#PrataOmDet [#TalkAboutIt]: Grey zones in Julian Assange’s sexual scandal

[Originally written in 2012]

Julian Assange’s extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault accusations is a subject that up to this day has not been finished; on December 5, 2011, Assange’s case was considered to be of general public importance, and as such should be considered by the British Supreme Court (CNN, 2011). Much can be speculated now, but until this story reaches an end we can get a proper answer for the gender and power implications surrounding this case. Although there are many legal, political, and even economical implications on this subject, in this article I will only focus on the representations in English-speaking newspapers and press media (mainly British or from Commonwealth nations), whether stereotypical or progressive, hostile or supportive, from big news companies as well as from freelance journalists, and the implications of such processes of representation in an equitable representation of women’s and men’s interests. In the end, I argue, the stereotypical polarity between feminism and misogyny is render unbridgeable, and considered not to have been really engaged for a change.

 

  1. Overview: Assange as an agent of socio-political and historical reality

The circumstances and factors surrounding Julian Assange’s relevance in international politics (the release US classified cables, many of which are related to the country’s foreign relations), empowered him and gave him a leading role in nowadays political, social, and historical reality. In this sense, it is clear that those who are most affected by the leaks would want to get him off as soon as possible. This situation is acidly illustrated on a Saturday Night Live sketch, where Bill Hader played Julian Assange sabotaging several television broadcasts, including one by president Barack Obama talking about US troops in Afghanistan, one by Master Card’s Diane Foster denouncing Wikileaks supporters for having attacked the company’s website, and another by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about his being declared Person of the Year by Time in 2010.  Hader/Assange’s interventions include a parody of television program TMZ, where political figures like Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Hillary Clinton, and –uncannily– the now late Gadafi are “wikileaked;” the mention of websites that Wikileaks supporters must attack if Assange is kept on British prison; and a list of differences between him and Zuckerberg. At the end of each broadcast, Julian Assange asks people to keep in mind that no matter how he dies, even if there is a suicide note, “even if there’s a video of me peacefully dying by natural causes,” it was murder. Of course, although all these events distort the complex nature of the Wikileaks affair, and this is further nuanced by the parodic, constant references and jokes to many other situations and characters, it does highlight the two most important characteristics that give Wikileaks its strength: 1) the political power he has acquired by the release in his site of sensible information on relevant topics for world politics, a feature which in the SNL sketch is compared with the effect produced by entertainment and gossip journalism, and 2) the social consequences that the release of such information might have, represented in the attack of so-called “Wikileaks supporters,” but that can be further exemplified by the effect that some leaked cables have had on the Tunisian revolution and in general in the “Arab spring” demonstrations and uprisings since 2010 (The Guardian, 2011).

It must be said from the beginning that Wikileaks is not, as the SNL sketches imply, a terrorist organization, although it is constantly portrayed by politicians as such (see The Guardian, 2010). The attacks to pages like Master Card, PayPal and Amazon (the latter being eerily prophesied by one of the SNL sketches) were perpetrated by Anonymous members, and neither them or Assange have claimed affiliation of Wikileaks to Anonymous’ agenda (The Register, 2010). But Assange has basically not been extradited to the US because he is not an American citizen (something Bill Hader jokes about: “You try me for treason—you can’t, ‘cause I’m from Austraila, but nice try”), not of any cyber-attack made on his behalf, as Hader’s characterization apparently wants us to believe. Since Wikileaks is in fact a news organization, and no press company has ever been judicially punished for publishing leaked documents, these attacks have not been translated into Assange’s definitive imprisonment. This is also the main, real reason why his period in British prison was so short, not because of the attacks on websites. He paid a $315,000 bail and was put under electronically monitored house arrest (CNN, 2011).

In this context of interests in conflict, the request of the Swedish government for Assange to answer questions on a sexual assault allegation also seems to sound logical. Although not exactly a political figure, I argue that Assange’s empowerment in the political scene makes him also vulnerable to sexual-political scandals; John B. Thompson has studied the impact this type of scandals has had on the careers of several British and American politicians, and has stated that some of them have been used by their enemies to mine their careers (Thompson, 2000, p. 119-158). After the impossibility to extradite him to the US from the UK, the sexual scandal in Sweden looks like another move made by The Man to get Assange by the neck. But, what is more relevant for this study, and independently from the struggle between the political elite and Wikileaks’ founder, a discussion has been raised relative to the gender implications of this case in Sweden, one of the countries with the most favorable regulations against women oppresion in Europe. (For example, in this country, whereas the sale of sexual services is deemed legal, purchase is not.) In the following section, I will describe the affair involving activist Anna Ardin and would-be photographer Sofia Wilen, the injured part, as well as the discussion on the “grey zones” in sexual assault legislations, and how neither Assange nor his detractors have taken the injured women’s point of view, but rather had either silenced it or demonized it as the example of a totalitarian feminist domination, in a clear display of a paranoid, veiled (and even that not so much) misogyny.

