In 2010, Julian Assange was accused of rape in Sweden (an accusation he has always denied), prompting him to seek asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Last month, he was finally evicted from the embassy and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaking his bail conditions. Now that the rape case has been reopened at the request of the victim, Lucy Mangan reflects on the hero vs villain narrative that follows Assange and explains why she can no longer tolerate the Wikileaks founder being referred to as a ‘hero.’
After 2,487 days holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Julian Assange was finally dragged into the light of day by the Metropolitan Police and arrested.
‘Hurrah!’ you might think. ‘He’s going to face the charges of sexual assault in Sweden!’ Sweden, from which he fled nine years ago. Sweden, where a British court ruled he should be extradited, only to have Assange dodge that extradition by seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
The two women who have variously alleged that he penetrated them while they were sleeping and without using condoms, must be looking forward to the possibility of the cases being reopened and heard. They had refused repeatedly to have unprotected sex. And everyone, even those who worship Assange, a saint of free speech, would surely be pleased at the prospect of justice – whether by conviction or exoneration.
Or you might think, ‘What’s all this about Sweden and women?’ There’s a version of the Julian Assange Story where the women are written out and the focus narrows to what people see as the important bits. The heroic bits. The bits about Assange working with former United States military analyst Chelsea Manning to download and publish classified databases – the famous 2010 Wikileaks scandal – exposing evidence of US atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many lives were endangered in the process – information is classified to protect individuals as well as the secrets countries want to keep – but this part was largely ignored in the fanboying (and to a lesser extent fangirling) that followed.
The narrative has long become that Assange fled to safety to escape the wrath of the US, which seeks to punish the brave lone warrior who tells truth to power. When the two women came forward with their allegations, they faced widespread scepticism and outright abuse. They were said to be “honeytraps” or motivated to lie out of jealousy for all that Assange had achieved. And, although the UK and US authorities appeared to know in advance that Ecuador was about to evict him, Sweden didn’t seem to share that knowledge – something 70 British MPs called a matter of “grave concern” in a letter to the home secretary Sajid Javid.
All of this can only happen in an environment and a society willing to place women’s rights behind one man’s human rights. It can only happen in a place where collective consideration for women, and the violation of their bodies, is already so small that it can easily be overlooked in order not to disturb or complicate a picture of a hero.
We’ve all met That Man; the one who tries to slip it in for a second time without actually asking, and on his own terms. Who thinks he’s entitled to that. Who thinks that whatever he wants, he should have, without concern for the consequences.
The arrogance and embedded sense of privilege in both situations seem to me to be different in scale. And just as we have been trained to accept men’s pushing of sexual boundaries as just part of the way things are, so we have been trained to accept Assange and his supporters’ view of what the truth is.
It doesn’t mean he’s guilty, of course. But it does mean that there are different perspectives, different framings and interpretations of a story, always. History is not just written by the victors – it is written by those determined to make them so. We must remember that, and make others heard.