WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has become a folk hero among progressives. Even though Assange's actions raise important issues about the protection of sensitive governmental information, many progressives praise him as a "whistleblower."
Now that Assange has been arrested for charges of sexual assault, many progressives have lined up to defend him. The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of every decent criminal justice system, and Assange is absolutely entitled to defend himself vigorously against the charges.
Nevertheless, some of the progressive commentary that has emerged in the blogosphere and on Twitter expresses very dangerous views on gender and sexual assault. Also, some of the comments rush to credit innuendo and one-sided commentary as fact.
Several progressive bloggers imagine a Swedish-US conspiracy against Assange. As evidence of this conspiracy, they argue that Assange is not guilty of rape in the common use of the word. Instead, he is supposedly only "guilty" of a "Victorian" crime -- having sex without a condom. This line of reasoning appears on several liberal blogs (see, e.g., here and here). Who is the source of this popular description of the rape charge? Assange's own defense lawyer.
Not only have some progressives failed to wait for the facts to unfold, but they have rushed to dismiss the alleged sexual assault victims, and have placed complete faith in Assange's lawyer's self-serving description of the charges. Furthermore, the description of the charges sounds specious at best.
Although all of the facts are not fully developed, many accounts indicate that at least one of the alleged incidents involved a broken condom. It is possible that the sexual assault charge might relate to the woman's claim that she decided not to have sex after it broke.
Even assuming that the woman initially consented to sex with Assange, if the condom broke during sex, she has the right to withdraw consent. Generally, people can withdraw consent to sex, and the fact that consent was initially given does not preclude a rape charge. This point, however, is completely absent in some of the progressive analysis I have read on this case. By concealing this potential aspect of the case, Assange's defenders can mock the alleged victims and play up the conspiracy narrative.
A popular reader diary on the respected progressive blog FDL adds a new dimension to the discourse. According to the diary, Assange's accusers are radical feminists supposedly connected to the CIA, anti-Castro and anti-communist organizations and to US-sponsored organizations that promote acts of terrorism in Cuba. Of course, none of these allegations is substantiated. Nevertheless, the reader's portrayal of the women as radical feminists and anti-Castro seems to have worked. Most of the comments uncritically accept the claims in the diary and view them as proof of an international plot against Assange.
Finally, Keith Olbermann has entered the fray with a post on his Twitter account. Olbermann says that "Reuters now confirms Swedish rape investigation of Julian Assange is about broken condoms & fear of STD's." The Reuters article, however, is based exclusively upon information provided by "several people in contact with [Assange's] entourage at the time [of the alleged assaults]." Information from this anonymous and potentially biased source cannot constitute confirmation of any specific fact.
Although this post condemns emerging progressive commentary regarding the Assange sexual assault charges, I do not wish to imply that all or most progressives have acted inappropriately. In addition, I do not mean to suggest that the criminal charges have merit or that they are connected to the ethical issues concerning Assange's release of confidential governmental information.
Instead, the purpose of this post is two-fold. First, progressives, like everyone else, should wait for the facts of this situation to unfold. Assange is entitled to due process and a day in court. Shoddy argumentation and "fact finding" will not help his cause. To the extent that a budding progressive discourse seeks to "create" its own facts, this development is unfortunate.
Second, progressives should not disparage feminism and alleged victims of sexual assault in order to defend Assange. Protecting free speech does not require progressives to abandon central principles like equality and bodily integrity. I encourage other progressives to reject this ridiculously false choice.
Also on Dissenting Justice: What If Julian Assange Were An Arab Muslim . . . .
Jezebel has a great essay on this issue: "Some Thoughts On 'Sex By Surprise.'"