Julian Assange, sex crime and feminism
Assange arrives at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court with his lawyer Jennifer Robinson for his extradition hearing, 24 February 2011. © Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Friday, 20 August 2010: It is late afternoon in Stockholm, towards the end of the Swedish summer. At Klara Police Station the interview of a young woman goes haywire. The police report notes that she became “upset” when informed that an arrest warrant had been issued for the man she was complaining about, and the interview had to be concluded. The interrogating officer stated that the woman was free to supply any other information, and could come in at a later point to sign off on the interview record. “So far,” the report reads, “that has not occurred.”
The matter would be of no interest save that the man in question is Julian Assange, the mercurial founder of WikiLeaks. The woman, Sofia Wilén, had gone with her new acquaintance Anna Ardin to talk to the police about Assange. Whether they intended to make an official complaint or not is unclear. Stories would vary. Whatever the women said, the Swedish police concluded that there were sufficient grounds to suspect rape, and a hastily contacted prosecutor concurred.
Six months later, on a late-winter evening, Assange himself would appear outside a legal facility, the Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court, a windswept bunker in a dead corner of London, to denounce a judgement by the near-unbelievably named Justice Riddle that he should be extradited for a matter Assange deemed “ridiculous”. Initially Assange had alleged CIA complicity in the accusations against him, which turned on issues of deliberately torn condoms and “sex by surprise”. But even those who were disinclined to believe his earlier description of a honey trap found the timing of the accusations suspicious. In late August Assange had been applying for Swedish citizenship in preparation for the launch of the WikiLeaks’ Iraq War logs in October. The rape accusations may have been unconnected but they were highly convenient.
The months in between would see l’affaire Assange become a celebrity circus, with the kid from Townsville winding up ensconced in an English country house, electronically tagged, wearing his benefactor’s clothes and attended by an adoring London lefterati, such as Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger. Wilén’s and Ardin’s accusations had been withdrawn, appealed, altered, leaked and ultimately reinstated. Most importantly, they had attracted furious debate about the boundaries of sex and the law and, if some of Assange’s supporters – such as John Pilger – could be dismissed, fairly or otherwise, as of an older, masculinist Left, what was remarkable about the case was that a number of prominent feminists broke ranks to argue for a relatively sceptical take on the accusations.
Naomi Klein came out in early December to suggest that such accusations were being used to prosecute Assange in the same way as ‘women’s freedom’ was being used to legitimate the Afghanistan War, while Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape questioned why substantial resources were being used on a questionable case of “minor rape” (the specific Swedish charge). Naomi Wolf of Beauty Myth fame went further, sarcastically demanding that Interpol arrest every “jerky, narcissistic” boyfriend she’d had, and questioned why rape accusers should be able to maintain anonymity.
Feminists, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, call each other a lot of things before they call each other sister, and Klein, Axelsson and Wolf were not without their detractors. But the very fact that debate about the case had been brought to a pitch within feminism suggested that it had become something more than a rehashed Norman Mailer–Germaine Greer duke out. Assange, despite his stuff-ups, was not an upmarket Charlie Sheen. Assange’s legal difficulties, in the context of the larger threats against him, were causing fundamental conflict, debate and realignment within both feminism and the Left. The matter has acquired historical import.
That import involved, and involves, a detailed consideration of the case and the events around it – stories of summer crayfish dinners and late-night train trips, of pirate parties and the glam world of the cyber-elite. Most people picked up some of the details: Assange had stayed in a woman’s flat, they’d had a thing, he’d torn a condom during sex, having only reluctantly put it on; around the same time he’d been seeing someone else and had sex with her while she was sleeping, also unprotected, also against her wishes on that score. The women had wanted Assange to take an STI test, and had gone to the police for that purpose. The cops decided it was something more and away it went.
That version was shaded a little darker on 17 December when the Guardian published a long story by Nick Davies, ‘10 Days in Sweden’, the most detailed account to date of the alleged events. Davies had been the ace investigative reporter who had first sought out Assange to channel the leaked American diplomatic cables through the Guardian. They’d since fallen out, and subsequently a full copy of the compiled Swedish police report had fallen into Davies’ hands. In summarising police interviews with Ardin, Wilén, Assange and nine witnesses, Davies produced a story that brought other aspects of the events to light. Assange had initiated sex roughly, tearing Ardin’s clothes and necklace. He had leant his body weight on her to prevent a condom being applied. He had also taken advantage of Wilén while sleeping to have the ‘bareback’ sex he had craved earlier. He had let her pay for food, transport and computer equipment, and then he’d dropped her like a scone.
