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Laurie Penny: tell me what a rapist looks like

When talking about Julian Assange, remember: if global justice movements had to rely solely on people of impeccable character to further their cause, we would probably still be trying to end slavery.

If global justice movements had to rely solely on people of impeccable character to further their cause, we would probably still be trying to end slavery. And yet, now that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested over rape allegations - just as his organisation happens to be spearheading the biggest revelation of military secrets in history - this has led many on the left to assume his innocence is beyond question.

The substance of the allegations is for the courts to decide. So why does the left-wing logic run that Assange is one of the good guys - and everyone knows that good guys don't rape, particularly not good guys who are the public face of crusading international whistle-blowing organisations?

I have no idea whether Assange, who firmly denies the accusations, did or did not commit sex attacks in Sweden last August. But just as we would condemn anyone who pronounced him guilty at this early stage, should we also not be concerned that many liberals, some of whom would count themselves feminists, have leapt to the conclusion that Assange must be the innocent victim of a smear campaign? Some have gone further, actively attacking the women in question and accusing them of colluding in a conspiracy to destroy Assange. This plays easily into the narrative that most women who accuse men of rape are liars, and most men who attract such accusations are just saucy scamps with, as the commentator John Band put it, "poor bedroom etiquette".

Ordinary outrage

Whatever the merits of the Assange case, the uncomfortable truth is that sometimes good guys rape. Rape, after all, is hardly a freak occurrence. Across the world, in every city and town, tens of thousands of times a day, 170 times a day in Britain alone, in war zones and bedrooms and boardrooms, people - usually women and children - are raped.

Rape is an ordinary outrage, and most of the people who rape are ordinary men who happen to believe, especially when drunk or angry, that their right to sex trumps any given woman's right to bodily autonomy.

These men are brothers, fathers and husbands. They have jobs, friends and roles to play in their communities; they are doctors, plumbers, politicians, judges and journalists.

When we feminists talk about "rape culture", we don't actually believe that there are strange men lurking around every corner waiting to assault us in the name of patriarchy. On the contrary: it is the very banality of the fact that women are largely raped by their friends, husbands and boyfriends that makes rape culture so damaging.

Evidently, one of the few things that makes powerful men more uncomfortable than forcing them to acknowledge rape culture is forcing them to acknowledge the subterfuge and dirty dealing that sustains western military imperialism.

It would be wonderful to believe that the decision to take Assange to court was motivated by a new-found, miraculous interest in seeking justice for rape victims. But the reason this case is being investigated so vigorously is surely that, on this occasion, and on this occasion alone, it serves the interests of certain governments to pursue a man who, entirely incidentally, happens to have embarrassed several imperialist powers hugely.

That Julian Assange stands accused of rape should not make any difference to the important work that WikiLeaks, of which he is by no means the only member, is doing - but the important work that WikiLeaks is doing should not stop us from acknowledging that Assange stands accused of rape. We should welcome the news that the allegations will most likely be tested in court; if we truly believe that the age of secrecy and shame is over, we should be honest enough to question rape culture as well as military imperialism.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.