Saturday, December 04, 2010

What Media's Portrayal of Accusations of Sexual Assault against Assange show us about our Culture

Issues of consent are not taken very seriously by the media. In the Western world accusations of rape are handled in a bipolar fashion. On the one hand society says that rape is illegal and terrible. On the other it does a very poor job of handling sexual assault cases.

People (usually women) are routinely disbelieved when they say they have been sexually assaulted and even when they are believed they are often blamed as causing what happened to them. At the same time this is going on, society still holds on to the belief that rape one of the worst crimes and that rapists are horrible monsters. (This impression discounts in people's minds that friends of ours or people we know are capable of sexual assault.) This attitude obscures the reality that most sexual assaults occur between acquaintances and that often no overt physical violence (other than sexual intercourse or touching w/o consent and taking advantage of the victim's fear) is used.

Recently a Swedish prosecutor filed charges against, Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, of sexual crimes because his female partner alleges she asked him to use a condom and he did not.

A little 101 on consent: If someone gives you consent to have sex with a condom it is NOT consent to have sex without a condom. You must specifically get consent for sex without a condom if the person only agreed to have sex with condom. If you're in the middle of having sex and the other person changes their mind, you have to stop or it is assault.

Keeping that in mind, the timing of these charges at a time when multiple Western governments are attempting to take out arrest warrants on Assange for releasing classified documents and some members of the media are accusing him of treason. I don't know enough about the allegations, or case to make a comment on whether Assange did or did not assault this woman other than that the timing is a little suspect but that does not change what happened that evening.

What does trouble me most about all the reports I've read is the misrepresentation of the charges. Many articles have reported that Assange is simply being charged for failing to using a condom, period. That is not the case. The charges are all about whether there was consent or not, and sex in the absence of consent is called sexual assault. I even had to endure listening to one of my favorite radical radio shows, where they repeated this misrepresentation.

As a member of the left I'm psychologically predisposed to be more likely to not believe these allegations, its a human trait to give your ingroup more slack, and I think its important for us supporters of Wikileaks to keep that in mind. On the same note, when I googled Assange's sexual assault case looking for a feminist blog post on it, instead I saw that numerous right-wing libertarians were discrediting the woman who made the allegations of sexual assault simply for being a “radical” feminist because in their train of thought radical feminists hate men and are out to get revenge on them. (Note to everyone caring about fairness and justice does not mean that you hate men!) I've also seen many Wikileaks supporters dismiss the allegation as just a smear campaign by the government and media. (They very well could be fueling the fire but that doesn't change what happened that night one way or the other!)

I wish the media would a) stop misrepresenting the charges b) do their job and investigate the likelihood of the allegations without bias c) and do a better job of addressing issues of consent.

Statistics of false sexual assault allegations are pretty low. Anyone who accuses someone famous of sexual assault faces an uphill battle. People are pretty complex creatures and on a rare occasion someone accuses someone else of a crime for whatever reasons they may have. We should keep this mind but we do not know much about the case.

I would like to debunk something else I read in this coverage. The Daily Mail dismissed the allegations of sexual assault because the woman was still friendly with Assange in the morning and uses this as evidence that the allegations are false. Some people appear to be fine immediately after a sexual assault because they are in shock and denial. Just because someone seems fine the next day is not evidence alone that nothing bad happened. The only criteria for whether sexual assault happened is the absence of consent. If someone is assaulted and they look fine that does not change the fact that the were assaulted.

I just don't know enough about the case to accuse Assange of sexual assault or to automatically clear his name. Reviewing the news about the case though caused me to want to address how utterly awful the discourse around what sexual assault is and how sexual assault victims act.

I do not know what happened in this case. What I do know is that most rapes and sexual assaults never get reported and that there are many times more actual sexual assaults that happen then false accusations. I believe it is important for innocent people not to be convicted of crimes they did not commit but I question why we we are so predisposed to believe that women are liars who would accuse someone of something so serious because the are jealous.

Journalists should do a better job of finding out what happened. We should not jump to try to pre-determining if Assange would never do such a thing or of assuming that he's a sexual perpetrator.


The radical radio show mentioned:

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