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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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.