On Nov. 18th, the New York Times ran a story in which Swedish prosecutors stated they had approved a request for a warrant to be issued in the EU and with Interpol for the arrest of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, on sexual offenses. But even before all the facts of the case were in, several news media outlets began a barrage of back-and-forth commentary, most of which presumed Assange’s innocence and vilified the alleged victims as part of an elaborate plot to discredit the WikiLeaks founder as a result of unrelated leakages that were embarrassing to the US. This story is just the latest example of presumptions of innocence on the part of famous male suspects, and follows a trend that presumes that the victim is at fault, as long as the alleged offender is deemed sufficiently famous by mass media.
With respect to the Assange scandal in particular, the difference in reporting is stark. The following is an excerpt from a Slate.com article, entitled “Assange’s Interpol Warrant Is for Having Sex Without a Condom”:
“When Interpol issued an arrest warrant earlier this week for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the international police agency charged him with ‘sex crimes’ but didn’t specify the offense any further, prompting rumors that he had been accused of rape. He hadn’t. “It turns out,” Washington’s Blog reports, that “it was for violating an obscure Swedish law against having sex without a condom.” During a business trip to Stockholm last August, Assange had unprotected sex with two women […] who upon realizing that they had both slept with him—and that he had blown them both off—jointly approached police about his refusal to take an STD test.” […] While the “consent of both women to sex with Assange has been confirmed by prosecutors,” as a former attorney wrote in an impassioned op-ed, Assange has been charged with something called “sex by surprise.”
(Boldface and italics were included in the original article)
This, however, is how The New York Times (which has actually received thousands of leaked documents from Wikileaks in the past) chose to report the incident, under the title “Sweden Issues Warrant for WikiLeaks Founder:
“The Swedish prosecutor’s office said Thursday that a court in Stockholm had approved its request for arrest warrants to be issued for Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks Web site, for questioning on charges of rape and other sexual offenses. Mr. Assange has strongly denied the accusations. […] According to accounts the women gave to the police and friends, they each had consensual sexual encounters with Mr. Assange that became non-consensual. One woman said that Mr. Assange had ignored her appeals to stop after a condom broke. The other woman said that she and Mr. Assange had begun a sexual encounter using a condom, but that Mr. Assange did not comply with her appeals to stop when it was no longer in use. Mr. Assange has questioned the veracity of those accounts.”
Following his arrest in the UK, other details eventually came to light in the case, including how Assange allegedly used his body weight to “hold [one victim] down in a sexual manner”, “deliberately molested [the same victim] in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity,” and that he “[had] sex with a second woman, without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home” (UK Press Association). While Assange has yet to be formally charged with any wrong-doing (as of Dec. 12), the above stories are significant in the drastically different approaches they each take to addressing the charges and issues of rape.
On the one hand, the New York Times article gives equal weight to both Assange’s attorney, and the Swedish prosecutor in the case. However, Slate’s article makes no mention of the actual complaints or allegations filed against Assange, nor even any comments by Swedish authorities, instead making liberal use of direct quotes from Assange’s attorneys and unattributed sources. At one point, the article even cites an “impassioned op-ed” that describes Assange as being prosecuted for the fictitious charge of “sex by surprise”; a term that, in reality, is not a legal designation, but rather Swedish slang term for rape, used to imply that a victim was secretly “asking for it” or “changed her mind” after the fact.
The Slate.com article is a chilling reminder of how prevalent victim-blaming behavior is, both in the popular mindset, and in the media. While details about the incident remain admittedly scant, the authors of the Slate magazine article made no attempt to hide their assumptions about the case, nor even their ridicule and disdain for the victim of the alleged crime. That is to say, rather than report on what happened, they immediately assumed (with no real evidence to support that assumption) that the crimes were falsely reported, and motivated by vindictiveness or political motivations. This gets to the heart of one of the biggest, and most dangerous, fallacies and myths surrounding rape and sexual assault: namely, that it’s usually just a “vindictive move” by a “woman scorned.”
But the fact of the matter is that victim-blaming is not just a case misplacing responsibility, but an actively harmful force that allows crimes to go unpunished, and allows criminals to go free. It is dangerous, because it promotes permissive attitudes towards rape and promulgates incorrect assumptions that make many victims reluctant to come forward, for fear of judgment, harassment, humiliation, and disbelief. This means that of the many sexual offenses that occur, only a fraction of these are ever reported, allowing the perpetrators of these crimes to go free, without prosecution. Ultimately, this means that sexual crimes are among the most UNDER-reported crimes, not the most FALSELY reported ones.
If this is the first you’ve heard about the case, rather than assume Assange is guilty or innocent, think about what it would mean if Assange were NOT the founder of the controversial WikiLeaks site? What if he was just another man, with no fame or fortune to his name? Would news outlets be so quick to come to his aid, and if not, why should his fame make him any less suspicious?
If this ISN’T the first time you’ve heard of the case, ask yourself what your initial reaction was, and honestly think about why it is you reacted that way. Specifically, if you assumed anything about Assange’s guilt or innocence, on what basis did you make that assumption–and would that assumption have been the same if he were just an unnamed suspect in a media bulletin?
To learn more about the reality of sexual violence and sexual assault, and how you can help, visit the Orange County Rape Crisis Center’s website at www.ocrcc.org, or go to FVPC’s website at www.fvpcoc.org to learn how you can become involved in ending sexual assault and domestic violence, and how you can raise awareness about SV and DV-related issues.