On WikiLeaks, rape culture, and well-timed distractions

Posted: December 11, 2010 in feminism, mainstream media fail, rape, U.S. politics

So. Julian Assange.

Is that guy blond, or what?

There have been plenty of smart people who’ve written plenty of smart things about the allegations of rape against Assange. I may or may not have something smart to add to the conversation, but first I want to link to the two best pieces I’ve read on the subject so far, which each approach it from a different—and worthwhile—perspective: the first is from bfp at flipfloppingjoy, and the second from Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty.  They’re both excellent posts, but I’m grateful for bfp’s in particular because it led me to interrogate my own feelings on this subject a bit more closely and to understand what is and is not valuable about the way I’ve approached it.

My response when I read about the allegations, and the reaction to them, was entirely reflexive. The part of me that hates the way that we talk about rape, and rapists, and rape victims—the part that wrote this post—went straight into myth-debunking mode. And while I think that’s useful and appropriate, for reasons I’ll elaborate on in a bit, it’s also something that requires some deliberation. Because that discussion cannot be about criminal retribution. I agree with bfp completely—and have said as much in the past—that an appeal to the state to dispense justice carries with it terrible consequences. Ultimately, whatever power we invest in the state is power that will, as bfp said, be used against us.

But that doesn’t imply that consequences shouldn’t be discussed at all, because consequences can be part of prevention. What I think it does imply is that we should work to redefine those consequences as something to be enforced by the community, rather than by the state.

And that means talking about rape culture.

Rape culture attempts to protect rapists from social consequences, e.g. shame and isolation, by normalizing, minimizing or flat-out denying instances of rape. This is made easier or more difficult by the rapist’s power relative to the victim’s, because power bestows an assumption of credibility and credibility determines who will be believed and supported. So to some extent rape apologists work to widen that power/credibility gap, and anti-rape activists work to narrow it. One way this often plays out is that victims are slandered and made unrapeable. This is why rape prevention so often focuses on deconstructing narratives about victims, e.g. what they look like and how they act, because those narratives exist to narrow the definition of “rape victim” until it excludes almost all women and precludes the possibility that they will be taken seriously if they step forward.

But there’s another way to widen that gap, and it can be even harder to confront because it relies not on defaming victims (something which runs the risk of being perceived as unjust) but on delineating the boundary of “those who commit rape” in such a way that all assumedly-decent people will fall outside of that boundary. This implicitly strengthens the credibility of many men who are accused of rape by stipulating that rape is not something they could possible have committed. Put another way: if rapists are terrible people, it simply follows that people who are not terrible cannot be rapists. And thus men who are viewed positively by their communities as a result of their social privilege— “good” men; “family” men; “pillars of the community”— cannot, by definition, commit rape. Which not only robs their victims of the chance to be heard and believed, but also ensures that rape accusations will only ever be taken seriously when leveled at men with very little social privilege to begin with. And this simply reaffirms our belief that those men, themselves, are hardly human.

We’ve essentially defined rape out of existence except to the degree that acknowledging it suits our purposes, and allegations against men like Julian Assange and Roman Polanski provide an opportunity to confront that dynamic in a way that can receive wide exposure. So I do think that this is an important discussion to have. Undermining rape culture is a necessary part of, as bfp says, “ending rape to begin with, rather than punishing after the fact.”

But. While this discussion is important, I also think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Because Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks.

The former is being held without bail in Sweden; the latter is the focus of a far more ominous and dangerous campaign being conducted in the form of denial-of-service attacks, the freezing of accounts, and government disruption of the public’s attempts to support the organization financially (whether online or via snail mail). The fact that Assange has been subjected to politically-motivated persecution (and he clearly has; to believe otherwise would require some fairly naïve assumptions about the importance typically given to the prosecution of rape as a crime) is in large part a result of his success at making himself the face of WikiLeaks. This was arguably a bad decision on his part, and it’s not one that we, the public, are required to affirm by continuing to conflate the individual and the organization.

WikiLeaks would be stronger, and Assange himself would likely be safer (though I suppose the damage is done on that count), if the two were thoroughly decoupled. If we’re invested in the fate of WikiLeaks as an organization, we need to be aware of the threats being posed to it directly. Concern for Assange is understandable given the possibility that he may be extradited to the U.S. and forced to stand trial for espionage, so I’m not advocating that we all maintain a position of cold indifference to the risks he faces.

But we can’t preserve transparency by defending Julian Assange any more than we can end rape by punishing him.

Images from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/r_sh/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/nigsby

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