Rougher than usual: The Monthly on Julian Assange and consent

Yet again, I was approaching an article on Julian Assange, this time in the Monthly by Guy Rundle, Crayfish Summer: Julian Assange, Sex crime and Feminism, with low expectations. Most of the blogosphere and media appears to have eaten up the myths surrounding Julian Assange and the two Swedish women with a spoon.

This article was free online when I began to write this post, but has since been taken down. I’m not sure why.

Every element in the layout of the article was loaded with subtle textual and visual digs, which is of course down to the editorial, not Rundle. The title, “Crayfish” Summer. A photo of Assange looking charismatic in the clothes loaned to him by his English hosts, next to a sign with a hump (hurh, hurh) and “give way”. All plausibly deniable, of course. (To be fair, the Monthly appears to be having a subtle dig at Assange’s supporters, too; the ASIS recruiting ad taking up half of one page of the article was a wizard jape, Monthly layout/editorial people! “Could you be an intelligence officer? Extraordinary work for extraordinary people! a career with a difference!”)

The first half of the article was not bad. Rundle stuck pretty much to the facts of the case which are routinely ignored by starry-eyed apologists for the Wunderkind du jour. Far from simply regretting a perfectly consensual one night stand the following day, as the popular story goes, the women went to the police to request a STI test because Assange had insisted on unsafe sex, and persisted with coercion when the women wouldn’t oblige.

But Rundle’s “forensic” (as a non-native Swedish speaker) reading of the police reports continues the obsessive tendency of many commenters to examine every action and utterance of “the women” in the most negative possible light, while looking for the best possible interpretation of Assange’s. None of this is new.

More disappointing, though, is that the last part of the article is a polemic against “invit[ing] the law into the bedroom”. Only in cases of violence against women does society throw up its hands and declare that the legal system has no possible remedy for crimes committed in a domestic setting. Cases of theft, arson, burglary and other crimes aren’t thrown out of court because they are committed in a bedroom. If the only point Rundle made was that the collection and interpretation of evidence in rape cases where the rapist is known to the victim, to the point which would satisfy a Western court of law as they operate now, is difficult, I would agree. But he goes much further than that. Rundle argues that to take away the option of forced sex (he wouldn’t want to call it rape, and I’m sure he’d like to think it was in some other category) would be unacceptable to men.

[T]he charges against Assange will amount to a criminalisation of consensual (if unenjoyable) rough foreplay, and of a sleeping encounter almost immediately granted retroactive consent.”

How can sex be “consensual” if it’s only “granted retroactive consent”? How is Rundle sure that “granted retroactive consent” is willing consent, and not “the power disparity between us is just too high, and I’ll be pilloried by millions of Boy Superstar’s fans as well as the usual suspects, so I guess I should just suck it up”? What about the word “unenjoyable”? The point of consensual sex is that it is mutually enjoyable. Are we now back to Justice Bollen’s assertion that a bit of “rougher than usual handling” is perfectly fine to get women to consent to sex? 1

There is no evidence that the victim enjoyed it, but for the rapist to believe that he is not a rapist — that theoretical creature of evil and monsterhood — the victim must enjoy the rape, which will transform it into wanted rape-sex — sex that resembles rape and has all the desired benefits of rape (aggressive humiliation, sexual gratification, sadism, expression of power and domination) but carries none of the moral and legal baggage of real rape. This also aligns easily with gendered beliefs about men and women and sex: women secretly want sex, no matter what they say; men’s enjoyment of sex is the baseline to determine whether a sexual encounter is pleasurable; and that aggression, force, and a woman fighting back in pain is sexy and erotic. Thus, a rapist can rape a woman, but as long as he can find some way to convince himself she likes it, then it does not count as rape.
-Harriet J, Fugitivus

I think it’s vitally important to remember – in all the online sneering about the hubris of a woman presuming to think about consent once her body is in the proximity of a bed – that Ardin and Wilen were objecting to Assange’s sudden insistence on “bareback” sex. Given his promiscuity, this was objectively very dangerous. They were frightened of HIV transmission. They were “changing their minds” (an action which society, it appears, can only sneer at) due to new information which indicated a threat of actual bodily harm.

I find it interesting that this idea of forced sex as not-rape is retailed, not in some MRA or 4Chan page, but perhaps the most respectable, bourgeois magazine in Australia. It shows how Justice Bollen’s definition of not-rape still permeates the culture and goes a long way to explain why women who dare to seek legal redress (for potential bodily harm incurred, not even for the rape itself) are treated as dangerous, malicious people whose version of events can never be believed.

1 In attempting to assist the jury to distinguish a true lack of consent from acts of mere “persuasion”, Justice Bollen said: “There is, of course, nothing wrong with a husband, faced with his wife’s initial refusal to engage in intercourse, in attempting, in an acceptable way, to persuade her to change her mind, and that may involve a measure of rougher than usual handling. It may be that handling and persuasion will persuade the wife to agree. Sometimes it is a fine line between not agreeing, then changing of the mind, and consenting …” (R v Johns, Supreme Court, SA No. SCCRM/91/452, 26 August 1992).