 

  1. From rape to grey zones: a gender perspective on Assange’s sexual scandal

In the context of a conference offered by invitation of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, 39 year-old Julian Assange met 31 year-old Anna Ardin, sometimes called AA in the news reports; when he arrived to Stockholm on August 11, 2010, Ardin offered him to stay on her flat while she made a visit to her family in the country (The Times of India, 2010; Prentice, 2010). The night she came back, on August 13, they had sex but the condom was broken, according to both accounts. The next day, Assange delivered a speech about truth as the first casualty of war, to which Ardin attended. That same night, a party was organized by Ardin at her flat in Assange’s honor. She is reported to have posted on her Twitter account, “Sitting outside; nearly freezing; with the world’s coolest people; it’s pretty amazing” (The Times of India, 2010). On August 16, Assange had sex with another Wikileaks supporter, 26 year-old Sofia Wilen (dubbed Miss W in the British reports), who also was at the August 14 conference. The next morning, Wilen woke up to find Assange making love to her. She asked him, “Are you wearing anything?” meaning whether he had used a condom. Assange bluntly answered: “You,” to which Wilen replied, “You better not have HIV” and he said, “Of course not,” after which they went on having sex (AFP/The Local, 2011; Gray, 2011). Later on, Wilen texted Assange; one of Assange’s lawyers said, “The exact content of Wilen’s mobile phone texts is not yet known but their bragging and exculpatory character has been confirmed by Swedish prosecutors. Neither Wilen’s nor Ardin’s texts complain of rape” (The Times of India, 2010). But it is not rape Assange is being asked for (and, until recently, not even given an arrest warrant, see Reuters, 2010), but rather for sexual assault, or what is called in Swedish legislation “sex by surprise,” involving a fine of 5,000 kronor, equivalent to $715 (Prentice, 2010). Most of the allegations of Assange’s supporters focus on what it seems as “irrefutable proofs” for them, namely that none of the women seemed to have been initially offended (see the declarations on The Times of India, 2010 and Prentice, 2010). But when Ardin and Wilen, who were friends beforehand, found out on August 18 that both had had sex with Assange, and that he did not seem to have wanted to use a condom at least once during intercourse, they considered they had been injured and filed charges against him on August 20 (The Times of India, 2010). Editor in chief at the Nyheter 24 (News 24) Swedish website Aaron Israelson states, “The two women who went to the police with the accusations against Assange, they didn’t perceive him as threatening … but on the other hand they were offended and felt he didn’t respect their integrity” (AFP/The Local, 2011; Gray, 2011).

Shortly after Assange was taken into custody in Britain in relation to the Swedish charges on sexual assault, an internet campaign was started by freelance journalist and author Johanna Koljonnen, who first shared with her Twitter followers an experience similar to that of Wilen, under the hashtag #prataomdet (or #talkaboutit in English), in which she prompted other women to talk about the “bedroom grey zones” in consensual sex relationships. She later wrote an article on Dagens Nyherter about

how she had been “tweeting with a friend on the Assange case and bedroom grey zones” when she was reminded of a similar experience she had had when she was younger. “It hit me, I tweeted, that there is a structural problem in rape legislation,” she wrote in a column, explaining how it was difficult to draw the boundaries of assault (AFP/The Local, 2011; Gray, 2011)”.

Koljonnen’s point was that Swedish legislations did not contemplate regulations on boundary situations between consensual and non-consensual sex, specifically when an initially consensual intercourse becomes for some reason non-consensual (the so-called “grey zones”). The #prataomdet discussion gave rise to important questions regarding verticality of power and/or coercion within the limited margins of consensuality. For example, it was stated by Swedish freelance journalist Rebecka Aahlund that the hashtag “was valuable in its own right, regardless of the whole Assange case and whether he is innocent or not” (AFP/The Local, 2011; Gray, 2011). However, Assange’s supporters claimed that the accusers’ changing opinion deemed the whole situation suspicious, and Assange himself stated several times that Sweden’s solicitation was part of a plot to extradite him to the US; from this perspective, the women were characterized as puppets of stronger forces, with no agency or self-awareness.[1] The Swedish press, usually hostile to Assange throughout the case, stated that he was “a paranoid idiot who refuses come to Sweden to confront trial” (quoted in Ferrada de Noli, 2011), but Ardin and Wilen’s opinion was not usually mentioned. It was until much later that some relevance was given to them, from 2011 on, mostly on internet press sites.

