire saga and feel quite exhausted. Why? If we reduce it, we find someone who is wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual assault. For me, that wanted person, Assange, stands for something which is highly prized. Regardless, we meet cognitive dissonance with these allegations of sexual assault. If we remove the intrigues and politics we are left with the man, not as an ideal but as possibly flawed, and that is no comfort. If we put back all the paranoia and politics we still have a man who is possibly flawed BUT the vulnerability of that flaw is perhaps being exploited by others for their own ends. And what’s worse, there may be no flaw. Whatever the truth, the dissonance we perceive is perhaps the reason for the fractured response in this case.

  5. People have trouble handling contradictions in one person. People who see virtue in Assange for release of the cables find it difficult to cope with the allegations of a different quality. There is a lot of consequential rape apology and this is damaging. I don’t blame the people – I think it’s a very well structured attack on Assange from a political perspective.

    If the allegations should prove true, there is a consistency in the Assange behaviour, in that he doesn’t give particular regard to boundaries, whether they belong to individual women or whether they are set up by a government.

    This leads me to assess the relative virtue of the boundaries. For my part the boundary of a sole woman’s body should never be transgressed beyond the rules she sets, but the boundary of a country, behind which murder, torture, rape, bullying, manipulation are hidden and which prohibits full participatory democracy, that is a boundary that should be broken through.

    So we value and honor Assange for his willingness and courage in breaking boundaries, but if it should turn out so, we warn the women and others who need to know about the negative side of such a quality, and he needs to be set on a learning trajectory.

  6. While this is a marked improvement on what’s been going around the Internet lately, I still don’t entirely agree. It sounds like you’re saying we should give up on fighting for fair trials around sexual assault altogether. This is the classic opposition to women making claims like this on state institutions and to all the changes that have occurred around sexual assault. The strident campaigns for recognition and proper definition of rape and consent have not occurred because women or anyone else are naive about the role of these institutions, but because we must fight to hold them to the principles they claim. And what we’ve won matters! In fact, there was a time when the debate of the last couple of days could not have occurred.

    • No, I’m not saying that and I don’t think it’s a necessary follow-on from all of the above. But the reason those challenges within the system are so hard to fight is because the systems are corrupt from the start. So I don’t actually think in this case that justice for these women is at stake, even were Assange found guilty, because I think the already-slim chances of that were lost the minute the state began using the case in their machinations against Assange.

    • I think we also have to acknowledge that there are some things the courts will not be able to do, and that this legal system is incapable of, which requires a political response beyond that.

    • I’m curious to what your position is. I mean, in the abstract, it’s easy to oppose sexism while simultaneously defending Assange against the US (or, at least, it should be easy — I agree that some people have done a depressingly bad job).
      But the question here is posed concretely, and the task for the Left consists of trying to formulate a response that simultaneously combats sexism without lining up with the US state.
      That’s why I like the post — I think it does a good job of negotiating that difficult terrain. But if you don’t agree, what concrete response do you think should be put forward?

      • Hmmmm. See I think this article is clear about extradition. And on this it’s better than the Laurie Penny piece (sorry – on phone so can’t link). But on the sexual assault charges I think this is piece is unclear.

        What’s my position? Oppose the extradition, plus call for a fair investigation and trial. Concretely what could that look like? This is the hard bit, I acknowledge, but surely at least: questioning inside the embassy, demand the charges are then made or dropped, then a negotiation over what a fair trial might look like. In Britain? Across countries? How? And maybe an agreement on where punishment should be metered out, should it get to that. If the political will is there, anything’s possible. Which is partly why I think we SHOULD put uncomfortable demands to the UK and Sweden, to test their actual will in resolving these allegations. They’ll probably show themselves to be the bullshitters they are. Not demanding a fair trial is letting both Assange and these institutions off the hook.

        You can do all this without downplaying the allegations as well. Because, frankly, if some of it is true, then the Wikileaks movement should have to do without Assange for a while – because assault within our movement is not ok! I just don’t think he should be sent to the US, sent to Guantanamo and tried under their bullshit laws (if he’s lucky).

        In short: he should be accountable for the sexual assault allegations – because we support those laws. And not for the rubbish the US is going to throw at him – because we don’t recognize those.

        • But hasn’t the Assange team already offered to be interviewed in the embassy? And hasn’t Sweden explicitly refused? So what then?

