I’m not going to pretend to have any special insight into the latest WikiLeaks drama, or suggest that I’ve arrived at an opinion about Julian Assange’s work and the value or lackthereof of Cablegate. Like a lot of folks, I’m torn.
But Assange’s arrest today reminds me of something I’ve been thinking since August: That Sweden’s handling of the sexual assault case has been completely terrible. Setting aside the question of his culpability, that prosecutors announced that he was being sought under charges of molestation and assault, then walked that back almost immediately is pretty reprehensible. Not because they shouldn’t have taken the time to investigate the case properly, but because they should have been more sure of what they were doing before pressing charges, especially since powerful-man-gets-brought-down-by-vagina is a common sexist narrative. Between the incomplete information that was initially released (Assange is wanted for vague, sex-related crimes) and the timing (right after his name was on everyone’s lips because of July’s Afghanistan doc leak), it had to have made for a terrible time for the women involved. (AOL News has a timeline and details on the charges here.) For the last four months, Assange has led the narrative around the allegations by calling them “dirty tricks,” while Swedish officials mumbled.
It is, however, a positive sign that Sweden seems to have some pretty progressive laws in place when it comes to sexual assault. Many are mocking the term “sex by surprise” but it sounds reasonable to me to legislate sex as a continuing contract (Slate explains that it would be more difficult to charge Assange in the same way here in the U.S.). So when each woman agreed to have sex with Assange with the terms that condoms must be used and he did not comply, that contract was broken. Moreover, I certainly don’t think violence needs to be present for rape to be rape, and on its face, the other allegations that came out today are pretty clearly rape.
Under normal stances, these allegations have to be incredibly difficult to prosecute. Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny’s case is made even more complicated by the fact that Assange is an international figure who hasn’t technically broken any laws (related to WikiLeaks, that is) yet his organization had its U.S. domain shut down, got kicked off of Amazon’s servers, and have had donations suspended by PayPal, MasterCard and Visa. The sexual assault charges — and particularly how poorly they’ve been handled — now just look like one more political attack in a laundry list of unreasonable actions against Assange, despite Ny’s protestations.
I say “unreasonable actions” only because it’s not clear that WikiLeaks itself has done anything illegal to warrant them. There’s some talk of charging Assange under the Espionage Act, but again, as of now, it’s unclear whether that law applies. The attacks on WikiLeaks from major companies are troubling (timeline via The Guardian) and could lead to problems for journalists down the line.
Anyway, back to the point at hand: how poorly the case was handled. There’s obviously no such thing as an ideal rape prosecution case. The prosecution must and should proceed, but this is so far from whatever a best case scenario is, it’s truly difficult to see a way for it to end well for anyone involved. And frankly, now’s a good time to remember that under non-celebrity circumstances in the U.S., only 39 percent of rapes ever get reported, and just over half of those ever result in an arrest. It’s no wonder, though, when the highest profile cases get fumbled so badly.