The piece – a sketch of a more predatory and obsessive man – was a blow to Assange’s argument that he was the victim of two women he would later describe as “in a tizzy”. It was also uncheckable, as very few other people had a copy of the report, and the “Cablegate” protocol of linking stories to documents was something the Guardian did not seem inclined to follow in this instance. Then, in late January, as Assange prepared for a full extradition hearing, a dozen or so journalists and activists who had followed the case received an email with a link, which led to a large PDF containing a cover letter, a coat of arms and a blizzard of Swedish. It was the full police report. Possessing enough Swedish to burrow through it, I locked myself in a hotel room for a couple of days (a full translation is now available at the Rixstep website). The report told a story that was, if anything, somewhat less flattering to Assange’s persona as both a ‘gentleman’ and a seducer than the media had previously revealed. But, more importantly, it suggests not only that an attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ a criminal complaint may be under way, but also raises disturbing questions about what sort of case Assange has to answer, and to what degree these accusations set a new standard for how far the law moves into the bedroom.
L’affaire Assange began with an invitation to speak. Anna Ardin, 31, was the press secretary of the Brotherhood Movement, a once-conservative Christian group within the Swedish Social Democratic Party, now a centre for ‘third-worldist’ left liberation theology. Known for her exuberant enthusiasms, Ardin was or had been variously a feminist, a gender equality officer for the Uppsala University student union, an Israel–Palestine peace activist, an animal liberationist and the co-proprietor of Fever, a bisexual fetish nightclub. Her most daring adventure – leaving Havana ahead of deportation after working with Opposition groups, some of them American-backed – would spawn numerous red herrings about sinister motives.
Now her interest had turned to WikiLeaks, and she contacted Assange and arranged for him to give a small lecture on Saturday, 14 August. Saying she would be out of Stockholm until that day, she organised for Assange to stay in her flat, but nevertheless returned home on Friday. Ardin and Assange went out for a drink, came back and, as Nick Davies told it:
He began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. [Ardin] told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”.
This was the version of events that subsequently went around the world. But the transcript puts it a different way: “Anna says that she felt she actually didn’t want to go any further but it was too late to say ‘stop’ to Assange when she’d ‘gone along with it this far’.” The use of “felt” here translates the Swedish expression tänkte att – thought, considered, felt, expressing a vague state. By omitting it, Davies has fundamentally distorted the record. A second omission – rendering “too late to say ‘stop’ to Assange” as “too late to stop Assange” – wrongly implies that it was too late to physically stop Assange. In fact Ardin, by her account, was making a decision to continue with sex.
Assange then allegedly tried to engage in sex without wearing a condom. Ardin resisted penetration, and felt she would have to “cry out”. The police transcript version of what happened next is detailed: “After some time Assange asked Anna what she was doing and why she was squeezing her legs together. Anna then told him she wanted him to put on a condom before he entered her. Assange released her arms and put on the condom Anna got for him.” Or, as Davies’ version has it: “The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom.” In being succinct Davies creates a major distortion because even by Ardin’s statement there is no mens rea, or guilty intent – Assange, once informed of Ardin’s reasons for resisting penetration, complied with her wishes. Davies’ version implies that Assange had consciously held her down to prevent being ‘rubbered up’, which the account does not support. Indeed, none of this behaviour would form part of the initial accusations against Assange. He would simply be accused of deliberately tearing the condom he had put on, an alleged act that would attract the misdemeanour charge (or accusation – Assange is yet to be charged) of ofredande, a Swedish crime best translated as ‘annoyance’.
Anna Ardin would tell friends – subsequently deposed by police – that she and Assange had not had sex on Friday night. Later she would amend this to say that they had, but it was “the worst sex she had ever had”. Assange stayed the night at her flat, and the next day she introduced the lecture, hosted a lunch for him and organised a crayfish party (the Swedish social equivalent of a barbecue) in his honour on Saturday evening, sending a general call-out via Twitter. During the party, she posted another tweet: “Sitting outdoors at 02:00 [am] … with the world’s coolest smartest people, it’s amazing!”. The next day she attended a meeting at a Stockholm restaurant, the Glenfiddich Warehouse, where Assange made a deal with Rick Falkvinge, the leader of Sweden’s libertarian Pirate Party, for the latter to host WikiLeaks’ servers. Ardin agreed to be Assange’s press contact for the rest of his stay, and her name and mobile number went on the media release.