          • I know you’re probably asking Polly, but my 2c…
            I imagined a fair international court (??), but then I thought of trial instead in Ecuador – put the offer to the women. He couldn’t come home to Australia because “we’d” pack him off to the US on the offer of a life sentence.
            I can’t give him a free run now since @wikileaks have retweeted someone I now regard as a rape apologist (Galloway). That’s why I want to hear Assange say that it is wrong for someone to have sex without a condom against their partner’s wishes viz below. There’s too much rape apology happening and it needs to be dealt with.

        • Questioning on the ground in Ecuador would be a solution to a lot of things in this particular case, but it still leaves us without a broader position on how to combat rape and sexual violence and what to agitate for. The current system clearly isn’t capable of or interested in prosecuting an enormous number of rape cases, AND there are some (many?) that are clearly never going to be able to be solved by the courts anyway. We need a response to that.

          • The territory of ‘private’ rape is fraught in any case isn’t it, due to a lack of objective witnesses? Agitate for public statements about what constitutes rape, for education in respect, and for support services.

      • Hi Jeff – I have one proposal – a public response to George Galloway, who is surprisingly absent from this article. I’m not sure it’s a revelation to any women’s liberationist that the courts won’t give you justice. Maybe we would like to redefine the terrain ao that we were talking about this. If so, someone needs to get a memo toour illustrious spokesmen of the left defend, who choose to defend Assange by redefining rape out of existence and seriously fucking with the daily struggles of half the population. Men and women on the left, us, could concretely – not abstractly – STOP writing rape apologies in defence of Assange. Of course he shouldn’t be extradited. But I find it interesting that people want to tell these women that they won’t get justice from the capitalist system (no alternative or concrete proposal for them!) but then you want those who want to politely ask the left to stop the rape apologies to come up with a concrete way through the capitalist legal system to protect Assange. George Galloway and others on the left nees to stop defending by actively women and rape victims struggle for justice. Is that really that hard? Apparently so – for those of us on the left without penises, this is a cause for concern and should be a matter of debate

  7. A fair trial should be fair both for the alleged victim/s and for the alleged perp.

    In this case Assange has offered to be questioned by Swedish police within the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and they have refused.

    George Galloway (UK politician) has also stated that if the swedish charges had been brought against Assange in the UK, the charges would have been dropped before trial.

    Finally – and I speak here a a woman who has had experience of oral date rape, sadly, some women who accuse men of sexual assault are lying.

  8. And.. I also feel that the msm discussion and the various arguing states and institutions have very little regard for the women whatsoever, whether the allegations prove true or not. I’d read that they’d tried to extract themselves from it in any case, not that this in any way dimishes their claims or their right to be heard, or to justice should it be required, but that the case had taken on dimensions well beyond their interests or their intent.

  9. An outstanding, well thought-out post which stays objective throughout. Commendable on such a charged issue. *hat tip*

  10. And.. now I’m sorting it all out in my head, I want to hear Julian Assange say publicly that it is wrong for someone to engage in sex without a condom if their partner had wished/understood otherwise, and to say that such a person should expect to face fair justice.

  11. Thank you so much for this post. I’m having sleepless nights and not eating because I can’t stop trying to get my head around the media and public reaction that has so abhorrently downplayed the charges of rape levied. I am so happy to read intelligent, reflective posts like this that see the complexity of the situation at hand. Thank you.

  12. The definitive commentary on the legal issues in this case was written by David Allen Green here:
    It’s well worth reading as so much misinformation has been flying around. Green writes for a left magazine in the UK and is himself a lawyer.

    I agree about structures etc, but the anti capitalist line here does not convince me. To make such an argument stick some evidence would help.

  13. I posted this in response to a comment on Facebook but I think it might be worth reposting here (slightly edited):

    I don’t think it necessarily follows from all of the above that we shouldn’t support those people who do attempt to seek justice for sexual violence and rape through the courts. And there are times when that will be the answer for people. (Not for everyone, though, and under a different system altogether? Who can say?) And I don’t think it means we shouldn’t try to make it as easy as possible for those who do attempt to seek justice in this way – supporting amendments to the law and so on when they benefit women and victims etc.

    As regards the situation as it stands: if these women believe that justice will be served through the courtroom in this case, for them, then we should be advocating for the US etc. to get the hell out of the picture, because there’s absolutely no possibility, as I see it, of them receiving justice while imperialist forces are in the picture attempting to use it for their own means. (As I understand it, the Assange legal team has been consistently saying that Assange is happy go to Sweden as long as they can guarantee he won’t be extradited to the US once he gets there. They’ve failed to give their assurances about that, and thus we have this current stalemate.)

