These are some miscellaneous thoughts on Julian Assange’s rape allegations and the responses. I’m worried that the issues Wikileaks raises regarding US imperialism and state secrets could be reduced to a tabloid story about its founder and mouthpiece and the establishment liberals who always seem to pop out of the woodwork with excuses for rapists with politics they like, but I think any opportunity to be critical of rape apology and the culture that makes it possible shouldn’t go to waste. There have already been a few great write-ups, and you really should go read them (Sady Doyle’s, INCITE!, Update: and Kate Harding!) because they’re important.
Every trial is a state conspiracy, and this one very much so. I am uninterested in the trial and legal proceedings. I don’t care what Sweden’s laws are, I care if Assange coercively and sexually used someone’s body without her participatory consent. The recourse to legal defenses by Assange and co. indicates the lack of a solid ethical argument.
Let’s imagine a scenario, an absolutely generic rape accusation. A woman accuses a man of rape, he denies it, you have no other information. Who do you believe? This may seem like a painfully abstract question, and it is. But it is also the situation in which we often find ourselves when we hear rape accusations. The partial information that we use to make that decision in real life (what she was wearing, her reputation, his reputation, whether she reported it, their comparative size or attractiveness, whether she stayed over after or saw him again) is more confounding than helpful. Rapists, survivors, and the incidents themselves don’t share enough in common for partial specifics to be indicative. We know certain populations are more vulnerable, but the chilling truth is that rape happens so much that knowledges about what kind of person rapes or is raped and under what circumstances are more a reflection of our rape-apologizing culture than the realities of victimization.
Nate Silver argues that the circumstances around Assange’s prosecution, both the prosecution’s unusual zeal and the obvious interests that various states have in discrediting Wikileaks, suggest that we ought disbelieve the allegations, or at least be skeptical of them. But if instances of rape share the negative commonality “not circumstances,” that is, if the circumstances of rape are so varied that the only abstraction we can make is “not,” then whether or not the circumstances are convenient doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not the rape occurred. Skepticism as to the state’s motives for prosecuting so zealously? Of course. But anyone who thinks criminal prosecution is generally apolitical is delusional and naive.
I think this use of partial specifics and faulty abstractions is a really bad idea, but what else do we have? The “assumed innocent until proven guilty” line doesn’t work for me, if Wikileaks has taught us anything it’s that the state produces truths about which we should remain skeptical and vigilant. Not to mention that for survivors who allege rape, the legal standard means “assumed lying until proven otherwise.” I am not a magistrate and have no pretensions of agnosticism. I propose an answer to the abstract question above: I believe her.
I’m not talking about at the gut level; like a lot of men, at the gut level I hardly believe any rape accusations. Unless I’m there to see it or its a really obvious case, my own horrific impulse is toward denial and apology. These responses are second nature in a rape culture like ours, especially for men. Think about the depictions: no one had to stretch to imagine a CIA “honeypot” plan against Assange, we’ve probably seen more of these scenes represented in media than powerful men (who aren’t “villains”) raping women. Which do you think happens more in real life? The same thing goes for false accusations: I’ve had friends accused of rapes that I knew first-hand did not occur, it does happen. However, whenever it does happen, we hear about it a lot. False accusations always happen out loud and knowledge of them spreads quickly and widely, so if the total volume looks comparable to rapes that occur, that assessment ignores the huge iceberg below the surface of unreported or undiscussed rapes. Statistically, I have female acquaintances, friends, and family members who have been raped and not told me about it. Rape culture doesn’t only excuse sexual assault, it makes it disappear.
The question we have to ask, especially men, is why our first reaction to an instance of rape, a social phenomenon that we know to be disgustingly prevalent, would be disbelief. That question, which nags in my head rather than my gut, leads me to a place where I can answer the abstract scenario. Rape denial is an illogical proclivity that indicates a deep ideological tampering; when it comes to rape, men (at least) don’t see clearly. It is the very existence and dominance of rape denial in the face of rape’s widespread existence that should make us pause and consider why we would, as a gender, think something so clearly dumb. Sometimes this kind of counter-hegemonic thinking makes me wrong and/or beat unconscious on the street in Oakland for failing to assume that a group of young black men would jump me, but blank empiricism and the prejudices we’ve been given (more or less the same thing at the end of the day) are wrong more often.
So I tend to believe rape accusations. I believe these ones. Truths are tactical, and until we accept that rape is outrageously common and that our culture and media obscure that, we’re all helpless to stop it.
I also think it is possible for rape to occur with only one partner’s knowledge, that is, a rapist can not realize what he’s doing. That doesn’t make it less rape or even necessarily less detestable, but it does highlight the problems with locking one person up for a social crime. As Dostoevesky puts it, “We are guilty of all, before all, and on behalf of all,” and as all is the only way we can stop rape. Any society that locks someone away causes itself more damage than any criminal ever could. No bars ever. For anyone. Not for Assange, not for Bradley Manning, not even for the perpetrators of the much bigger state crimes revealed in the Wikileaks documents. It’s not worth it.
On another note, I think it’s interesting that the argument that works for me is so cerebral. I’ve had some really important conversations with female comrades about the way men use academic knowledges (to which we have more access for a number of reasons) to dominate discussions and marginalize women. Here I can certainly finish the Dostoevesky quote: “We are guilty of all, before all, and on behalf of all, and I am the guiltiest of all,” and it’s something I’m always working on, but I find it interesting on a personal level that my most radically feminist positions come through analysis (like this post) that comes off as coldly intellectual. I think this is at least partly because our society is set up to confirm sexism in men through experience. The very way we see the world is distorted, patriarchy is supposed to “feel right” or seem natural or unavoidable to men (at least), and that’s how it keeps itself around. I’ve heard the argument from women that lived experience is more important than books or philosophy in developing a feminist pattern of thought, which I certainly believe about their lives, but as a cis class-privileged white guy, my lived experience is a really faulty position from which to understand rape and rape culture.