Fast Company

Anatomy of a Smear: WikiLeaks' Assange Wanted for "Sex by Surprise," Not Rape

wikileaks-rape

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing arrest for violating a Swedish law about sex without condoms, rather than a mainstream interpretation of "rape." Yet that's the charge reports often levy against him. Behold the smear campaign.

The New York Times wrote about the case on Thursday, noting that Swedish authorities were hunting Assange on charges of "rape, sexual molestation, and unlawful coercion." It commented on the alleged offense, stating claims by two women that "each had consensual sexual encounters with Mr. Assange that became nonconsensual."

The Swedish charges aren't exactly new, though. Some of the media had reported "rape" allegations back in August, and the Daily Mail even asserted the first alleged illegal act occurred when a condom broke, and the woman concerned "whatever her views about the incident," then "appeared relaxed and untroubled at the seminar the next day." At this seminar, Assange met the second alleged victim and "a source close to the investigation said the woman had insisted he wear a condom, but the following morning he made love to her without one."

Assange has questioned the "veracity" of the two women's statements, as the Times report notes. Assange's former lawyer yesterday "confirmed" the charges were to do with sexual misconduct concerning sex without condoms. Assange's current lawyer then revealed Swedish prosectors had told him they were not seeking Assange for "rape" at all, instead the alleged crime is "sex by surprise," which carries a penalty of a fine, although the details of the allegations haven't been revealed yet.

Then came the Interpol warrant, and with it, a new life for the previous rape accusations.

But few outlets are as concerned as the Times with nuance. Washington's Blog, to its credit, does report that the Swedish arrest warrant--and the following Interpol alert, adding Assange to its "most wanted" list--makes no reference to "rape." Instead Assange is being sought for sexual "coercion," after engaging in what was an allegedly non-consensual sex act with two women on two separate occasions within a short space of time. The act in question was sex without a condom, seemingly without the consent of the two women involved. Assange is also alleged to have been reluctant to submit to medical tests for sexually transmitted diseases. The two women reported him to the police, together, leading to the first arrest warrant for "rape," from a duty prosecutor, which was quickly canceled, then a later warrant for "sexual coercion."

A Google search for "Julian Assange rape" returns over 445,000 responses. See the above wordcloud generated from the top 50. The stand-out word is obvious. And while some of these results include Assange's statements alleging a "dirty tricks" campaign, there are more damning mainstream links, such as a September 1st story from the Associated Press, picked up by the Huffington Post and headlined, "Julian Assange Rape Investigation Reopened: Sweden Probing Wikileaks Founder." The body of the text mentions Sweden's chief prosecutor's comments noting there was "no reason to suspect that Assange, an Australian citizen, had raped a Swedish woman who had reported him to the police," and the AP notes that the new warrant was for "sexual coercion and sexual molestation" which "overruled a previous decision to only investigate the case as 'molestation,' which is not a sex offense under Swedish law." In other words, the AP's text implies no mention of "rape" but the hot eye-grabbing headline does--it's an old libel loophole. The "rape" part technically describes the investigation, not what Assange allegedly did.

We're absolutely not condoning non-consensual sex acts in any way, but arguably this story isn't about subtleties of semantics and centers on the labyrinthine--and seemingly nation-specific--laws Assange has violated. Yet the very Internets that Assange is using to crusade against government secrecy have enabled an almost unavoidable link between the words "Assange" and "rape" regardless of the precise nature of the allegations against him. Assange's character is thus extensively digitally smeared whether or not he is actually found guilty in court.

Call it a trial by Internet, a jury of Assange's peers.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

Add New Comment

9 Comments

  • FomaJuju

    The Australian crocodile of Assange – the hero or the criminal?



    As the person, he has thrown down a challenge to hypocrisy of all governments, the state structures, certainly he is a Hero. As the leader among the network resources which have given the compromising evidence on the state organizations – the outstanding showman

    It is the conflict of interests of the state, the rights of the person and a small group of old vegetables which have forgotten that they a microscopic part of this mad world.



    The full text of article - the hero or the criminal?

  • Tor M

    I am a native Swede. There is no such crime as "sex by surprise". "Surprise sex" is a slang expression for "rape". It's a term that would never be used in any formal context, let alone legal proceedings. It probably stems from some kind of misunderstanding or language barrier.

  • Aforgery

    Why is it surprising or problematic that that worldcloud was generated by "Julian Assange Rape"? You're practically designing it to display specific results for shock value. "Rape" should be replaced by a variable like "warrant" that would similarly show the frequency of report of rape allegations, but even that would still include pages mentioning but not validating reports of rape allegations. I like this article, but that's a misleading graphic.

  • dratman

    It's always about sex, isn't it?

    Sex is a handy accusation, because human beings are so prone to doing it. In fact, a powerful mammalian instinct impels us all, at various times, to seek out sexual encounters. It is an instinct whose absence in an individual pretty much guarantees a lack of descendants. Thus we can observer the instinct's near-universality among extant humans.

    Since discussing one's own practically unavoidable instinctive behavior is usually somewhat embarrassing to a human, almost everyone can be accused of some kind of sexual behavior he or she would just as soon not talk about in public.

    Being accused of sex is almost like being accused of having smelly breath. It is so hard to avoid, yet so unpleasant to admit.

  • Ron

    I'd say its pretty obvious that the gravity of claiming 'rape' gives more credibility to interpol nabbing and holding him until the powers that be can have him tried in every country where they are furiously mounting cases against him for treason or libel. There will be far less public outcry over his rights if he's perceived as a rapist.

    He's embarrassing people with world-class PR teams, I'm sure if he had outstanding speeding tickets they could have used it to spin the story as 'wanted for attempted murder' if they wanted to.

  • Due Process

    "...laws Assange has violated"?

    If people are innocent until proven guilty, shouldn't that be "laws Assange has allegedly violated"?

  • Tyler Gray

    Arguably. Although, if you read the story closely, the sentence refers to STORIES about laws Assange violated and doesn't actually say he violated any.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Matt. Fabulous.
    @NovElection. News sources are often inside organizations, and often break confidences and reveal privileged information--does that make every journalist a recipient of stolen goods?

  • NovElection

    Oh gee how presh that you're such an good journalist and spending so much time parsing some Swedish law and this recipient of stolen documents. Did you spend as much time fact checking all the Sarah Palin character assassination that began moments after her VP nomination? How about an examination of the relevance of Christine O'Donnell's high school "witchcraft curiosity"? Surely you were just as determined to ferret out ~the truth about these women, right?