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.