    BUT we should simultaneously recognise that rape and sexual assault also exists outside the capacity (or, as I said, inclination) of the capitalist courtroom, and that in many ways these legal systems are set up to enable and protect abuses. For an example of the court’s lack of capacity: say in this Assange case what it comes down to is his word against theirs and the evidence is inconclusive? (Which I understand is pretty much the case.) That doesn’t mean rape didn’t occur, and it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some kind of reparation or justice. But as far as the legal system is concerned, it doesn’t exist, and he’s certainly not going to do jail time or anything like that. So we need a social and political response that goes beyond just saying he should be charged. Part of that response needs to deal with the social and political situations that encourage and provide space for rape and sexual violence in the first place, as well as seeking to conceive of ways in which current victims can be supported and current perpetrators held to account.

  14. Glad to read this here; some of the previous posts on Assange have bordered on rather pathetic hagiography. I still don’t really see why he shouldn’t be extradited.

    • If wikileaks can add some measure to a warring (and hence murdering and raping) superpower and friends, maybe it’s a bigger win for women?

  15. I feel like this is an improvement over Laurie Penny’s muddled piece, but it avoids some uncomfortable issues regarding the discourse around rape and Julian Assange.

    To put it plainly, Assange himself has been actively promoting rape apologism almost from the moment the accusations came to light. The initial smear on his accusers which appeared in Counterpunch was authored by Israel Shamir, who we later learned was (and perhaps still is) a “media partner” of Wikileaks. It’s hard not to conclude that Assange approved of this smear by proxy.

    Subsequently Assange has called Sweden “the Saudi Arabia of feminism.” And recently, via the Wikileaks Twitter account, Assange has been promoting a book which claims his prosecution is the result of feminists “redefining rape” in Sweden.


    Assange’s current host Rafael Correa took things a step further, claiming that the acts he’s accused of aren’t even crimes in Ecuador. Has Assange distanced himself from these remarks at all?

    Here’s my message to Assange and to those of his supporters who insists we maintain diligently agnostic on the accusations against him:

    If you’re accused of rape, and you claim to be the victim of a feminist conspiracy, you should not be surprised if people assume you’re guilty as hell.

    • But surely the question is what follows from that. What should we be saying now? Yes, some people (Galloway most notoriously) have responded appallingly to the rape accusations but we still need to formulate a concrete position on the situation that’s presented to us, which is what the original post sought to do. If people disagree with the formulation, that’s fine but it would be more helpful to present the response in terms of alternative demands. For instance, Polly wrote:

      Oppose the extradition, plus call for a fair investigation and trial. Concretely what could that look like? This is the hard bit, I acknowledge, but surely at least: questioning inside the embassy, demand the charges are then made or dropped, then a negotiation over what a fair trial might look like.

      I totally agree with that but, of course, Sweden has now made it clear that it won’t question Assange in Britain, even though that would be entirely possible. So what then?

      Part of the response, IMO, is to assert that its Sweden, Britain and the US that, via linking the rape allegations to their political hostility to Assange, have made it impossible for the women to get a hearing, and that this is not an accident. The representative of Women Against Rape have put it very well:

      Whether or not Assange is guilty of sexual violence, we do not believe that is why he is being pursued. Once again women’s fury and frustration at the prevalence of rape and other violence, is being used by politicians to advance their own purposes. The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will, usually to increase their powers, this time to facilitate Assange’s extradition or even rendition to the US. That the US has not presented a demand for his extradition at this stage is no guarantee that they won’t do so once he is in Sweden, and that he will not be tortured as Bradley Manning and many others, women and men, have. Women Against Rape cannot ignore this threat.

      In over 30 years working with thousands of rape victims who are seeking asylum from rape and other forms of torture, we have met nothing but obstruction from British governments. Time after time, they have accused women of lying and deported them with no concern for their safety. We are currently working with three women who were raped again after having been deported – one of them is now destitute, struggling to survive with the child she conceived from the rape; the other managed to return to Britain and won the right to stay, and one of them won compensation.

      Assange has made it clear for months that he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step to their investigation? What are they afraid of?

      As for Liz’s argument that this is an ‘attempt to re-direct the debate to our safe territory of structural injustice when maybe we need to talk about George Galloway’, I totally disagree. Actually, there’s almost no discussioon of ‘structural injustice’ in the mainstream debates about Assange and rape, other than in isolated pieces like the one above. The ‘safe’ argument — the one that’s been made over and over again — takes for granted that governments and courts are the solution. Galloway has been (rightly) condemned over and over again. It’s much easier to do that than to talk about structural injustice.

