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Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman Debate Julian Assange's Rape Charges

Noted feminists go head to head about how we should think about the allegations against the Wikileaks founder.
 
 
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AMY GOODMAN: More details have emerged about the sex crime allegations that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces in Sweden. Assange was released on bail from a London prison Thursday, in now under house arrest at a country mansion. His next hearing, set for January 11th, will determine whether he’ll be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

On Friday, The Guardian newspaper obtained unauthorized access to a Swedish police report that provides the first complete account of the allegations against Assange. According to The Guardian, the allegations are based on a 10-day period in August when Assange was visiting Stockholm, during which he had sexual relations with two women that started out as consensual, but the women say they turned into assaults. The Guardian reports one woman told police that Assange pulled her clothes off and snapped her necklace. Then, she said, he held down her arms and legs and prevented her from grabbing a condom numerous times. After he let go and agreed to wear a condom, she claims, he did something to the condom to rip it. Assange denied the allegations, telling police he did not tear the condom and that the woman had allowed him to sleep in her bed for the following week. The other woman in the case told police Assange had sex with her while she was asleep, without using a condom.

On August 20th, the women went to Stockholm police. They had not decided whether to report Assange’s behavior as a crime, but the prosecutor on duty that night opened an investigation, issued an arrest warrant for Assange. Assange and his supporters have said the case against him is part of a wider conspiracy to discredit him because of his work with WikiLeaks.

Speaking to reporters outside his friend’s mansion in eastern England, where he must live while on bail, Assange said the allegations are part of a smear campaign.

JULIAN ASSANGE: This has been a very successful smear campaign so far, but I think its days are numbered, and people are starting to wonder, is what is claimed really true, and if it is true, where is the evidence? Why has no evidence been provided even to me and my defense attorneys?

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the lawyer for the two women, Claes Borgström, has denied the allegations against Assange are part of a political conspiracy.

CLAES BORGSTRÖM: Well, I think it’s very, very unfortunate for my two clients that they were molested in some way or another by a person like Julian Assange, because what has happened afterwards is not that they will have a fair chance at this moment, because they are sort of being treated like the perpetrators themselves and they have—there is a conspiracy and all that nonsense. So it’s very, very unfortunate.

AMY GOODMAN: The case against Assange has sparked international controversy, as well as controversy within the feminist community. We’re joined by two women right now. Jaclyn Friedman is executive director of Women, Action, & the Media and the editor of the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. She’s joining us from Boston. Naomi Wolf is a social critic, author of seven books, including The Beauty Myth, The End of America. She’s joining us here in New York.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jaclyn Friedman, as this information comes out, why don’t you talk about your thoughts on the—we can’t even say charges against Julian Assange, because he has not yet been charged.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: We can say allegations. Certainly these women are alleging a crime.

What I want to say is that these are—the details, certainly, have become more clear since that unauthorized leak, but we’ve known those basic facts for weeks, that the allegations—in fact, we’ve known them since August, that the allegations were that he held one woman down, that he raped another in her sleep. These allegations have been out there. The Guardian has been reporting them.

Rape is a very serious crime, and it’s also one of the most underreported crimes across the globe. And one of the reasons is because every time the issue comes up in the media, people come out of the woodwork to blame the victims and to minimize the crime. And unfortunately, when we see someone who is a progressive hero, like Assange is, those critics, those people who are doing that minimization and that victim blaming often come from the left, as well as the right. And we’ve seen that across the board. Unfortunately, with—Naomi Wolf has participated in that, as well as Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck—of course, plenty of people on the right are participating, as well.

And the result of that is not only that these women are receiving death threats, they are in hiding—one of them has gone to Palestine, because she couldn’t feel safe in Sweden anymore—but the even more important result of that, when we perpetuate rape myths in the media—and this is not just my opinion, this has been documented by social research—is that victims, nameless victims, victims who have been harmed by people who are not famous, become much more reluctant to take their experiences seriously, to report those experiences. The system, the justice system that’s supposed to work for those victims—the cops, the juries, the prosecutors, the judges—they become much more reluctant to take these allegations seriously when they are reported. And men become less likely to identify their own behavior as sexually violent. And the result of all of that is that rapists go free.

And what we know about that is, the majority of rapists are repeat rapists. So, the result of perpetuating these rape myths in the mass media is that we literally are creating more rape in the world. And that’s my main concern about the way these allegations have been discussed so far, is that it’s doing real harm to real women around the world who have nothing to do with this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Wolf, your response?

NAOMI WOLF: Thank you. Well, Jaclyn, let me say that I’m very, very offended that you’re suggesting that I’m blaming the victim. In fact, it’s because of my 23 years of supporting rape victims, working in rape crisis centers, traveling around the world, to report more than any journalist I know, which, in a way, I’ve been very blessed to have had the chance to do so, from Sierra Leone to Bosnia to Ireland to the United Kingdom, interviewing people who support rape victims and work with the legal system—it’s because of that that I’m raising my voice about these very ambiguous and corrupt allegations.

First of all, let me just correct you. And Jaclyn, these—The Guardian account, which is based on leaked original documents, doesn’t say that he had sex with either of these women without their consent. The reason I’m hearing from rape victims across the world who are emailing me, saying, "I’m a rape victim. Thank you for standing up to put these charges in context," is that this is the only case I’ve ever seen in 23 years of supporting rape victims which is based on multiple instances of consent.

If you read these allegations, he took off Miss A’s clothes too quickly for her comfort. She tried to tell him to slow down, but then, quote, "she allowed him to undress her." This is what the report says. The second woman says she woke to find him having sex with her. When she asked whether he was wearing a condom, he said no. Quote, "According to her statement, she said: 'You better not have HIV.'" He answered, "Of course not." Quote, "She couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before."

