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9 December 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 5:58am

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.

By Laurie Penny

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.

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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.

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