While the British and Ecuadorian governments continue to maneuver around each other over how to deal with Julian Assange—with each detail breathlessly described by journalists all over the world—one question continues to haunt me: Would any of this be happening if Assange faced charges of any violent crime other than rape? Would Ecuador be offering him asylum if the Swedish government sought Assange for allegedly stabbing two men? Would so many liberal pundits be rushing to defend Assange if he were accused of getting drunk and running someone over with his car? Despite the deep abhorrence of rape all participants in this dispute claim to have, it doesn’t seem likely that they’d be defending Assange were he wanted for another violent crime.
Currently, Assange—the founder of open-information website WikiLeaks, which riled the U.S. by releasing thousands of confidential diplomatic cables last year—is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning on sexual-assault allegations. Despite claims that the site endangers national security, many see WikiLeaks as a necessary check on government power and champion of transparency. But the organization's aspirations have been called into question by the conduct of its founder.
Even Assange defenders who claim they want Assange to face his accusers seem to be directing anger at everyone but the person who likely bears the most responsibility for the current situation. They’re mad at Sweden for not brokering a deal that would shield Assange from extradition to the U.S. They’re mad at the U.S. for hanging on to the option of prosecuting Assange for WikiLeaks-related crimes. They’re mad at the British government for threatening to arrest Assange. But they don’t seem to hold Assange responsible for creating this situation in the first place.
If the accusers in the Assange case are telling the truth—and so far, there’s no evidence that they’re lying—supporters of WikiLeaks should be furious at Julian Assange. He put the whole WikiLeaks operation at risk in order to sexually dominate women. Even if he didn’t rape the accusers, Assange’s reaction to the accusations has demonstrated a strong disdain for the notion that women have a right to bodily autonomy. He accused Sweden of being the “Saudi Arabia of feminism” for no other reason than its willingness to take seriously a woman's claim that she was penetrated against her will. He trotted out the idea that a woman’s clothing choices and flirtatious behavior matter more than her consent. He’s admitted that he’s a “chauvinist pig” while reiterating the assertion that the only way you could read the accusations as rape is if your view is “distorted.” He doesn’t seem to give a whiff if he comes across as a dangerous sexual predator.
That liberals have not erupted in rage against Assange suggests that we haven’t abandoned the belief that rape, especially acquaintance rape, doesn’t count as a violent crime. It also suggests liberals still don’t quite see misogyny as a serious problem so much as an unfortunate character flaw that can be overlooked if someone is designated a "Great Man."
There’s an important lesson in all this. The inability of Assange’s supporters to see him in the same way they’d view anyone else suspected of a violent crime evinces a broader problem. We give in to the temptation—which I admit I’ve succumbed to plenty of times—to overlook the lecherous behavior some men display because they otherwise have exemplary politics. But in doing so, we create more problems than we solve. Creeps and chauvinist pigs make women feel unwelcome, which should be reason enough. But even more than that, we have to accept that our community, like any other, has undetected rapists moving about, looking for opportunities. If we don’t cultivate a culture where women’s need for safety is prioritized, rapists will feel more free to attack, and victims less secure in stepping forward.
If sexual predators are in leadership positions, they not only threaten women’s safety, as the Assange case has demonstrated, but could end up destroying everything that activists strive for. As painful as it may be, keeping up your activist community’s reputation as a sexual-harassment-free and rape-free zone matters. Look at how hard it’s been for Occupy Wall Street to shake the image of being an unsafe space after a handful of sexual assaults. The success they have had in doing so has been the result of immediately taking the situation seriously.
The best way to shut out men who threaten a movement’s good name with sexually predatory behavior is to take sexual assault seriously as a violent crime. A good place to start would be in taking some of the anger brewing around the Assange case and aiming it directly at Assange. Even if he didn’t rape those women, he has acted like a grade-A creep who doesn’t believe that women deserve to feel safe. He is not a sympathetic character, and his pompous sexism adds to the image of WikiLeaks as an organization of lawless types who don’t care who they hurt as they pursue their goals. If the world could look at this situation and see that WikiLeaks supporters are furious at Assange for screwing everything up, that would go a long way toward salvaging the reputation of the entire operation.