So, if you’re going to treat women as moral adults and if you’re going to take the issue of rape seriously, the person who’s engaging in what he thinks is consensual sex has to be told, "I don’t want this." And again and again and again, these women did not say, "This is not consensual." Assange was shocked when these were brought up as complaints, because he had no idea that this was not a consensual situation. Miss A kept Assange in her home for the next four days and threw a party for him.

So, because I take rape seriously, because I’m aware that in 23 years, you know, in Sweden, which has been criticized by Amnesty International for disregarding rape, for letting rapists go free, because you have a better chance in Sweden, if you’re a rape victim, of, you know, dying in an accident or getting breast cancer than having a serious rape allegation prosecuted or getting any kind of legal hearing, according to Amnesty International’s report "Case Closed"—it’s because of that that I know that these charges are utterly, utterly atypically handled. In 23 years, I’ve never seen any man in any situation this ambiguous, involving this much consent, have any kind of legal process whatsoever. And all over the world, women who have been gang-raped, brutally raped, raped in alleyways, pimped, prostituted, trafficked, you know, their rapists go free.

So, yes, this stinks to me. And yes, it’s about politics, and it’s about the same kind of politics that dragged you, when you were trying to cover a march, you know, violently into legal jeopardy, because really this is about a journalist who has angered the most powerful and increasingly brutal nation on earth, and it’s about all of us who are journalists being dragged into a dangerous situation because of criticism of the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Jaclyn Friedman, your response?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Wow. First of all, I’ve also been working with rape survivors for 20 years, and I am one myself. And I can assure you that you do not speak for me or many of us. I, too, have been speaking with rape survivors around the world since this case broke, who have been so hurt and disappointed that someone like you, who understands about the danger of perpetuating myths in the media, would be perpetuating rape myths that hurt all of us. There are so many rape survivors that are up in arms about the way this case has been discussed and the way these women have been disregarded.

NAOMI WOLF: But Jaclyn, Jaclyn, with all due respect—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I fully agree—no, no.

NAOMI WOLF:—where did they say no?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I did not interrupt you when you were speaking, and I would appreciate—

NAOMI WOLF: I beg your pardon.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN:—if you don’t—I’m going get to that.

NAOMI WOLF: OK.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: OK. So, I fully agree with you that the zeal, shall we say, with which these charges are being pursued is politically motivated. We have no disagreement on that. That is not an issue here. We are in agreement about that. I bet Amy agrees with us, too.

But if you want to talk about what the women in Sweden want, you should look at their political actions. There is a massive Twitter campaign that the women of Sweden have launched called "Let’s Talk about It." I think that’s right. It’s translated from the Swedish, because they are all—

NAOMI WOLF: That’s fair. Let’s talk about it.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I’m talking about it right now. They are coming forward, and they’re saying these things aren’t taken seriously in Sweden, and this is an opportunity to prove that the Swedish government can take these issues seriously. This is an opportunity to set the international bar higher for the way we take seriously rape charges.

Now, let’s talk about those charges. Those women did not consent. If she was consenting, he had no need to hold her down. A woman in her sleep cannot consent to sex. Consent is not a light switch, OK?

NAOMI WOLF: I have to speak to this.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Just because you’ve consented to choose one sexual activity, say, taking your clothes off with someone, does not mean you’ve consented to all sexual activities.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Wolf?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: That’s preposterous.

NAOMI WOLF: Yeah, I—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: If I go home with someone, it’s not consenting to every single thing that might be done to me by the person I’ve gone home with.

NAOMI WOLF: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Jaclyn, let’s get Naomi Wolf’s—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Both women have clearly claimed that they did not consent.

AMY GOODMAN: We need to get—we only have a minute to go. We need to get Naomi’s response.

NAOMI WOLF: Jaclyn, of course I agree with you that consent isn’t a given and that obviously with every sexual act, everyone needs to be sure that everyone is consenting. There is no doubt about that. But I don’t know if you’ve actually read the Guardian report, because again and again and again—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I most absolutely have.

NAOMI WOLF: Alright. So, again and again and again, Assange consulted with the women about what they wanted, and they didn’t say no. And to me as a feminist—and this is why I’m hearing from so many rape victims around the world—and of course the issue needs to be discussed more, obviously, but the reason, as a feminist, I am distraught about this miscarriage of justice is that you can’t—you’re not respecting women by casting them as unable to assert what they want, unwilling, you know, to speak about what they wish. The women—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Women may be afraid.

NAOMI WOLF: Jaclyn—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: If she’s been held down by someone, she is afraid.

NAOMI WOLF: But wait, read—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: She’s in a state of fear.

NAOMI WOLF: Listen to me. Jaclyn—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: No is not enough. Every sexual person—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

NAOMI WOLF: OK.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN:—has the responsibility to get affirmative consent from their sexual partner.

NAOMI WOLF: He then consulted with her—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Not just no, but affirmative yes.

NAOMI WOLF:—and asked her what she wanted, and she did not say no. She continued to have sex with him. And what I’m saying is—

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: She was afraid. He had held her down. She was in a state of fear. Many, many women—this happens over—you talk to rape survivors. I can’t believe you don’t know this. Many women are in a state of fear and unable—they’re in a panic situation. This is so common as to be laughable. And the reason they don’t take these seriously is because you tell them that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds. We have 10 seconds. Naomi, you can respond.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I travel in the country and the world talking to rape survivors.

NAOMI WOLF: I mean, all I can say is if a man or a woman who’s engaging in a sexual act that they think is consensual never hears "no" and hears "yes, yes, yes—yes, let’s go ahead without a condom; yes, let’s go ahead"—that insults rape victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Wolf, Jaclyn Friedman, we’ll continue this after the show. Go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

 

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!.
 
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