Assange’s case is different from other cases of sexual-political scandals (as typified by Thompson, 2000) in the fact that it was a one-night stand affair, or rather a two-night stand, instead of a long term relationship. Although this is portrayed as a “minor fault” in Thompson’s scale of sexual scandals, the implications have been proportionally higher, thus showing that “there is not a clear and direct correlation between the seriousness of a sexual-political scandal and the degree of moral bindingness of the relevant norms and codes” (Thompson, 2000, p. 124). Assange’s denied allegations on sexual rape show us how way off the point his response is to the women’s grounds for accusation. The plot excuse does not address in any way the fact that two friends found themselves offended after finding out that he systematically did not use a condom with them both. But the main allegations against their argument claim that in both cases it was consensual all the way along, subconsciously implying that women cannot refrain from decisions done in the heat of the moment, sometimes even to relatively procure their own safety. The “gray zones” debate opens up an important field for discussion in gender studies, since it speaks of those moments in which consensual sex is granted, perhaps to avoid further discussions and/or aggressions, maybe because of rash decisions that are eventually regretted. This is such a subjective matter that it is difficult to categorize or classify, and would explain the lack of legislation about it. It is not solely related to a feeling of guiltiness for doing things that probably in other situations they would not approve of, but also to anguish, anger, among other possible feelings. It was the talk between Ardin and Wilen, and also the discussion promoted by Koljonnen on Twitter, which gave raise to this issue.

From the perspective of gender and power in political figures (which, as I have argued, is a plausible way to analyze Assange, as an active agent of socio-political and historical reality), Wikileak’s founder is another good example of how powerful men tend to objectify the protagonists of the affair as “good” or “bad,” and women either as sexual providers or as dangerous females who can destroy their careers. But beside the fact this accusation is entirely dismissed, since the parties against Assange are not necessarily colluded with each other, it does not assume the responsibility on the accusations made by the women. If found guilty, no matter if it is a charge that can be paid off with a relatively small fee, Assange’s negation might prove to have so-called “second-order transgressions” (that is, denial of the initial transgression, which has a snowball effect of lies which can damage even more the person’s reputation; Thompson, 2000, p. 129), but this is less likely in this case, since Assange’s defense arguments are almost entirely based on the rape allegations, and the accusers’ charges have moved to the broader concept of sexual assault. As Thompson has argued, “sexual-political scandals can also serve as reliability tests for actual or aspiring political leaders” (2000, p. 125); Assange’s test will be to assume at some point of the discussion that he did some kind of harm to Ardin and Wilen, but because this could be used by his detractors to further attack him, the most viable way for him is to keep the plot narrative as the basis for both the extradition efforts and the sexual assault accusations, and insist that he did not rape the women.

One must not forget the role of the press and internet media in this matter, especially the Swedish one, which reacted in the most viral way towards Assange’s plot accusations. Marcello Ferrada de Noli wrote an extensive research paper in which he showed that most Swedish newspapers were not neutral, as they were mainly owned by the same businessmen, that there was a constant “character assassination” of Assange, and that the #prataomdet discussion was used by journalist as part of a misinformation and defamation campaign (Ferrada de Noli, 2011). Whereas Thompson argues that scandals “have fed off” some “codes and conventions governing sexuality” which “have, in turn, contributed to their transformation” (2000, p. 130), and on a local level the Assange affair boosted the discussion on the boundaries between consensual/nonconsensual sex, the Swedish press has, in Ferrada de Noli’s view, worked to fix and regulate the meanings surrounding Assange, Ardin and Wilen, in a stereotyiping process that Stuart Hall has broadly discussed (Hall, 1997). Assange is represented as a man of increasing power treating all women as sexual objects, while they stand not for the opposition to such exercise of power within a society concerned with gender issues, but rather as triggers of a conspiracy or of a feminist radical society. So, instead of feeding much needed discussion on “grey zones,” the press mediation of this affair essentialized the parts involved, and got advantage of the material presented by the accusers. To this must be added an article by Washington Post’s Edward Cody, in which he quotes “Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of Parliament who assisted Assange in editing an Army helicopter cockpit video revealed in April, [who] said after reviewing the Stockholm police report that she doubted that the charges resulted from a U.S. manipulation. ‘But once the reports were in the media, powers that are used to manipulating the media immediately seized on it’” (Cody, 2010).

