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Sex, Politics and Assange

Sex, Politics and Assange

by Binoy Kampmark

Gore Vidal has reminded us regularly how sex is politics. The chance to throw sex into the political mix is hard to resist. It becomes a valuable weapon, destroying reputations and undermining credibility. By becoming a conduit for the release of diplomatic cables and classified information, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange dabbled in high stakes. In also being a figure who did not shy away from the antics of the bed room, the link between the political and sexual was sealed.

Many a crusader has been taken down a peg because of publicized bedroom philosophy. History is littered with the bad deeds of states and individuals who used sex as a means of undermining their opponents. Malaysia will always remember the case made against Prime Minister Mahathir’s Deputy Anwar Ibrahim over the issue of sodomy. Recently, the former US Vice-President Al Gore found himself accused by a masseuse in Portland, Oregon of sexual assault. In many a political jurisdiction, the extra-marital affair in public life, however steamy or ill-accomplished, is the kiss of political death.

Leaving aside whether the Swedish allegations have any merit (at this point, that is all they are), the presence of suspicions on the credibility of the case against Assange are understandable. But representatives of the Swedish justice system have every reason to be outraged by being seen as a political extension of American judicial reach. The truth of the matter is that the law, in such instances, becomes less relevant than what is outside it.

Both accuser and the accused assume larger-than-life figures, participants in a giant pantomime of speculation. The political merges with the sexual. Assange becomes the activist who needs to be dirtied. Or he is the sexual animal who needs to be punished for sexual crimes. The public assume the form of a grand jury, without sufficient insight to make a clear, let alone coherent ruling. Lawyers are treated as irrelevant, mere ventriloquists for prejudice.

The tragedy with the entire case is that the issue has been ‘sexed’, spiced up with an assortment of ingredients that have polluted the mix. Commentators are obsessed by the nature of Assange’s appearance, seeing a figure of sexual power. (This would come as a surprise to most hackers, stereotyped as sexually awkward, even challenged. The computer devotee is often synonymous with emotional constipation.) Assange has attempted to cultivate himself as a Don Juan figure of cyberspace. To The Times, this statement: ‘I’m not promiscuous. I just really like women.’

There is speculation that his two accusers are themselves unreliable in putting forth these charges. Assange himself told the BBC that his they had gotten into a ‘tizzy’ over the possibility that they might have contracted sexually transmitted diseases. That the only people who could possibly know the full issues here (Assange and his accusers) is not a disincentive for the pundits to rush off copy and flood the media with what is supposedly a genuine debate about sex crimes.

Feminists have bought into the debate, with Jaclyn Friedman seeking to offer her definition of consent: ‘It is the responsibility of every party to a sexual encounter to not just make sure that someone is not lying there terrified of them, not objecting, but to actively make sure they are consenting’ (Democracy Now! Dec 21). Then, the cases – one woman was asleep, thus unable to consent; the other had her necklace ripped off. ‘He held her down. She was afraid.’ She probably went ‘along’ with it in order to prevent further harm.

Naomi Wolf, in contrast, is not convinced. The Assange matter, it seems, trivializes genuine instances of rape. Assange had, in fact, consulted the women prior to engaging in sexual relations. Mere assertiveness in the removal of clothing was hardly evidence of a sex crime. He stopped when the women asked him about contraception (Democracy Now! Dec 21).

Then come the quibbles – did he or didn’t he? Did he ask at the right moment? Did he start when one of the accusers was really asleep? The machinery of speculation is ratcheted up a gear.

The sexualised subject can work in reverse. The accused can also become an accuser, an innocent figure attacked by a moral establishment. This was demonstrated by the Polanski case when his art become something to exonerate, a formidable apologia that somehow placed him outside the operation of the law. Seeking extradition for sexual misdemeanors in the past was regarded as poor taste, a grave instance of prosecuting a ‘great’ artist. His victim effectively shrank in the narrative.

Assange is seemingly making a similar pitch. An entire legal system has been maligned as a result. ‘What is requested is that I be taken by force to Sweden and once there, be held incommunicado. That is not a circumstance under which natural justice can occur.’

This may or may not be the case – Assange has not, as yet, been extradited to Sweden but there is very little reason to assume on the face of it that the Swedish legal system would make an example of him. It is striking how little about the law is actually being discussed here. Besides, the ultimate accusation that there is a distinctly American imprint to this is not plausible – extraditing Assange to the United States from Sweden would be difficult, given Sweden’s narrowly defined obligations under its extradition treaties. Sadly, the wheels of justice are rarely allowed to move smoothly in such high profile cases. Voyeurism takes centre stage. What is in the public interest becomes what is merely interesting to the public.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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