Julian Assange: Hero? Creep? Victim? Victimizer?

February 24, 2011 Michael Kaufman

Two, three or even four opposing things can co-exist.  It is possible that someone is, at the same time, a) a courageous, even heroic, advocate who says that citizens should know the truth and who is willing to take enormous personal risks to make that happen; b) an individual who may have committed a form of sexual assault; c) the subject of attempts to silence and even kill him; and d) a man who allows his lawyers to use the same, disgusting arguments that are used against other women who bring forward a charge (true or not) of sexual assault.

I admire the work of whistleblowers and I’ve admired the courage of Wikileaks.  I do not think it is treasonous to reveal what US (or British or Russian or Chinese or any other) political leaders, policy-makers, or generals actually say or do if it’s illegal or immoral or simply, terribly ill-advised.

As citizens in a democracy, we deserve the truth about events that are leading to the death of so many humans and the expenditure of vast resources.  We need to trust that our governments can’t engage in illegal or immoral behaviour with impunity.  (I don’t deny that what is appropriate to leak can get very complex and that leaking certain information could, itself, be immoral.)

I also don’t doubt that among those people who Wikileaks has unmasked, whether in Moscow, Washington, or Kabul, there are some very ruthless individuals who would stoop to further crimes to punish someone who has informed the world about their past crimes and to scare away others who wish to follow suit.  I know that some in the US right wing would like to see Assange murdered.

But I also know that Sweden has worked hard to develop a civilized and sophisticated public discussion on sexual violence and respect. I know that their justice system has a nuanced response to sexual assault – including different categories of assault.

Part of the education I do on university campuses, in communities, and in my writing (such as my pamphlet, ManTalk) looks at the issue of sexual consent.  I tell young people that:

  • someone can change their mind in the middle of sex: consent given once isn’t consent given for ever;
  • if someone is incapacitated by alcohol, drugs or sleep they cannot give consent;
  • consent is not only about whether someone says “no” but also whether they explicitly say “yes.”

I spoke to three Swedish men, friends and colleagues..

Lars Naumburg works in support of battered women and with men who use violence.  Referring to a case where the CIA dragged away two men from Sweden to be “redacted” to Egyptian torture chambers, he said, “No one can escape the thought that the charges are some kind of conspiracy.” But he says that he, like most Swedes, including others active for women’s rights, have “a solid trust in our court system.”  He believes that the charges should be treated properly even though he says it remains to be seen whether Assange is guilty or not.

Lars says, “I don’t think the good things [Assange] has achieved would be undone if he has also committed bad acts.”  Both realities may be true.

Klas Hyllander, a leader of Men for Gender Equality, says that he has been “really disgusted” to see that women who’ve brought forward a serious charge are being “ridiculed prior to a judicial process” that will prove whether the charges are substantiated or not.  He says he’s been appalled that some people who support the good work that Wikileaks has done are making pronouncements on the case and the Swedish judicial system without any insight into either.

Lars Jalmert, a professor of education working for decades for gender equality, says, succinctly, “The Swedish laws on sexual assault are very tough — and I’m very proud of that.”  Sweden has one of the world’s highest rates of reporting to police although still relatively few guilty verdicts since proof is usually difficult.

Klas adds that one very positive thing coming out of this case is it has sparked a huge discussion in the social media.  For example, #prataomdet (“talkaboutit”) on Twitter, has encouraged men and women to tell their stories about the grey zones between “consensual sex on the one hand and sexual abuse on the other” and to talk about the difficulties we all face communicating our sexual desires. In the Swedish media as a whole, there is a huge discussion going on involving both victims and offenders, in conversations that, for the most part, “have been respectful.”