 

4 On the boundary of discourses: misogynistic and misanthropic reactions to Swedish gender laws in SCUM and A Voice For Men

This discussion has reached such radical levels that a video appeared on YouTube signed by the Society of Cutting Up Men (SCUM, a name taken from a manifesto by Valerie Solanas, known for her attempt to murder Andy Warhol), as well as a response by the organization A Voice for Men, both of which portray the most polarized representations of the postures involved—the one that shows Assange as a powerful man subjected to his most basic instincts and the one that depicts women as puppets of the hegemonic system. This video is considered relevant for the discussion since it was posted on the @wikileaks Twitter account, thus forming part (no matter how implicitly) of the discourse against Assange’s sexual assault accusations. The video (which is deemed fictional, although nothing in the video lets us imply that from a first view) starts with a man in his forties or fifties reading a newspaper on a port, while a woman approaches and shoots him twice in the head. Other women come appear on the scene and start jumping, giggling and celebrating. The video ends up with the girls licking the dead man’s cranium, running while shooting and yelling through the port, along with the text message “Do your part.” This is not a safe for work video, and it is not recommended to watch it unless it is absolutely necessary to (which seems not to be the case in any situation).[2] We cannot even say who the SCUM members are, nor if they really have a political agenda, or what their purpose of making such a violent video was. The relevant thing for this article is that Wikileaks re-tweeted a version of the video uploaded by a so-called John-The-Other, who was offering (in English) a $1000 bounty for any information that may lead to identify the SCUM members, allegedly the same who featured the video. The sort of manifesto that accompanied the YouTube link uploaded by John-The-Other, written on behalf of a society called A Voice For Men, stresses the fictive nature of the video yet it highlights the sharp realism with which it was done. This manifesto was published as an article of the A Voice For Men website, which includes pictures of the murder scene with the captions “This is what a feminist looks like.” It also states,

This is the second such reward offered for the identity of an individual, the first being a blogger advocating extralegal eugenic modification of men. This blogger has since been identified as the former lawyer and published author Pamela O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy and her followers no longer enjoy anonymity – and will be pursued by their own nefarious plans for the rest of their lives (A Voice For Men, 2011).

The depiction of Sweden as “a country deep in the grip of overt, totalitarian radical feminist rule” must make us think about the fears activated when women are empowered enough as to contest allegations of consensual sex. Although in a much more “moderate” way, Assange’s denial of sexual accusations reflects John-the-Other’s fear of a world in which all “privileges” of man in sexual hierarchies are suppressed, and in the end depicts an underlying, strongly nurtured paranoid misogyny which denies women their autonomy in sexual relations. There was no reason for the release of the SCUM video (in English rather than in Swedish, one must note), and just as the plot conspiracy serves Assange to justify all his troubles, one wonders about the convenience of the spreading of such a display of gender violence, both to men and women. [3] The battle now implies all sectors of the parties, moderate and radicals alike, but now this is way far from the “grey zones” discussion, or of any constructive way for building conciliation through critic knowledge. Thus, representation of women remains in the stereotyped version as the triggers for another trial against Assange, but never as agents of their own sexual and psychological integrity.

 

 

  1. Conclusion

We have found that Assange’s case can be classified as a “sexual-political scandal,” as Thompson defines this term, even if we are dealing with a strictly non-political figure, since Julian Assange does not hold any political charge, but is rather a journalist  or, as he defines himself, “a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists” (quoted in The Guardian, 2010) who is in the middle of an ethical and political discussion on the role of media spreading sensible information on US national and international affairs. Nevertheless, as in regular sexual-political scandals, there are sexual codes transgressed, the principal forms of power are symbolic and the implicated forms are inherently political, while the likelihood of the infringement is the matter of dispute (see Thompson, 2000, p. 122, table 5.1).

We have also identified that much of the scandal surrounding the case is produced by the press, since as Thompson states, “The stigmatizing potential of illicit sexual activities can also be exploited by the media” (2000, p. 125). The arguments of the accusers, as well as the discussion surrounding “gray zones” and gender legislations in Sweden, are blatantly silenced in the press media coverage, and dismissed as feminist totalitarianism by Assange’s supporters. The implications of this failure to recognize the individuals most affected by this incident show us how, in sexual scandals with political implications, the figure of woman is usually silenced or, at its best, stereotyped or essentialized, and in general not made much part of the main discussion. The importance of the #prataomdet discussion has been emphasized in this article, but it has also hinted at how press media have misused this information to damage Assange’s credibility and support. While Assange’s sexual scandal and “grey zones” will remain as an important precedent for further legislations, the most serious implications of this case are dismissed, and while trying to depict the rise of women’s power, it leaves hegemonic domination structures intact, such as stereotyping by press media. I hope that, while the final outcome of the whole Assange affair is far from visible, at least this paper can raise some important questions on how to make more progressive criticism and help us think of gender equality.

