Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated and saddened by the response of many fellow leftists to the rape allegations against Julian Assange. I’m no stranger to anti-feminist rhetoric across the political spectrum. But rarely have I seen so many “progressives” engaged in a dialogue of rape-apology—from leveling personal attacks against Assange’s accusers to dismissing his supposed actions as mere faux pas rather than “valid” acts of assault. As someone who identifies as both a radical leftist and a feminist—and who sees those two aspects of my identity as inseparable parts of a whole—I’ve been closely following the response to this case from all sides. And what I’ve witnessed is the divisive creation of a false dichotomy: either you are a progressive who supports WikiLeaks (and therefore must defend Assange by any means necessary), or you are a feminist who wishes to defend possible rape victims against public shaming (and therefore must be in opposition to the whole WikiLeaks project). But I believe what we need is to approach this situation with a holistic analysis and recognize that this does not have to be a case of either/or; that it is possible—and, I would argue, necessary—to stand in solidarity with the WikiLeaks project while at the same time refusing to perpetuate a patriarchal rape culture.
There is, of course, little room to doubt that the handling of Assange’s case is politically motivated. Rape occurs with alarming frequency, and is certainly not typically a matter of INTERPOL’s concern. But the fact that there are obvious political motives at work—as well as the fact that Assange has indeed done an invaluable service—needn’t lead us to the complete and automatic dismissal of the allegations against him. And as we recognize WikiLeaks as a valuable tool for fighting oppressive, imperialist, political forces, it is vital that we don’t in turn use it as an excuse to perpetuate the oppressive force of patriarchy. In fact, those who wish to speak out against imperialism would be well-served by examining the ways in which patriarchy so often functions as an imperialistic tool. There can be no liberatory society if we are willing to simply exchange one form of oppression for another.
Even individuals who feel convinced of Assange’s innocence must consider the broader implications of our response to this case. What we need to recognize is that the reaction to these allegations is about far more than the guilt or innocence of one man. The public attitudes surrounding rape cases have a massive impact on all victims of sexual violence. And this knee-jerk impulse to deny that our hero could possibly commit sexual assault—an impulse that both reflects and reproduces rape culture—is problematic regardless of whether the accused is the captain of the high school football team, the man currently credited with exposing the reality of corrupt governments, or simply someone the community thinks of as a “nice guy.” In America, it’s estimated that only slightly more than half the number of rapes that occur are reported. And one of the most compelling reasons for a victim to remain silent is fear; not just the fear for her physical safety, but fear that she will be the one put on trial—that she will be taunted, shamed, disbelieved, told that she asked for it or accused of being one of those man-hating feminists with an ax to grind—whether by the public or her personal community. Every time a possible rape victim is paraded through the media as a liar, women everywhere are reminded of the likelihood that our voices will only be silenced if we attempt to speak out about our own experiences of sexual victimization—particularly if our assailants happen to be well-liked, respected, and held in high esteem for their accomplishments. Every time the public rushes to defend a celebrity or athlete or trusted political figure who is accused of rape, rape myths are perpetuated: that women who allege rape are merely out for some form of financial or personal gain, that men who do not fit certain stereotypes of violent aggressors cannot possibly be guilty of rape, or that many instances of non-consensual sex simply don’t qualify as rape because they began with consensual interaction or because the woman in question is “promiscuous.” Far from existing only in high-profile cases, these are precisely the same myths that must be overcome by ordinary women who attempt to speak out against acts of sexual violence. These are the myths which force so many victims into silence, never coming forward because they fear that the trauma they have already suffered will only be followed by the additional trauma of being ridiculed and shamed, labeled a liar or a whore.
Last month, a high school freshman in Michigan took her own life after extensive bullying. The 14-year-old girl was being relentlessly taunted because she had accused a well-liked senior at her school of rape. We need look no further than this one tragic example to see the very real way in which this culture of rape denial and dismissal impacts the lives of “ordinary” women and girls. And when we respond so dismissively to allegations of rape in a high-profile case, we reinforce the hegemonic idea that this is an appropriate response: that women are not to be trusted, that claims of sexual violence are not to be taken seriously. We perpetuate a culture in which men are able to rape, and get away with rape, because their victims are taught that they have no voice, that they deserve what’s been done to them, or that they have no right to call themselves victims at all.
This is not intended as an attack on Julian Assange, whose guilt or innocence I am in no position to know. And it is certainly not intended as an attack on the importance and the value of WikiLeaks. But it is an attack on the way our culture responds, time and time again, to allegations of rape. It is absolutely imperative that all of us—and especially those of us who identify as revolutionaries—recognize that we can defend and praise the WikiLeaks project without rushing to personally condemn and shame the women who have accused Assange of rape. And we can and must remain critical of the political forces at work against Julian Assange without falling back on the all-too-common rhetoric of victim-blaming. We are right to feel passionately defensive of WikiLeaks, and to feel outrage at attempts to shut it down. WikiLeaks is all about taking information from the hands of a privileged few and placing it in the hands of the masses, and it has the potential to empower us all. We must continue to speak out and struggle against the governments and the corporations that wish to block our access to such information. But as we fight to not be silenced, we must not respond by silencing others. It is my belief that we cannot rightfully call ourselves revolutionary while perpetuating a patriarchal rape culture which shames and silences the victims of sexual violence. The world we strive to create must be one in which the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings is recognized, and we can only get there if we steadfastly refuse to promote one form of oppression in the name of ending another.
Note: I recognize that I have discussed rape here in strictly heteronormative terms. The Assange case—like so many others—is largely about gendered power dynamics and the ways that men and women in particular are characterized both by the public and the media. But actual acts of sexual violence do not always fit so neatly into this model, and I feel it important to acknowledge that there are victims (and perpetrators) of sexual violence from all points on the gender spectrum. While adequately addressing the complexity of rape and gender is beyond the scope of this piece, I think it’s important to note that no victim of any gender should ever have their experiences dismissed or invalidated.