It might seem late to write about Julian Assange – both defending his work providing us with information about how our world works and naming what he is accused of doing in Sweden have been covered by bloggers and journalists ad nauseum.
Like many feminists on the left though, supporting Mr Assange with shedding light on how the US government in particular operates, while still believing that, as described, the events in Sweden should be investigated fully, has not been the kind of nuanced position I’ve been able to find often while reading newspapers or blogs. So this is part one of my take on all this.
Alongside people prepared to jeopardise women’s lives by publishing the names of the Swedish women alleging rape, respected left-wing commentators like Michael Moore, John Pilger and Naomi Wolf have moved past drawing attention to the extraordinary response from the state in Sweden for these charges to just plain telling us it wasn’t rape really, stupid.
Ok, that first point again – one of the issues about how these charges have been handled against Julian Assange should make all on the left, and all those who care about violence against women, furious. Because it’s not how these things usually happen. Anyone who knows anything about rape can tell you that typically men accused of rape do not get arrested while in another country, and do not have bail posted at 240,000 pounds. This response is about Mr Assange -not violence against women – or we would not have rape prosecution and conviction rates languishing lower than every other crime in most of the Western world. Quite simply, Mr Assange being treated like this is an absolute insult to the literally thousands and thousands of women who do not see any kind of appropriate justice sector response when they report rape. Which does not mean I think what has happened to him to date is how I would like to see the justice system responding.
But as importantly, is the refuge that Michael, John and Naomi have taken in rape myths in order to protect Mr Assange. Michael Moore has already been very effectively deconstructed by other feminists, and to a certain extent has responded to how patronising his “now I don’t know what really happened out there in Sweden, but this man is doing important real political stuff, so let’s leave him alone” by changing his position.
Michael hasn’t, as far as I know, been taken to task for his claim that Sweden loves rapists because:
There’s just one thing that bothers me — why has Amnesty International, in a special report (described in detail here by Naomi Wolf), declared that Sweden refuses to deal with the very real tragedy of rape? In fact, they say that all over Scandinavia, including in your country, rapists “enjoy impunity.” And the United Nations, the EU and Swedish human rights groups have come to the same conclusion: Sweden just doesn’t take sexual assault against women seriously. How else do you explain these statistics from Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape:
** Sweden has the HIGHEST per capita number of reported rapes in Europe.
** This number of rapes has quadrupled in the last 20 years.
** The conviction rates? They have steadily DECREASED.
These figures come from this study of what happens when rape is reported in 11 different European countries, and this analysis is a serious misrepresentation of the findings. Not that Sweden does not have a problem with attrition. Just that the how else to explain the statistics goes like this Michael, which I think you could have discovered if you’d investigated this issue with your usual intellectual vigour.
Reporting rates for rape in Sweden have increased by 390% between 1977 and 2006, a product of several factors. Police not “no-criming” sexual violence, a widened definition of definition of sexual violence due to the women’s movement (radical, revolutionary ideas like when someone is asleep, consent is impossible, when someone is married to you, consent is not a given), and an increasing expectation of justice from Swedish women. There is also the unpalatable possibility, discussed by some criminologists since 1984, that sexual violence is a backlash against increasing gender equality, so different reporting rates may reflect different incidence rates. Highest reporting rates in Europe? Sweden with 46 per 100,000, Iceland 35, and Belgium 27.
64% of reported rape in Sweden takes place in a private location – a flat or house. 32% is perpetrated by an acquaintance. In 73% of the cases, no physical injury accompanies the sexual assault. And in just 16% of the cases, the accused rapist is convicted.
Sweden is doing well in increasing reporting, but has a long way to go to be safe for women. Michael Moore has that part, at least, spot on. The researchers who completed the Amnesty International Study were quite clear on what needed to happen to improve this, and surprisingly it’s not pretending that rape only happens between strangers in darkened alleys.