Ardin would later say that by Sunday, she also wanted Assange to move out. Some witnesses would confirm this, while others would say Ardin had rejected offers of alternative accommodation. In any case, by Monday night Assange was in Enköping, a college town 80 kilometres outside Stockholm, at the flat of a young design student, Sofia Wilén. According to her police interview, Wilén had become interested in Assange after seeing him on TV. Attending his lecture, she had managed to inveigle herself into the post-lecture lunch. The Stockholm insiders Ardin had invited dubbed her “pink cashmere sweater girl”. She sat next to Assange, and at one point texted “he looked at me!” to a friend. She and Assange had gone off together that Saturday afternoon, canoodled in a cinema and arranged to meet later. On Monday evening, after travelling by train from Stockholm to Enköping, Wilén and Assange went to her flat where they had “average” sex, during which Assange was allegedly reluctant to wear a condom, but did. The next morning, something happened. Wilén would tell police that Assange began bareback sex with her while she was asleep. As she woke, she said, “You better not have HIV,” to which he replied, “Of course not.” And they continued. According to Assange’s version, Wilén was half-asleep when sex began. Assange’s defence team would later allege that in a text message to a friend, Wilén also said she was half-asleep at the time.
Once again, this is the account the public has come to know, largely through Davies’ depiction of events, which is closer to the report than his rendering of Ardin’s complaint. But, crucially, it omits key detail. After sex – and after Wilén had gone out (“ordered out”, she felt, by Assange) to get breakfast on Tuesday morning, they joked about the possibility that she might be pregnant. She told Assange he would have to pay back her student loan. He said Sweden was the best place to have a kid. They joked they would call it ‘Afghanistan’. Later that afternoon she became more upset about the morning, and after speaking with friends, felt that she had been raped, and went to the regional hospital, where a ‘rape kit’ was done. Later still, she would decide this wasn’t the case, and that she simply wanted to force Assange to take an STI test. Meanwhile Assange returned to Ardin’s flat where he allegedly made another crude pass (a ‘tackle’, or genital, rub in the small of the back), which became material for another accusation of ofredande.
By Friday he had definitely moved out. Wilén rang Ardin at this point, unaware of Ardin’s sexual relationship with Assange. (Assange had told her Ardin was a lesbian; he had had a bruising encounter with Ardin’s ex-girlfriend – now a witness – at the crayfish party, who had wondered aloud why they couldn’t have a party without men for a change.) They compared notes. Davies’ Guardian piece would later render Ardin’s thoughts about Assange as that “she didn’t feel safe” around him – a distortingly oversimplified translation of the word trygg, which variously means ‘safe, assured, sure of oneself’. Whatever the case, by Friday, 20 August, the women had decided to go to the police.
In the ensuing days and months, this bizarre tale would become positively rococo. Sofia Wilén would promptly disappear from view. Ardin, who had an interview with Swedish broadsheet Aftonbladet on Saturday, 21 August, speaking for both of them, gave only a minimal line on Assange: “Assange is not violent and we do not fear him … this is just a man who has a problem with women.”
Later, official versions would say that the women went to the police station to inquire about ways of obliging Assange to take an STI test; this version was initially trailed in Rebella S, a feminist blog run by a collective that included Ardin. The story ‘Even WikiLeaks Heroes Do Crappy Things’ would be written by Sara Gunnerud, a rising Social Democratic Party spin doctor. There was a certain presumption at work – it was only Sofia Wilén, at this stage, who was claiming minor rape. Anna Ardin was alleging mere ‘annoyance’ charges – but she was speaking for both of them.
That same weekend, everything would be thrown into confusion when a senior prosecutor reviewed the material and threw the rape charge out, saying there was no case to answer. By Monday, 23 August, the stakes were raised when an appeal against the decision not to prosecute was launched. This is standard procedure in Sweden; what amazed many Swedes was that it was launched by Claes Borgström, not only the Social Democratic Party’s gender equality spokesperson, but a major driver of Sweden’s Sexual Offences Act 2005, under whose very broad provisions Assange had been charged.
Borgström now represented the women – it would be as if Gareth Evans appeared for a Young Labor activist, on legal aid, in a private matter – and the prosecutor whom Borgström appealed to, Marianne Ny, was also professionally known to him. Ny, a sex crime expert, had headed a crime development unit whose brief was to explore ways in which sex crime law might be changed or extended. A fortnight later, on 1 September, Ny would not only announce that Wilén’s minor rape accusation had been reinstated, but another one had been added – the physical argy-bargy that Ardin had herself represented as consensual (if disliked) now made Assange liable to a charge of sexual coercion, another specifically Swedish ‘in-between’ law, perhaps comparable to indecent assault.
To successfully appeal a non-prosecution in Sweden is not unusual, but the coercion accusation surprised everyone. When journalists asked Borgström how the new accusations squared with earlier statements by the women that confirmed Assange was not a rapist, Borgström replied: “They’re not lawyers. They don’t know what rape is.” In Ardin’s case this was patently untrue. As gender equality officer at Uppsala University, she had literally written the book on the matter – redrafting the union’s gender equality manual.
