Eight years ago, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was fighting extradition to Sweden.
I remember, because that was when I learnt that rape didn’t matter.
At the time I was a student, and has just Assange exposed a breathtaking array of cover-ups and scandals at the highest level, especially regarding atrocities committed by the US military in Iraq. By releasing huge swathes of confidential information, allegedly hacked from government computers in some cases, he was changing the game when it came to investigative journalism, speaking truth to the greatest powers of them all, and telling the world what governments didn’t want you to know.
Within a year, he went from a relatively unknown figure to an inspirational icon who commanded a cult following across the world. For anyone who supported transparency, accountability and free speech, he was something of a hero.
And then the scandal began. Assange, who was now in the UK, was accused by two women in Sweden of rape and sexual assault. He appealed the extradition warrant; the British courts upheld it.
In June 2012 while out on bail, Assange claimed asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He stayed there for nearly seven years, until yesterday (Thursday) when Ecuador revoked his asylum. Assange was arrested by UK police and found guilty of a British charge of skipping bail. He's now facing up to 12 months in prison. He is due to face a hearing about his possible extradition to the US to face charges there on May 2.
The saga has been dramatic, verging on bizarre. But the reason the Assange case is branded so fiercely into my memory is because of what it taught me at the time: that our culture is geared towards excusing rape.
We knew the details of accusations back when Assange first started appealing. One count of rape and three of sexual assault. But the devil was in the details – and those details were being pored over by my male friends who took a sudden interest in what did and did not constitute a sexual crime.
Assange was accused of pressuring a woman into sex, of ripping off her clothes and breaking her necklace, of repeatedly ignoring her when she asked to use a condom, of pinning her down, of breaking a condom when she consented to protected sex, and of penetrating a second woman without a condom while she slept. He was accused after a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm in 2012.
Assange denies these charges, which were dropped in 2017 due to Swedish prosecutors being unable to proceed while Assange remained in the embassy. (They are now considering requests to reopen the case.) He has always proclaimed his innocence, even as he has refused to stand trial. But that wasn’t the argument people were making.
First, they went after the women themselves. They called them liars, sexually promiscuous sluts, or even CIA agents tasked with bringing him down.
What came next was worse: even if Assange had acted exactly as described, it wasn’t actually rape, they said. Not even sexual assault. The women consented to being alone with him. One had consented to sex with a condom (never mind whether he used one or not, or how much he pressured her), the other had slept with him previously. It’s not like they tried to fight. It’s not like he was violent, they said. It’s not like it was real rape.
I remember feeling sick as men I thought I could trust, thought were my friends, turned on me. They didn’t realise that’s what they were doing because they didn't know that I was a survivor of sexual assault too. They didn’t realise I was dealing with my own experiences that I was too confused and traumatised to properly process, things that happened to me – were done to me – when I had been drunk or asleep or otherwise unable to resist. These were experiences I was trying to work up the courage to talk about, once I was confident that people would listen.
The Assange apologists taught me – viciously – that no one would. In defending their hero, they made it clear that consent didn’t matter. They made countless excuses for Assange while blaming and attacking the women involved – attacks I knew could be used against me if I ever spoke out.
Those men back at university might have thought they were standing up for an innocent man – and maybe they were. But in their fervour to defend him, the message they sent to me, and to other sexual assault survivors, was that it was our fault and we could expect ridicule and dismissal if we broke our silence.
It took me years to undo that damage – years that Assange has been wasting away in the Ecuadorian embassy. A lot has happened since then, and understanding is growing that consent isn’t a single transaction that, once obtained, applies to every time, for every act, with every person.
So I felt a sense of poetic justice seeing Assange dragged out of the embassy, knowing that he’d be held accountable for skipping bail, if nothing else.
But in the renewed frenzy to catalogue his virtues over fears of his extradition to the US in the wake of his arrest, the case which sparked it all is again being ignored and elided.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, usually a champion for women’s rights, has played down the allegations, saying “we all know what this is about, it’s not the rape charges”, while women who have tried to recentre the conversation on what led Assange to seek asylum in the first place, including Labour MP Jess Phillips, have faced a deluge of social media backlash.
In a bid to oppose Assange’s extradition to the US on an entirely unrelated charge of hacking, supporters have reverted to minimising the allegations and dismissing his accusers as unreliable, mendacious, or irrelevant.
And as the media storm continues to rage, I can’t help wondering how many other survivors are afraid to come forward because, like me, they see with Assange what happens when popular men are accused of rape.