Swedish Feminists Debate Rape and Assange

In the wake of doubt and skepticism directed toward the women who pressed charges against Julian Assange, Swedish feminists have started a discussion about consent that may redefine the conversation about rape and sexual assault as we know it. Women and men are now joining in sharing their stories from the gray areas of sexual violations, both as victims and as perpetrators.

The media coverage of the rape allegations against the Wikileaks spokesperson and Internet vigilante Assange have been clouded by rumors, conspiracy theories and opinionated agitation. But as new information about the case emerges, this is what we know:

Assange was charged with rape and sexual molestation by two Swedish women on August 20. Within hours, Stockholm’s chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, reviewed the case and dropped the rape investigation due to lack of sufficient evidence. But the molestation investigation was kept open, and Assange was questioned by Swedish police about it on August 30.

Over the next few months, the rape investigation was reopened, the complainants were reinterviewed, and Assange left Sweden and refused to return for questioning.

On November 18 a Swedish court issued an order for Assange’s arrest. Two days later Interpol issued an “international wanted persons alert” on Assange that on December 7 led to his arrest in London. And last week, on Thursday December 16th, Assange was released on bail with the condition that he stay in the UK in a specific house with a curfew, reporting to police daily as well as wearing an electronic tag.

Due to the extreme political sensitivity of WikiLeaks’ work, connecting the sex crimes Assange is accused of with the U.S.’s wish to charge him for espionage doesn’t make it a far leap to jump to a conclusion that he’s being framed. But lately, the volume of these discussions has increased dramatically to include public shaming and denouncing of the two Swedish women that pressed the charges. The questioning of the accusers have most recently been expressed by Michael Moore on last week’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann–statements that have been and still are heavily critiqued by feminist writer Sady Doyle, through the twitter campaign #Mooreandme as well as on the blog Tiger Beatdown.

In Sweden a twitter discussion started early last week in response to the skepticism aimed toward the accusers, when journalist Johanna Koljonen tweeted openly and intimately about drawing lines, negotiating gray areas and speaking out against violations in sexual situations. The enormous and positive response she got led to a continued conversation on twitter under the hastag #prataomdet (#Talkaboutit), where more and more people shared their stories of being sexually violated as well as being the one violating someone else’s boundaries.

The following day, the #talkaboutit movement put up a website which links to blog posts that #talkaboutit has gathered, while also publishing the stories of those who wish to remain anonymous or don’t have their own blogs. In addition, the majority of Swedish newspapers and media outlets are publishing #talkaboutit stories during the weekend and the coming week. Journalist Sonja Schwartzenberger shared her story under the headline “This is why I didn’t tell” in the Sunday edition of Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers. She writes:

We don’t know what’s happened between Assange and the women who have filed rape charges against him. But we do know that the women who dared to press charges for a perceived crime have been met with disbelief and hatred. That’s a reflection of a structure we recognize from a myriad cases, even where a conviction has been the end result.

Women are sharing their experiences of not daring to say no; of not knowing if it was OK to say no when having at first wanted sex; of being insecure as to where the boundary between sex and rape goes; of waking up with somebody inside them; and, for men, of nagging reluctant partners until they agree to have sex.

#talkaboutit provides a forum to talk about these common incidents from the gray zones that wouldn’t hold up in court as rape cases but  are still violations of sexual boundaries. In the very act of talking about them a new definition of rape and consenting sex is formulated, Johannes Axner writes:

One thing that I feel makes it impossible for many men to understand the concept of women’s right to their own bodies is a fundamental difference in the view of what sex is. I know I’ve had a deeply seated image of sex as something that women give to men as an asymmetrical one-sided transaction. Intellectually I’ve strongly held the view that sex is something you share mutually between partners, but emotionally I’ve not reached that far.

The questioning of the Assange rape cases in the light of the Wiki-leaked cables is reasonable, but publishing the names of the accusers and badmouthing them is not. We have to be able to accept the case as complex; just because Assange is doing crucial work for transparency and democracy with Wikileaks, it doesn’t automatically make him a saint. He might very well have less than favorable attitudes toward sex and consent.