      • I think the left should oppose extradition, and criticize rape apologism, but should not exempt Assange from this critique. The Women Against Rape editorial, for instance, makes a point of mentioning the outing and smearing of his accusers, but fails to mention that Assange himself promoted those smears.

        The problem we’re faced with is not only a politicized process and a rape apologist discourse on the left. The other problem, frankly, is that a lot of us suspect there’s some substance to the accusations. And as long as we skirt that issue, a lot of people will find the expectation to remain agnostic disingenuous.

        • OK. Well, I’d agree with all of that, except that I wouldn’t express an opinion one way or another about the veracity of the accusations (since it could only be speculation). But, of course, this is not exactly an unparalleled situation. One could, for instance, oppose the invasion of Afghanistan despite the misogyny of the Taliban, even though, if you recall, there was a certain sector of the liberal Left that insisted the anti-war movement was thereby entirely sexist.

        • Re ‘substance to the accusations’
          If condom use anomolies were a chronic behaviour (and double occurrence within a couple of days suggests so) would there not a string of such complaints tailing after Assange? Don’t want to prompt to evil forces to invent a new complainant, but the likelihood is there. I read a narrative that said that after the event he and SW talked about how nice it would be if she was pregnant. Maybe he has a way of talking himself through the outfall of discovery, charismatic as he is. And that it failed in this case?…perhaps it does signal a honeytrap. It is of course all speculation – but I’m not seeing why wikileaks can’t make a statement supporting the rights of partners so people can get on with believing in the integrity of the org.

  16. Matt – thanks for that. Yes, yes and yes. I actually hadn’t realised how awful some of his own comments were (though am aware of the Shamir stuff – why do the Cockburns – or what’s left of them, RIP etc – play with this guy??. His anti-feminist stuff is bad enough, but don’t get him started on the Jews!). This does feel like an attempt to re-direct the debate to our safe territory of structural injustice when maybe we need to talk about George Galloway and how it is that men on the left in particular can still say such stuff in public, with little response from the left it would seem.

  17. Of course we need to talk about George Galloway etc, and rape apologists should be condemned. But we also need some theory underpinning our responses. Discourse around rape and Assange is not removed from those broader structural inequalities; in fact, it’s a manifestation of them. One of the ways of to begin working through this (and combating sexism within our own ranks) is by putting forward a position.

    Aside from that, I really do think that we have to be very careful not allow all that toxic commentary from his supporters, himself and even our personal opinions on him and the charges etc. to sway us on things like our position on his own rights. You know, to take the issue from the other direction, we don’t defend people on death row because we think they are lovely, kindly people and we want to build a house in their neighbourhood; we do it because we believe the state doesn’t have the right to kill people. The same principle surely applies here.

    • Agreed. I think what you’re proposing is more nuanced than other left arguments on this issue. There’s a strong tendency among Wikileaks supporters toward hero worship. Most heroes simply won’t stand up to moral scrutiny.

      Not to draw a moral equivalency, but I’ve often wondered how Gandhi would have fared in the age of Twitter. Certainly if Western imperialists could have exposed him for his domestic violence, they could have derailed the movement for Indian independence. Much closer to home, Kissinger wanted to smear Ellsberg for his sexual behavior. And then there’s the depressing discourse around Manning’s gender “confusion” and violent temper.

      So, I think we have to accept that people may already have made their minds up about Assange’s moral character, acknowledge that fact, and keep the focus on the cynical use of rape to drive a wedge into the movement. Thanks for the dialogue.

  18. Well if any of you have any links through to Wikileaks can you ask them to make a statement on partners’ rights in sex, which includes wearing a condom if this a known wish? The conflict of this is doing my head in. They have social permission to violate the border of a murdering torturing polluting network, but not that of their partner.

  19. Great article. Rape needs to be seriously looked at in our society. Our justice system is failing women’s rights and it needs a shake up.

  20. “These forces do not care about women and they certainly do not care about victims of sexual assault. So why, when these structures fail us again and again, when we have been arguing about how ineffectual they are for years, are we attempting to uphold them now?”

    This argument, when raised specifically in relation to Assange and specifically to the EAW for Assange is misleading. EAWs for crimes of sexual assault/rape have been issued by Sweden prior to and since Assange’s case. They are not at all uncommon. I loathe the logical contortions by which people come to the conclusion that the normal procedures, the procedures which have in fact been followed by the Swedish authorities in previous cases of sexual assault allegations, should not apply in this case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.