Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Bad Sexual Politics of Julian Assange

When I heard that Julian Assange, founder/principal publisher of Wikileaks, was wanted for sexual assault, it was a “where is the nearest hole for me to crawl into” moment. It didn’t get better.

The debate between feminists Jaclyn Friedman and Naomi Wolf on Democracy Now! did not make me feel better; it made me feel worse. For those who missed it, Friedman, the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, argued that the case would “raise the bar for the women of Sweden and the women internationally for what we can expect from our justice systems.” I can’t see this case raising any bar except the ones in whatever prison they decide to send Julian Assange to.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and the lesser known but more relevant Fire With Fire, countered that when Assange started having sex with someone while she was asleep after repeatedly refusing to use a condom, “it seems to me that when you say, ‘OK, you better not have HIV,’ he said, ‘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.’ To me, that—I mean, if I was making love with a woman, if I was—you know, if I was a lesbian making love with a woman and we had that conversation, I would keep making love with her, because we had had a discussion about it and reached a conclusion.”

If that is Naomi Wolf’s idea of a positive sexual encounter, I’m just glad she’s not a lesbian.

I have little doubt that whatever else did or did not happen, these women did not get the idea to make criminal complaints against Assange by themselves. But the problem I have is that the women in this situation are props. Depending on your world view, either Assange is a persecuted hero or he is a sexual predator. The likelihood that he is both a persecuted hero and a sexual abuser doesn’t seem to come up. Both of these young women were supporters of Wikileaks and probably had a liberal amount of hero worship for Assange. If he took advantage of that admiration to coerce them to do what he wanted in bed, that doesn’t make him much different from Mike Tyson or Ben Roethlisberger.

When do we get to talk about the tendency of men in progressive movements (just like those in every other kind of movement) to treat the women they work with as lesser beings and sex objects?

In the few weeks before the Assange arrest thrust this issue into our national conversations, I happened to read about two incidents that occurred some years earlier.

The first concerned an allegation of domestic violence against the best known member of the revolutionary “youth” group STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), which was active in the Bay Area in the mid 1990s. This was an incident I knew about at the time, because a couple women I knew from Women Against Rape were asked by STORM to help investigate it. My recollection is that they left the group in the aftermath, feeling that they were being used as window-dressing to give legitimacy to the group and its process. Last month, I happened to run across something that STORM had written about this incident, which I had never read before. The conclusion of their investigation was that the incident had not happened, that the woman involved had made up the accusation as part of some kind of COINTELPRO – CounterIntelligence Program to discredit a revolutionary man of color. Again, I don’t know what happened. What struck me about the reflection, written some years after the incident was resolved (in STORM’s mind), was that they never considered the possibility of multiple truths, that the woman involved actually experienced violence at the same time that the man had no awareness of having committed it. I personally witnessed that man being physically aggressive and threatening toward women I knew, when they disagreed with him during an action, and he refused to be held accountable after that incident, so I am predisposed to believe that he was capable of similar aggression toward a woman he was involved with and would be unlikely to cop to it.

The other piece I was reading had to do with our local Pacifica radio station, KPFA in Berkeley. KPFA, the oldest listener-sponsored radio station in the country, has a long history of bad gender dynamics and accusations of violence against men who are revered by portions of the left. We are currently mired in a terrible political crisis brought on by a huge financial deficit, and in that context a lot of old muck is getting raked up, including some related to two men accused of sexual harassment. One is an on-air personality with whom I personally am usually on the same side politically. This man, who is white, has been accused of harassment by a string of women. Most recently, a friend of mine won an enormous settlement of her claim against him and the station, which is one of the many reasons KPFA and Pacifica are in such financial trouble. The other was a former station manager who was accused of sexually harassing a stream of women. Other men jumped to his defense, saying that he was being targeted because of racism (he was African American), notwithstanding that nearly all of the women who accused him were women of color. The word “COINTELPRO” was again invoked.

A close friend of mine is an incredible organizer and has been instrumental in forming or sustaining a number of progressive organizations over the years. Like most of us whose lives center around movement work, he usually gets involved with women he meets doing political work. And for some reason (guess), when he stops being involved with them, they always end up feeling like they have to leave the organization. At one point, an ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual harassment. The organization was bitterly divided over the question of whether he was guilty or the woman was just an embittered reject. I don’t remember how that situation was resolved, but I do remember what a mutual friend said about it: “It probably wasn’t legally harassment, but he definitely has bad sexual politics.”

I suspect that every movement woman who ever dated men has had an experience like the ones described in the Assange police reports. When I was younger I had two encounters with male friends in the movement who wanted to have sex with me. I wanted to be close and cuddle with them, but not to have sex. They knew I was a lesbian. I kept saying I didn’t want to have sex and they kept insisting, and eventually I gave in. I would not say that I was raped. I didn’t feel afraid of them. If they still lived in this area, I would probably still be friendly with them. Even if I were the kind of person who thought of calling the police as an option, I would not have considered calling the police on them. Nevertheless, I know that what they did was coercive sex and was not okay.

A long time ago, a friend of mine was date raped by someone she had been going out with, who was in the same political group she was in. Some of the women in the group were dismissive of her accusation, saying, "If she was raped, I've been raped 100 times." One of the woman's male friends said that he felt uncomfortable judging this man because he had committed rapes when he was in a fraternity in college. It was very hard for this woman to remain in that organization, which was pretty much the only radical direct action group in town at that time. Fortunately, the group as a whole came together and forced the man to take responsibility for his action. They kicked him out of their full meetings, but the men's group continued to work with him and discuss what had happened. I don't know if he ever got it, and the group didn't last that much longer after that, but that was an example of a system for community justice that other progressive groups could emulate.

The women involved in the Assange case should not be letting themselves be used by the forces that want to put him away for creating a place for people to leak information. They should not be looking to the criminal “justice” system to remedy bad treatment by a man they believed in and trusted. But progressive people, especially people who call themselves feminists, should not be defending his behavior. We need to defend the rights of whistleblowers, the rights of journalists and the public’s right to know. We also need to defend the right of women to say no to sex, even with people they have had sex with before and plan to have it with again. Refusing to use a condom is a serious violation of a person’s right to safety, and if a man doesn’t want to have sex with a condom and a woman wants him to wear one, then he has no right to nag at her or coerce her to change her mind. He certainly has no right to initiate unprotected sex with her while she is sleeping, in the hope, presumably, that she’ll be too out of it to protest.

We must figure out how to hold all our political heroes, male and female, accountable for their bad sexual politics. When do we get started on that?