15 Apr 2011, Comments (8)

Rougher than usual: The Monthly on Julian Assange and consent

Author: Helen

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).

Crossposted at Hoyden About Town

Comments (8) »

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    Many people with superior intelligence are difficult to like, and JA is just another one.
    The Monthly and it’s boy-editor repulse me too, and the only good thing in it is Shane Maloney.
    ‘Crayfish party’ seemed a hilarious thing until I realised it is the Sverige equivalent of our BBQ.
    Please don’t forget that the murderous Americans want to lynch JA for enabling Manning to expose them for what they are.

  • Helen says:

    OK, Annie, I’ll bite.

    -You can have a superior intelligence without being a douchebag. There are many examples of this in the world. They just don’t get as much attention, perhaps.

    -Inga Clendinnen and Robert Forster are chopped liver? (Despite my qualms about the Monthly, including writers like these keep me coming back, unfortunately.)

    -I notice Manning is simply the subject of a subordinate clause in your last sentence. Please note that he’s the one undergoing imprisonment and torture for Wikileaks activities. You might like to devote the same word count to him that you do to the rockstar celebrity.

    -It’s perfectly possible to worry that Assange will end up in Quantico *and* accept that he may have committed a crime. See gum, chew, stomach, pat, at same time.

    (JA has convictions from his hacking days. Of course, this is not relevant to the current situation. But just to note, if “the women” had had convictions for anything you’d be damn sure Assange’s supporters would have waved them around as proof of their untrustworthiness.)

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    I wasn’t trying to make you ‘bite’. I have slathered my usual haunts with treaties re Manning. he has been lost in this whole saga. he is gay and took part in DADT protests so the army demoted him. Out of vengeful spite he gave up files he had access to. He is very young and it is terrible.
    I am not promoting JA as anything other than an enemy of the USA.
    The Social Network is the story of another intelligent guy who is impossible to like.
    I am not clever at all but am a very nice person.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    I can’t believe that Rundle wrote this:
    ‘[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.”

    My brain isn’t up to writing a good enough comment, but I wanted to comment, Helen, if only to say how much I agree with what you wrote and how you’ve interpreted his article.

    However, perhaps you’ve summed it up even better in your response to Annie with “You can have a superior intelligence without being a douchebag.” I wonder how many t-shirts we’d sell with JA on the front and that slogan underneath?

  • Helen says:

    Thanks, Kath. A little wordy for a T shirt, perhaps? I rather like this one.

  • Boganette says:

    Thank-you so much for this post Helen. I just can’t agree more. Thank-you. I’m now going to link the shit out of this post because I think everyone should read it.

  • Helen says:

    Thanks Boganette, link away!

  • Siobhan says:

    Thanks for this piece. I have been intrigued by how people who like wikileaks need to absolve Assange of these accusations. In order to do so, they have to fall into all kinds of blackening of the women who made the accusation, and the Swedish legal system. They are also more ready than I would like to decide that it was not really rape, on the grounds that Sweden is silly about these things.
    Personally, I find it quite plausible that Assange can be a hero and also possibly have committed a sex-crime. The two are not mutually exclusive.
    Perhaps a small upside of this is that it demonstrates that people feel rape is a serious crime. They talk themselves out of believing that Assange could have committed rape because they are repelled by the idea of supporting a rapist.

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