The constant threat

[Content note: sexual assault, victim-blaming, Julian Assange]

With the news that Julian Assange will now be questioned in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s taken refuge since 2012 after Swedish prosecutors tried to question him over allegations he sexually assaulted two women, we’re having the same debate we’ve always had. Whether it’s Assange, or Roman Polanski, or another Super Rugby team, it’s the same thing again and again. On the one side, women, feminists and their allies, talking about the attitudes and messages which ring loud in our society: that this woman is untrustworthy, this man is being persecuted, this assault wasn’t really a crime. On the other, typically, a lot of men and their allies saying we’re overreacting, those messages don’t really exist, you’re just playing the victim.

It’s bloody exhausting on the feminists’ side, to be honest. On the one hand there’s trying to explain, simply and above all unemotionally, things which are staring us all right in the face. How else do we explain a country where Tony Veitch still gets work? Where sportsmen accused of rape get sympathetic front covers on “women’s” magazines? Where supporters of Graham Capill sincerely argued that his sexual attacks on girls under the age of 12 weren’t that bad because they didn’t meet the “biblical definition” of rape? Where a survivor is painted as a political opportunist because she criticises the government’s mishandling of her case and happens to vote Green?

Those could just be a hell of a lot of coincidences, I guess; a number of perfectly random cases where the narrative about him versus her versus whose fault was it and who should we believe stacks up identically, every time.

But time and again we see an avalanche of excuses and weasel-words and outright attacks against complainants. In the case of Assange, the complainants can’t be trusted because they’re CIA plants. Assange is only being accused because of political persecution. The ideas that help people to redefine “rape” into meaninglessness – that you can’t really withdraw consent post-penetration, or that consenting to sex one night means you must still want it the next, or that you can’t really be a victim of sexual assault if you don’t report it to the police within five minutes and act appropriately traumatized – are all getting a lot of play.

I’m tired of having this same argument over and over. But more than that, I’m tired of trying to make people see that they’re part of the problem.

On the one hand we have the horrific levels of sexual and family violence in our society. It’s estimated that one in four women in NZ will experience sexual violence or abuse in their lifetimes.

Knowing that is enough to make me, as a woman, worry for my safety. It’s not paranoia when they are out to get you, and it’s not hysteria to be aware of the stark reality of sexual violence.

But beyond the simple statistics there’s the threat.

Susan Brownmiller shocked – and continues to shock – people with her definition of rape, in Against Our Will, as “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

The word “conscious” I quibble with. But “process of intimidation” keeping women “in a state of fear”? There’s something in that.

What else can we call it when every article or post or discussion about sexual violence is met with a rush of the exact same responses from a dozen quarters: that’s not really rape, that was a set-up, it’s her fault, we can’t believe her, he can’t be a rapist?

How is a woman not meant to feel intimidated, threatened, and downright unsafe, when her society makes it very, very clear that the only “just” way to deal with accusations of rape is to distrust and interrogate the victim?

There’s a concept called “microaggressions“. Microaggressions aren’t out-and-out cases of discrimination and oppression. They’re the tiny, needling things that happen every day which emphasise that you’re an outsider, a less-important human being, whether that’s because of your gender or ethnicity etc. They don’t “hurt” in the way that being physically attacked hurts, or “harm” in the way being denied housing or a vote or a job harms. But they are an ever-present reminder of the fact that if real harm were to befall you, your society wouldn’t really care, and would find ways to erase that harm from the record.

These conversations we have, about Assange or Polanski or whoever, these instances where people come together to reiterate all those lies about sexual violence, they’re an ever-present reminder that you could be raped – and it could be by someone you know, in your own home, while you were wearing your muckiest tracksuit, on video – and you would be doubted.

I say I get tired of trying to make people see how they’re part of the problem. When it gets pretty bleak, I find myself wondering if they do see it – they just don’t care. Because they don’t have to. They don’t live under the constant threat, not of real violence, but of the total disregard for your welfare or safety. And they don’t care that their behaviour drives women out of the spaces they inhabit. Some of them see it as a bonus.

I applaud the people who have been fighting in this latest round of the Assange discussion. I haven’t got the spoons to bang my head against that brick wall this time, hoping a few more flakes will shake loose.

8 Replies to “The constant threat”

  1. Stephanie, it is tiring and we need to try and be tag teams so no one bears the full brunt. It is hard for many, and I include those who are survivors to remain unemotional, to not rise to some of the bait that is dangled and ignorance which jars. Thanks for putting your head above the parapet. I worry that many actually believe what they write/say as opposed to misunderstand. Heartenening is the number of women and men who do understand, speak up and out.

    My concern remains the conflation of issues by folks who appear to know better.

    I can be concerned about rape apologist arguments being used in a discussion about whether Assange ought to stand to account (if charged) and extradition threats to the USA without being not a “real” lefty (whatever the heck that means) or accepting imperialist oppression of states like the USA. I know I can cos I am and hold both positions.

    1. oh, and yet some who make the argument in favour of Assange seem to feel no such compunction to refrain from emotional outbursts andlanguage aimed at those they disagree with.

      1. Thanks Tracey. I agree there is a space for some critical thinking around the Assange case. One interesting point to think about – but which I’ve only seen used by Assange-defenders in a “so it’s obviously trumped up!!!” way – is whether the prosecution would be pressed if he weren’t an international celebrity (though of course we also know that often celebrity *favours* men who are accused of rape and other crimes.)

        And there aren’t a lot of Swedish voices in the conversation explaining how their legal system works or whether this case is being prosecuted in a normal way – which means a lot of English-speaking Assange defenders tend to make a hue and cry about due process without a lot of actual expertise in the area.

        Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where the conversation is dominated by people either using outright sexist tropes to shout down anyone who questions Assange, or people who don’t seem to care that those sexist tropes are really threatening to women in their group.

      2. Stephanie

        Only this morning I was wondering what the POV about Assange and the accusations and the extradition is in Sweden…

      1. I have no reason to expect that the Swedish courts are more progressive than any Anglo country’s when it comes to prosecuting rapes in a just way. But that’s still a UK report about what happens there – so we’re back to the same position of not getting real insight into their process.

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