Crossposted at the Cast Iron Balcony

Categories: Culture, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, media, violence


26 replies

  1. TW rape discussion:

    Ah, yes. Julian Assange: Because no-one else in the world knows how to operate a computer!
    One of my uni readings this week encompassed gender and sexuality. It listed 3 divisions of non-consensual sex – “pressurised sex”, “coercive sex”, and then “rape”, which was cast waaay worse than the last two. “Not rape-rape” is enshrined in my Sociology textbook!

  2. Did they really write “pressurised”?

  3. Yup. It is defined as “when the woman (it could sometimes be a man) is expected to have sex even they do not really want to: no direct force is involved. More apparent is coercive sex and, at the most extreme, rape murder and genocide.”
    Note that no definition of “coercive sex” is given. But somehow it does not even compare to rapemurdergenocideOMG. A statement that capitulation/compliance =/= consent would be good, and helpful IMO. But this? I’m not so sure.

  4. Every time I read bits of Bollen’s judgement, I feel creeped out and unsafe. I mean, it’s only one in a long line of rape culture quotes that do that, but I really wonder if people who deploy them even think about their effects on women. Well, no, I know the answer to that one too… 😦
    Perla, that’s really abominable. Can you tell us which book this is? I’d like to avoid it, and if possible suggest to others that they avoid it too (especially those developing syllabi).

  5. I’m kind of wary about identifying myself, but:
    The academic credited with the definitions is Liz Kelly. The book is John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, 2008, 4th ed.

  6. So in the space of a couple of days we get Rundle defending a man’s right to subject a woman to “unenjoyable, rough foreplay” and Ellis defending a man’s right to watch naked women without their permission. This is turning into a real “stop the world, I want to get off” week.

  7. I think Rundle was defending Ellis today – so the circle is complete.
    So I gather anyway from the opening sentence of GR in Crikey today – I dont subscribe so didnt see the rest.

  8. Liz Kelly? She’s done a lot of good research on rape prevalence, reporting, attrition, and so on in the UK, so this may not be what it seems. The research in which she actually sets out those definitions doesn’t seem to be available online (it’s Surviving Sexual Violence (1988)) but this paper which references it says:

    Nevertheless, faithful naming is equally important, for as Kelly (1988)(p. 139) explains in another context, “where names are not available, the extent and even existence of forms of sexual violence cannot be acknowledged.” Kelly found that she had to introduce two new interpretations of women’s experiences of sexual violence to cover the range of women’s experiences:

    [The category] “pressurised sex” … was introduced to take account of the fact that women do not simplistically define heterosexual sex as either consenting or rape, between these two is a range of pressure and coercion. Pressurised sex covers experiences in which women decided not to say no to sex but where they felt pressured to consent (Kelly, 1988, p. 82). [The category] “coercive sex” covers experiences which women referred to as being like rape. Specific pressure was always used by the man, often involving the threat of, or actual, physical force ( Kelly, 1988, p. 84).

    Kelly’s introduction of these two new categories does not undermine the established category “rape.” Instead, the introduction of these categories recognised that, over time, women’s definitions of their experiences may change.

    If the categories were introduced to broaden the definition of what could be counted as sexual violence – and bear in mind the context is the UK of 1988, where marital rape was still legal, and the rest of the laws on rape weren’t much better – they might well have made sense. “Coercive sex” as “rape, but not legally defined as such”, for instance, as a way of getting across to people that “stereotypical rape” was not the only form of severe sexual violence, for instance.
    (Whether Macionis and Plummer acknowledge or even care about that context, and whether Kelly would consider the same separation useful in a 2011 UK context – where “coercive sex” now counts as “rape” under the law – are different questions)

  9. Thanks cim. I was really hoping there was more to it than the brief mention in M & P. Usually when contentious and/or complex classifications or theories are presented, M & P go into a fair bit of detail and context is explained. But there it was, just a tiny little mention, with bog-all explanation. As if it wasn’t that important in terms of a 20-sommet page chapter on gender, feminism and sexuality.

  10. Sickening. Or maddening, can’t decide. What an [redacted] (GR). Because people want to be assaulted all the time. Oh wait, that’s just for those female people. I think I’ll just have to go with depressing.

  11. *trigger warning* (I get graphic below)
    That “the rapist believed that he was not a rapist” thing really gets to me. Rapists know. Even if the woman doesn’t scream, or cry, or repeat over and over again, “no, no, no, no,” rapists know.
    I’ve been raped twice in my life, once by my first husband and the other time by an acquaintance, a friend of my then boyfriend. My ex tried to tell me it was okay “because it didn’t last that long”. He knew what he’d done. He did it deliberately to punish and control me when I was seven months pregnant. But when I called it rape, to his face, he looked at me with a bland expression on his face and denied that it was rape, because it “wasn’t that bad.”
    The other person never spoke to me again after the incident, although he lived two doors down from me. He didn’t meet my eyes, and he moved not too long after. I didn’t scream or cry, just that almost inaudible ‘no, no, no, no’ because I couldn’t believe it was happening and was in shock. I got dressed and got out, very quickly. But you know, he knew.
    People know a lot more about non-verbal cues and body behavior than they’re often willing to admit, especially people with bad intentions. They know that non-verbal behavior seldom if ever lies, while people will withhold information verbally, or dismiss it, or outright lie.
    And the ‘in the bedroom’ thing is all about property. It’s really just code for “I can do what I want *to my property* in my bedroom”. That’s why violence against women is treated differently than other crimes set in a domestic arena, because our culture still allows us in our little lizard hind brains to see women as property.