The new picture of Assange as more physically predatory and intimidating than hitherto thought was somewhat contradicted by the online record – or so someone believed, because that record started to disappear. The two tweets sent by Ardin the night after her and Assange’s fraught sexual encounter, both of which exalted in his presence, were removed from her Twitter feed. However, she failed to remove them from a parallel feed on her blog, making the excision obvious. A joke “seven-stage guide to revenge on cheating lovers” – with its call to “hurt someone as much as they hurt you” – also disappeared from her blog. The changes to both the tweets and the blog were recovered by Göran Rudling, an activist for reform of sex crime law in Sweden.
Later, the record of events on Rebella S would be changed. As originally written on 24 August, the blog summarised the case as “something as simple as two women who wanted to find out if it was possible to force someone to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases.” After the sexual coercion accusation was added, this passage was changed: “This can involve something as simple as two women who wanted to stand up for their right to their bodies, who did not accept abuse and told me about it.” No note that the post had been amended was attached.
By December, WikiLeaks and its media partners had launched the last of the Cablegate onslaught, after a fraught and fragmented process, and the world was in uproar. In late September, Assange had been given permission to leave Sweden to return to the UK, and did not subsequently return to Sweden. The Swedish prosecution service chose to begin full extradition proceedings, and Davies’ article appeared a week before Christmas. In Sweden, a political campaign about “the grey areas” of sex began. Prataomdet (‘talk about it’) was organised by journalist Johanna Koljonen, a friend of Ardin’s, and launched simultaneously on 20 December by half-a-dozen journalists in their own newspaper columns and TV news shows. Koljonen would claim that the campaign was not targeted at Assange – and, indeed, much of the material on the website served to show how tangled was the notion of consent in Sweden. But the record of a “tweet meeting” of the key organisers on 14 December (the day Assange won bail in London) shows that possible names for the group included “I am Anna Ardin” and “Thanks Anna”, and the participants urged each other to “stay close to the Assange situation”.
Wilén’s situation was never discussed in this process. And of all Nick Davies’ omissions, perhaps the most significant was that of the final witness, who was questioned about text messages she exchanged with Sofia Wilén discussing seeking revenge on Assange, and getting money from newspapers (“it was just a joke”).
The witness claimed: “Things hadn’t turned out as Sofia wanted. Sofia only wanted Julian to test himself, and she felt she’d been overwhelmed by the police and others around her.” The texts in question are yet to be publicly revealed, and while Assange’s defence lawyers have seen them, they are not allowed to talk about them. Yet whatever they reveal, procedure may not be the most important thing about this case, and the question of whether rape accusers should retain anonymity may not be the most wrenching issue it brings to current feminist debate. For the fact remains that even if things went down exactly as the women describe them, after the distortions of earlier reports are discarded, the charges against Assange will amount to a criminalisation of consensual (if unenjoyable) rough foreplay, and of a sleeping encounter almost immediately granted retro-active consent. And even to prove there was actus reus – that a condom was torn, that sleep was not half-sleep – will amount to little more than word against word. There will be some forensic evidence – for Ardin claims that she kept the ripped or torn condom, and subsequently supplied one to police. Analysis in the report leans towards the conclusion that it was cut, rather than accidentally torn. But that of course is open to challenge on multiple grounds. Assange, in his interview with police, rejects Ardin’s narrative of their sexual encounter – he was not questioned about Wilén’s accusations; such interrogation is the purpose of the European Arrest Warrant, the service of which he is currently resisting – but does not give a detailed alternative narrative.
Such rules invite the law into the bedroom in a manner that is essentially a category error about what can be adjudicated. They are the culmination of a path that Swedish feminism, more than any other, has taken, asserting that the state can be the prime mover of social and behavioural change, and that the freedom relinquished is worth the exchange. From within second-wave feminism, there has always been a counterargument: that the resort to state power betrays the struggle for real autonomy and cultural change, and that the ultimate result, in sex crime law and elsewhere, is to second-guess women’s consent to acts or situations that may well be crappy or second-rate, and also denies the responsibility to assert their autonomy and reject it, without expecting a protective state to do it for them.
That conflict was there at the birth of second-wave feminism – in the debate between radical and liberal feminism in the ’70s, in the pro- and anti-porn debates of the ’80s, and beyond. Perhaps a decisive confrontation between these two differing philosophies, which have marched together as a single movement, has been in the offing for a while. That it may be brought about by an Aussie cypherpunk, a global bogan-with-a-modem coming into contact with the world’s most feminist state, may have been not so much improbable as inevitable.
– 16 March 2011