As Wikileak’s frontman Julian Assange appeals his order in London for extradition to Sweden and prosecution for four accusations ranging from rape to sexual misconduct, I’ve been wondering from distant shores if Sweden isn’t experiencing its own Helen Garner moment.
Garner’s book The First Stone lobbed a bombshell into Australian feminism, and indeed gender relations, when she appropriated an actual incident of sexual harassment to argue women enfeebled themselves when they called on police to fend off unwanted sexual advances they should have the wherewithal to repel themselves.
Ironically Garner used women’s experiences without their consent. Arguably they called upon a higher authority because of the University’s failure of process. But whatever side you took, in the end a drunken grab at a breast at a university college social event descended into national scandal because wheels were set in motion that ended up disproportionately damaging everyone involved.
The Assange scandal will add to this body count. The same incredulous question is left hanging over the two Swedish women who originally sought ‘advice’: They went to the police? This same sense of disproportion, added to heady mix of ‘dodgy’ opportunistic charges directed at Assange, hinges off unresolved tension from the ‘sexual revolution’ in which the status of women’s sexual autonomy is still unclear when viewed over the sights of persistent, endemic sexual violence.
I mean, these girls ought to be a little more careful, a little less drunk, a little less willing oughtn’t they? Or so the unspoken thinking might go.
Ardin and Wilen initially inquired as to whether they could legally compel Assange to undergo an STI test. Their accounts were grounds for sex crime charges for the duty officer, who then leaked them to the Swedish press. The rape charge was rescinded by the chief prosecutor for the Stockholm region, but the ‘annoyance’ charge remained. A few days later, however, a lawyer, Borgstrom, and former ‘gender equality ombudsman’, became involved. She approached the head of a ‘crime development unit’, Ny, who is a specialist in the development of sex crime law, and who reconstituted formal charges against Assange, which have provided Interpol with the grounds to extradite him to Sweden.
Critical to unfolding events is the fact that no accusation has been made that consent was withdrawn. Whether the accusations are pursued is now in the hands of the Swedish prosecution.
It goes without saying that the women themselves have come under intense scrutiny; proof of their various equivocations is now well known, from withdrawn tweets to advice on getting revenge on ex-boyfriends posted on the web since withdrawn. For many observers at issue is how decades of rape law reform, as demanded by feminists, can be misappropriated by lawyers to expedite the unrelated legal process of Assange’s extradition by the US. Crikey’s Guy Rundle has pointed to the paradox of a radical movement such a feminism finding itself ‘laced into’ the machinery of government—a Swedish government no less that is compromising its cherished neutrality though its increasing involvement with NATO and ties to the US.
Like the Garner scandal, there is a clear disjunct between the nature of the allegations and proportional legal redress, not to mention public perception of all those involved, claimants and accused. The reverberations through gender relations in both scenarios centre on the ambivalent reception of women’s relatively recently asserted sexual autonomy. The lingering bitterness is that all the women involved had no desire for their experiences to form the basis for a reexamination of contemporary definitions of sexual interaction.
Yet the Pandora’s box has been flung open again and under attack are hard won gains against ongoing epidemic levels of sexual violence against women and children. As a cult-hero Assange’s perceived victimization by these accusations threatens to wind those gains back. In defending rape victims, feminism has become the persecutor. Assange himself dubbed Sweden the ‘Saudi Arabia of feminism’, and prosecutor Ny, now stands accused of being a ‘radical feminist’, and ‘preoccupied’ with women’s victimization and ‘biased’ against men. Feminists such as Kathleen Maltzahn have argued the two women have a right to have their allegations heard in a court of law, yet the whimsy of their complaints throws this into doubt. However, the blaze of events since their accusations were aired, from the censorship of the Wikileaks website, the refusal of paypal and VISA to process its donations, and attempts by Interpol to extradict Assange, are not the responsibility of Ardin and Wilen.
And here again is the Garner rub. In defending the women’s sexual autonomy a machinery has been set in motion that has brought into question whether such allegations should be the province of the law, or left to recently declared autonomous women to handle as they best see fit. Grinding a heel into the foot of an assailant became the badge of feminist home-remedy during the Garner/Ormond College affair. Like the Swedish claimants, these women were shown to have demonstrated all manner of autonomy in their young, feminist-informed lives. Indeed, their prior aggressive behavior – vengeful postings - was lent new significance, while Garner unfairly dissembled the characters of the women involved in the Ormond College affair in her First Stone.
Here we have two scenarios where women’s attempts to use legal process to assert their sexual autonomy have set in motion a series of events for which they were then charged with responsibility. Ironically the examination of their histories, characters, and the actual events in question have created a mantle, a sexual history in disrepute, none will ever escape from. But nor will Assange. Perhaps the second worse thing to being raped, given that it can never be ‘minor’, is being saddled with a bogus accusation of ‘rapist’.
Clearly I would wish the scourge of sexual assault, and the damage it inflicts overwhelming on women to disintegrate forever in a boiling pit of battery acid. But the prosecution of these charges against Assange will not make the world a safer place for women.
In a scenario entirely devoid of violence, threat or coercion where entirely consensual activity has taken place, for whatever reason whatsoever, a woman has a right to withdraw her consent. She also has a responsibility to state that unequivocally. While consent can’t be assumed, neither can its withdrawal be second guessed. The danger arising from the Assange charges is that, after decades of feminist reform, rape will return to the status of a mere ‘annoyance’.
This article first appeared on The Drum, Unleashed, ABC Online, 8 March 2011.