Arguments about the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have divided the left and dominated the media over the last week. The debate has centred on the question of rape.
Can you both defend Assange from persecution by the US while also calling for the allegations of rape and sexual assault against him to be investigated?
First on Wikileaks. The US has been damaged by its disclosures of war crimes and is out to take revenge and silence those responsible. That is why US soldier Bradley Manning has been incarcerated for over two years without trial, accused of leaking evidence of US war crimes.
It is also why Assange is being pursued and risks a similar fate. If the US captures him, it will be a powerful deterrent for anyone thinking about exposing the dirt on the US war machine in the future.
Assange should not be extradited to the US—but you do not need to rubbish women’s accusations of sexual assault to make that case.
Yet recent interventions in the debate by George Galloway, former British ambassador Craig Murray and others have done precisely that.
The specific allegations from two women in Sweden cannot and should not be subject to trial by media. But not content with passing judgment on what may or may not have happened there, we have been subjected to foul views on what constitutes rape.
Galloway claims that if Assange is guilty of anything it is “bad sexual etiquette” because it is not necessary to ask permission “prior to each insertion”.
Let’s get something clear. If a woman does not consent to sex it is rape. It does not matter if she has had sex with the man before, once or many times, the same evening or long before.
The archaic view of women exposed by using such language sees them as passive receptacles for men’s insatiable desires. Women were once told that sex was something that men wanted and they had to endure, or “lie back and think of England”. Part of the fight for women’s liberation has been for us to no longer to be seen as sex objects.
Women have demanded to be acknowledged as autonomous sexual beings with their own desires. So to see high profile campaigners who are seen as part of the left to spout such reactionary views is shocking and damaging.
Backward attitudes on rape appear to be on the increase across the board. This week Northern Ireland’s next health minister Jim Wells echoed US Republican bigot Todd Akin’s views that women who had been raped should be denied access to abortion. Wells claimed “The stats are very low for pregnancies which arise as a result of rape.”
The comedy circuit today is filled with performers using rape jokes. This is termed “rape banter”. “Rape banter” even had a Facebook page including “jokes” such as “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway.” Facebook rejected complaints about the page, saying it was humour and so acceptable.
For socialists the fight against women’s oppression is central to our struggle to change the world. It’s fundamental to this battle to challenge the prevailing ideas that women are in some way culpable if they experience sexual assault.
Women’s sexual behaviour is subject to constant double standards. They are encouraged to make themselves sexually attractive and available. Yet if they experience unwanted sexual advances they are told it’s their responsibility.
The latest debate will have made some women think twice before reporting rape in case they face similar scrutiny. It may also undermine support for Assange’s battle with the US.
Some may be wary of being associated with Galloway and Murray’s views on rape. But we can’t allow the British state to enforce extradition and hand a victory for the US.
Tory foreign minister William Hague is not surrounding the Ecuadorean embassy with police to pursue justice for women.
Instead, the investigation could continue with the Swedish authorities questioning Assange in Britain or making a commitment not to extradite him. We cannot oppose imperialism if we discard women’s rights along the way.