  12. The problem is that sex is the one activity in which people act exclusively because it brings them enjoyment. People do what they do because it brings them pleasure, at all times.
    At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work, or the way it almost always works for men. So when people carry on having sex when it’s not enjoyable, they must be doing it out or pressure or coercion of some kind. This myth that men can have sex with a woman even if she doesn’t enjoy it is just a myth. If she doesn’t enjoy it, why doesn’t she stop it? If it isn’t stopped, is because she is under pressure. End of.
    And Maureen O’Danu, hugs if you want them.

  13. Thanks, Mary, for the thought, but all that happened nigh on 20 years ago now, and I’ve had plenty of time to get past it and build a happy life. I shared only for the purposes of the point being made.

  14. Mary Tracy. I think dancing is pretty similar and might be a good analogy for those who “can’t see the harm”. If it’s forced, or under duress, it isn’t dancing anymore.

  15. Thanks everyone for thoughtful comments!
    I didn’t include Rundle’s conclusions on Feminism in General, because I didn’t want the thing to be too long and baggy, but it’s about what you’d expect. There is a split in Feminism, and “that it may be brought about by an aussie cypherpunk, a global bogan-with-a-modem coming into contact with the world’s most feminist state, may have been not so much improbable as inevitable.”
    Because feminism always needs a Dude to come and set people straight.
    Rundle implicitly gives his approval to “a number of prominent feminists [who] broke ranks [because, you know, we have… ranks?!], to argue for a relatively sceptical take on the accusations. Naomi Klein came out…”
    “…From within second-wave feminism, there has always been a counterargument: that the resort to state power betrays the struggle for real autonomy and cultural change…denies the responsibility to assert their autonomy and reject it, without expecting a protective state to do it for them.”
    See, “the women” should just have stamped on his foot with a stilletto, right?

  16. A lot of people don’t seem to realise that what is in the alleged rapist’s head at the time of the alleged offence is irrelevant in a lot of Civilian systems (France and Germany, too, not just Sweden or Denmark). There is no ‘feminist conspiracy’ or ‘special feminist law’, just a different legal system. There is a reason why conviction rates for rape and sexual assault tend to be higher on the Continent (and in Scotland). I’ve written about the issue broadly here:
    Apologies for mansplaining (or is that lawsplaining?), but the level of ignorance being displayed on this is frightening (Rundle is just the latest), especially considering that some of the legal principles on point are more than 1500 years old.

  17. Not mansplaining, by definition, SL!… I think the frightening thing about comments like Rundle’s and other commenters is they’re stipulating how they’d like the law to be rather than what it actually is – and their preferences would send us backwards to a situation where men have more control over womens’ bodies, not less.

  18. Thanks, SL, that was fascinating.

  19. Also, I want to find ways to use “vituperatio” in everyday conversation. Perhaps to describe the balance we seek between being patient with an undergraduate who makes inane sexist observations, and tearing them a new one?

  20. Glad to be of help, Helen & Orlando.
    I do try to be aware that sometimes lawyers and our specialist vocabulary are about as popular as cancer, so it’s nice when someone actually likes one of our ‘terms of art’!

  21. This whole episode makes me so angry. I know so many women who call themselves feminists who nod sagely and agree that of course the women are CIA plants and one would be dreadfully naive to to think otherwise.
    Assange has reached some sort or rock star status amongst political activists. I support what Wikileaks is doing, but I’m so thoroughly sick of being expected to worship at the altar of the Great Male Political Activist who’ll tell us what it’s really like and must not be criticised under any circumstances. I find it so retrogressive politically and such a misunderstanding how progressive politics could be working. And I refuse to buy the t-shirt.

  22. @Fine: might you be interested in this t-shirt?

  23. I think it works for me orlando.

  24. PSA: I’m unable to delete the link in comment 20 (linking to a post by another blogger , not SL) because it’s automated. So let me just express my total disagreement with the right wing framing of that post – detainees rioting because “they didn’t get halal pizza”. Especially disgusting in the light of the fact that DEM is opposing the UK government “reforms” to the disability pension there and would get a lot of wholehearted support from feminist communities, despite the fact that – like asylum seekers – people on benefits are lied about and labelled bludgers, demanding and the rest in the tabloid press. That would lead you to believe that DEM would have some insight into other vilified communities, but apparently not.
    That link was published on this thread by Commentluv and would be deleted if I had anything to do with it, but I can’t. Apologies to anyone who thought that was a strange and insensitive thing for HAT to link to.

  25. Helen: I think I’ve managed to get rid of it.

  26. Thanks, Lauredhel.

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