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Julian Assange and the (ab)use of 'rape'

By Samantha Stevenson - posted Monday, 27 August 2012

There is a disturbing feminist narrative occurring surrounding Julian Assange.

Those of us who oppose Assange's extradition to Sweden, where he is set to face questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct, are accused of downplaying the significance of sexual violence against women. That we oppose his extradition based not on these allegations but on the risk of his onward extradition to the U.S, is seen as neither here nor there.

Assange's work as the founder of Wikileaks or the risk of his political persecution, they argue, should not be a distraction from the seriousness of the allegations he must face in Sweden. He cannot be granted special treatment, and the two women who accuse him must have their right to seek justice upheld.


Of course. But there is no denying Assange is already the receiver of very special treatment.

Sweden has, as Naomi Wolf has pointed out, taken an unprecedented approach to prosecuting Assange: pursuing an investigation despite no indication of lack of consent or threat of force, allowing dual testimonies of the alleged victims despite the risk of collusion or contamination of evidence, and allowing the inclusion of testimony of one of the complainant's former boyfriends describing her past sexual behaviours (surely a very loaded can of worms in any rape case). Along with the subsequent leaking of police transcripts, these are all atypical acts in the way that Sweden deals with cases of rape or sexual assault.

If Sweden is motivated purely to uphold the law in defence of the sexual agency of women, why is it treating this case very differently from others? And what does the hyper-prosecution in this case mean for women who are victims of rape and sexual crimes in Sweden when the alleged perpetrator isn't the subject of the international media?

The U.K, meanwhile, feels obliged to extradite Assange based on the seriousness of the allegations against him, but did not feel obliged to extradite Shawn Sullivan based on the seriousness of charges he faced. The British High Court recently blocked the extradition of Sullivan to the U.S, where he is accused of child sex crimes, based on the fact that his conviction would see him sentenced to a sex offender program that the U.K determined would be a denial of his human rights. (No matter that, after fleeing the impending U.S charges for Ireland, he also sexually assaulted two twelve-year-old Irish girls and was convicted.)

Surely the feminist high ground that demands Assange be extradited to Sweden on behalf of the seriousness of his alleged sexual crimes, should equally be demanding the extradition of Sullivan-a convicted pedophile?

The inconsistencies of how allegations of rape have been dealt with both by Sweden and the U.K is of concern. The rules governing when women's bodies matter, and when they don't, seem perplexing.


It remains a fact that Assange has never been charged with a crime. While he denies the allegations he remains committed to answering questions surrounding them, and has offered many times to do so.

Supporting Assange in his bid to avoid extradition should not be seen as a lack of support for the right of the two women who accuse him to seek to have charges brought against him. These are not mutually exclusive positions.

Women's bodies and their rights to sexual agency should not be collateral damage for other political points. But this cuts both ways. While some feminists are arguing that the significance of rape is being overlooked or sacrificed in the cult of support for Assange's political work, a more interesting feminist point could be how an idea of rape is being used deliberately and carelessly by those with political power to punish Assange (whether or not the allegations against him are true).

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About the Author

Samantha Stevenson teaches in cultural studies at Curtin University.

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