We have to get over the myth of the rapist as an outsider, as a mean demon who is pure evil. “Nice guys” can also be rapists, as can guys whose work is revolutionizing the way we see democracy and government transparency. Admitting this is also admitting that rape is more common than we’d like it to be and that we indeed are living in a rape culture, one that will be maintained as long as sex is conceived in terms of “giving” and “taking.” And this is where #talkaboutit has such great potential–in opening up the definition of rape and sex and, yes, talking about it.

Photo of bird (Speech bubble with “Talk About It” added in later) from Flickr.com user RubensLP through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. The "nice guys can be rapists, too" bit, I must admit, sickens me a little. "Niceness" has nothing to do with it. Assange may be revolutionary, he may be doing something necessary and bold. That does not mean he is "nice," and the assumption that he must be highlights a fundamental flaw in the way we approach the patriarchy. It's an unbalanced approach. Women like Pelosi or Clinton pay a heavy price in our culture for merely not being "nice" (read: warm, maternal, approachable) enough, no matter how revolutionary. Assange, on the other hand, must be cast as "nice" simply because he is doing something sanctioned by the left aisle of the patriarchy. Women will be penalized for not fitting the mold, while the mold will be rethought to accommodate a man, no matter how grave the charges against him. No one is making Assange prove that he is warm or caring or any other connotation of niceness.

  2. Apparently there's not much debate on the Ms. site. It's unfortunate that many of the self-identified feminist sites aren't hosting open debate, which is much needed.

    Quick two cents: Naomi Wolf did a great a great service by drawing the line against a definition of rape that reduces women to moral childhood. By insisting that ambiguous, consensual sex is not a "crime of violence against women" — Wolf is arguing for a definition of rape that is enforceable, clear and expects women to say what they want.

    Lots of disrespect, confusion, even abusive behavior does not rise to the (criminal) threshold of "rape". The reports in the UK Guardian hardly describes model behavior, but it doesn't describe "rape". The women did NOT file complaints of rape, they attempted to get an HIV test imposed on Assange and the SWEDISH STATE started (then stopped) an "investigation" of rape. Wolf noted, fairly, that insisting this negotiated sex was rape by leaning into facts infantalized women. Bravo to her.

    No means no — means saying "no" if you don't want sex, especially if you have pursued a man, invited him into your intimate space and engaged in sexual acts. This is ambiguious, but not that ambiguous. No force, no coercion, discussion, participatory sex? That is not rape.

    Where victim-advocates say it must be (and denounce those who think "no means no" as a sane threshold for consent) — they are making a profound mistake that will lead others to disregard accusations of rape as trivial since the (apparent) demand for "affirmative, continual consent" would lead to ANY sex being classed by rape unless there is written, notarized consent — which isn't going to happen.

    No Means No — and that also means women taking responsibility. Seriously. Moral adulthood? Good idea.

  3. I just wrote a blog about a lot of this, thought other might be interested. It's called The Politics of Consent, The Politics of Feminism. http://chriscrews.org/News/article/sid=65.html

  4. I really appreciate the maturity, respect, and information given in this piece. Thank you.

  5. In Nuremberg, we learned that one cannot say that you just obeyed, one must also think about the consequences of their actions. Arguments similar to Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s comment that the legal system just puts the Swedish law into practice would have saved the lives of many in Nuremberg, if they were valid. If it is possible to arrest a man claiming probable grounds of rape because of two ruptured condom which occurred in the middle of a suite of intercourses with two women, then one may ask if justice exists for men in Sweden.

  6. > unless there is written, notarized consent — which isn’t going to happen.

    But even that is not sufficient. Lets say a man has, in front of two witnesses, obtained written consent.

    The woman still has the right between written consent being given and immediately before or even during the sex act to say no.

    So unless you always have 2 independent witnesses present at all times during the couple’s sex who can confirm that she did at all times continue consent, then the man is at risk of being accused of rape.

    This is not very practical so basically men should simply avoid ever having sex with a woman if they wish to avoid any risk of criminal proceedings. Ah what a wonderful world we live in. Free of sexual crimes – indeed free of any sex whatsoever!

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