 

References

AFP/The Local. 2011. “Assange case triggers rape debate in Sweden,” The Local. Sweden’s news in English, February 9, http://www.thelocal.se/31934/20110209/# (revised December 8, 2011).

A Voice For Men (“John The Other”). 2011. “$1000 bounty to identify Swedish SCUM members,” A Voice For Men, November 20, http://www.avoiceformen.com/mens-rights/activism/1000-bounty-to-identify-swedish-scum-members/ (revised December 8, 2011).

CNN. 2011. “Assange wins latest round in extradition fight,” CNN World, December 5, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-12-05/world/world_europe_uk-wikileaks-assange_1_wikileaks-founder-julian-assange-round-in-extradition-fight-european-arrest-warrant?_s=PM:EUROPE (revised December 8, 2011).

Cody, Edward. 2010. “Wikileaks stalled by Swedish inquiry into allegations of rape by founder Assange,” The Washington Post, September 9, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/08/AR201009080 3240.html (revised December 8, 2011).

Ferrada de Noli, Marcello. 2011         “My witness statement to the London Court on Assange’s case,” Professors blog, February 24, http://ferrada-noli.blogspot.com/2011/02/witness-statement-of-professor-marcello.html

Gray, Steve. 2011. “Julian Assange case sparks rape ‘grey zones’ debate among Twitter fans,” News.com.au, February 10, http://www.news.com.au/world/govts-fear-wikileaks-truths-rally-told/story-e6frfkyi-1226003263888 (revised December 8, 2011).

Hall, Stuart. 1997. “The Work of Representation”, in Stuart Hall, ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Sage, pp. 13-74.

Prentice, Lynn. 2010. “Marianne Ny making an arse of Swedish law,” The Standard, December 4, http://thestandard.org.nz/marianne-ny-making-an-arse-of-swedish-law/ (revised December 8, 2011).

Reuters. 2010. “No arrest warrant for Wikileaks’ Assange: lawyer,” Reuters US, December 2,http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/12/02/us-wikileaks-assange-lawyer-idUSTRE6B14HN20101202 (revised December 8, 2011).

The Guardian. 2010. “Julian Assange answers your questions,” The Guardian, December 3, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/13/amnesty-international-wikileaks-arab-spring (revised December 8, 2011).

The Guardian. 2011. “Amnesty International hails Wikileaks and Guardian as Arab spring ‘catalysts,’” The Guardian, May 13, http://www.guardian.co. uk/world/2011/may/13/amnesty-international-wikileaks-arab-spring (revised December 8, 2011).

The Register. 2011. “Anonymous attacks Paypal in ‘Operationg Avenge Assange,’” The Register, December 6, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/12/06/anonymous_ launches_pro_wikileaks_campaign/ (revised December 8, 2011).

The Times of India. 2010. “Sex accusers boasted about their ‘conquest’ of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange,” The Times of India US, December 9, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-12-09/us/28247531_1_wikileaks-founder-julian-assange-swedish-women-condom (revised December 8, 2011).

Thompson, John B. 2000. Political scandal: power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge: polity Press.

[1] See, for example, the following passage in an article published by New Zealand’s The Standard: “Of course, their celebrity lawyer Claes Borgström was questioned as to how the women themselves could be essentially contradicting the legal characterisation of Swedish prosecutors; a crime of non-consent by consent. Borgström’s answer is emblematic of how divorced from reality this matter is. ‘They (the women) are not jurists’. You need a law degree to know whether you have been r-ped or not in Sweden. In the context of such double think, the question of how the Swedish authorities propose to deal with victims who neither saw themselves as such nor acted as such is easily answered: You’re not a Swedish lawyer so you wouldn’t understand anyway. The consent of both women to sex with Assange has been confirmed by prosecutors” (Prentice, 2010).

[2] The original video was deleted, but it has been uploaded several times to YouTube under different names, such as “Society for Cutting up Men, SCUM,” “SCUM having fun,” “S.C.U.M. murder/dance party and credits,” and so on.

[3] In the “S.C.U.M. murder/dance party and credits” video version, we learn not only the names of the participants, but also that it was brought to the internet by A Voice For Men itself, a fact that will prove how strange the whole situation surrounding this video release is.

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