Yet again, I was approaching an article on Julian Assange, this time in the Monthly by Guy Rundle, Crayfish Summer: Julian Assange, Sex crime and Feminism, with low expectations. Most of the blogosphere and media appears to have eaten up the myths surrounding Julian Assange and the two Swedish women with a spoon.
This article was free online when I began to write this post, but has since been taken down. I’m not sure why.
Every element in the layout of the article was loaded with subtle textual and visual digs, which is of course down to the editorial, not Rundle. The title, “Crayfish” Summer. A photo of Assange looking charismatic in the clothes loaned to him by his English hosts, next to a sign with a hump (hurh, hurh) and “give way”. All plausibly deniable, of course. (To be fair, the Monthly appears to be having a subtle dig at Assange’s supporters, too; the ASIS recruiting ad taking up half of one page of the article was a wizard jape, Monthly layout/editorial people! “Could you be an intelligence officer? Extraordinary work for extraordinary people! a career with a difference!”)
The first half of the article was not bad. Rundle stuck pretty much to the facts of the case which are routinely ignored by starry-eyed apologists for the Wunderkind du jour. Far from simply regretting a perfectly consensual one night stand the following day, as the popular story goes, the women went to the police to request a STI test because Assange had insisted on unsafe sex, and persisted with coercion when the women wouldn’t oblige.
But Rundle’s “forensic” (as a non-native Swedish speaker) reading of the police reports continues the obsessive tendency of many commenters to examine every action and utterance of “the women” in the most negative possible light, while looking for the best possible interpretation of Assange’s. None of this is new.
More disappointing, though, is that the last part of the article is a polemic against “invit[ing] the law into the bedroom”. Only in cases of violence against women does society throw up its hands and declare that the legal system has no possible remedy for crimes committed in a domestic setting. Cases of theft, arson, burglary and other crimes aren’t thrown out of court because they are committed in a bedroom. If the only point Rundle made was that the collection and interpretation of evidence in rape cases where the rapist is known to the victim, to the point which would satisfy a Western court of law as they operate now, is difficult, I would agree. But he goes much further than that. Rundle argues that to take away the option of forced sex (he wouldn’t want to call it rape, and I’m sure he’d like to think it was in some other category) would be unacceptable to men.
[T]he charges against Assange will amount to a criminalisation of consensual (if unenjoyable) rough foreplay, and of a sleeping encounter almost immediately granted retroactive consent.”
How can sex be “consensual” if it’s only “granted retroactive consent”? How is Rundle sure that “granted retroactive consent” is willing consent, and not “the power disparity between us is just too high, and I’ll be pilloried by millions of Boy Superstar’s fans as well as the usual suspects, so I guess I should just suck it up”? What about the word “unenjoyable”? The point of consensual sex is that it is mutually enjoyable. Are we now back to Justice Bollen’s assertion that a bit of “rougher than usual handling” is perfectly fine to get women to consent to sex? 1
There is no evidence that the victim enjoyed it, but for the rapist to believe that he is not a rapist — that theoretical creature of evil and monsterhood — the victim must enjoy the rape, which will transform it into wanted rape-sex — sex that resembles rape and has all the desired benefits of rape (aggressive humiliation, sexual gratification, sadism, expression of power and domination) but carries none of the moral and legal baggage of real rape. This also aligns easily with gendered beliefs about men and women and sex: women secretly want sex, no matter what they say; men’s enjoyment of sex is the baseline to determine whether a sexual encounter is pleasurable; and that aggression, force, and a woman fighting back in pain is sexy and erotic. Thus, a rapist can rape a woman, but as long as he can find some way to convince himself she likes it, then it does not count as rape.
-Harriet J, Fugitivus
I think it’s vitally important to remember – in all the online sneering about the hubris of a woman presuming to think about consent once her body is in the proximity of a bed – that Ardin and Wilen were objecting to Assange’s sudden insistence on “bareback” sex. Given his promiscuity, this was objectively very dangerous. They were frightened of HIV transmission. They were “changing their minds” (an action which society, it appears, can only sneer at) due to new information which indicated a threat of actual bodily harm.
I find it interesting that this idea of forced sex as not-rape is retailed, not in some MRA or 4Chan page, but perhaps the most respectable, bourgeois magazine in Australia. It shows how Justice Bollen’s definition of not-rape still permeates the culture and goes a long way to explain why women who dare to seek legal redress (for potential bodily harm incurred, not even for the rape itself) are treated as dangerous, malicious people whose version of events can never be believed.
1 In attempting to assist the jury to distinguish a true lack of consent from acts of mere “persuasion”, Justice Bollen said: “There is, of course, nothing wrong with a husband, faced with his wife’s initial refusal to engage in intercourse, in attempting, in an acceptable way, to persuade her to change her mind, and that may involve a measure of rougher than usual handling. It may be that handling and persuasion will persuade the wife to agree. Sometimes it is a fine line between not agreeing, then changing of the mind, and consenting …” (R v Johns, Supreme Court, SA No. SCCRM/91/452, 26 August 1992).