On sexuality and wikileaks...

This reflection was written by Jac sm Kee in December 2010, at the height of the Wikileaks' leak of diplomatic cables and the subsequent charge and arrest of Assange. Since much of the reflections and thoughts still stand, despite the case and incident having moved on since then, this is now republished as a blog post for Feminist Talk.


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I'm quite troubled by the fact that Julian Assange - the founder/spokesperson of Wikileaks - was quickly arrested under charges
related to sexual assault after the high profile Wikileaks debate that took place late last year. This can only bring up two kinds of arguments:


1) That it's just a ruse to get him arrested and to do some kind of
damage control around Wikileaks - i.e. attack his moral integrity


2) That he's a rapist and a terrorist and he must be stopped.



Right now, the first response is definitely holding sway. In both
instance, the fact that Assange chose to have unprotected sex with
two women in the span of 2 days is glossed over or obfuscated by the
political and moral arguments that taking over everything. It's first of all deeply problematic that a person who puts himself out there as the
"lightning rod" and champion of freedom of expressioni, a liberal,
rights-based person, ironically doesn't seem to give a toss about
rising rates of HIV/AIDS. We just marked World AIDS Day on 1 Dec - more
than 30 million people are living with HIV/AIDS and half of them are
made up of women, and majority of new infections are from heterosexual
relationships because up till today, we just can't seem to get a grip on
sexual rightsi. Google can't - they banned adverts on abortion -
governments cant - sex education just means teaching kids to have sex -
Facebook can't - images of women breastfeeding is pornographic - US TV
companies can't - they restrict the running of an ad on natural therapy
to enhance women's sexual pleasure whilst at the same time, viagra ads
are all okay - how about the communication rights movement? Can we?



I'm troubled and conflicted by this - on the one hand, I really support
the existence of something like Wikileaks (I found out a lot about the
child pornography industry and the interneti through it), and coming from
a country where transparency is a joke, I feel like fighting to death to
defend an internet space that protects the right to information. On the
other, I absolutely have no respect or patience for human rights
advocates or activists that have no respect or regard for women's
rights. So many times the issues of women's rights movements get bumped
down the agenda because it's just not the critical issue here - look at
the "bigger picture" - and the bigger picture is so rarely inclusive of
a feminist or gendered perspective.



I'm a feminist and a women's rights activists who have worked on
violence against womeni issues for more than 10 years now and I have to
try and understand this from the basis of what I know. And I know that
there are incredible obstacles to report rape in the first place.
Especially against someone who has so much power, and especially when
it's something like "date rape" - where the woman will be by default be
blamed for choosing to engage with the accused in the first place (which
is happening - just look at how this is implied here:
http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Interpol_orders_arrest_of_Wikileaks_founder_...
and here:
http://www.aolnews.com/world/article/sex-by-surprise-at-heart-of-julian-...).
And the fact that they chose to do so need to be taken into account seriously.



Lots of responses have been about discounting the sexual harassment and
rape charges, and to focus on Wikileaks. But why not the other way
around? Because it's only the lives of 2 women and not the rupture of
the entire diplomatic institution? But by the same extension of
arguments, isn't this also about the level of gravity and seriousness of
how the world deals with sexual violence against women? Doesn't this in
the same way, rupture the decades of struggles by women's rights
movements to make progress in dismantling myths around rape and to call
for recognition and redress? Are we saying then that Swedish laws which
includes sex without protection and that takes careful consideration
around power and consent in its definition of rape - a law which I'm
sure women's rights advocates there took some time in getting passed -
as being without merit?



The sad thing is though, their reports will not be dealt with as an
issue on its own. Either way, everyone who has a stake in Wikileaks -
even myself - will be dealing with this as inexorably linked to the
"bigger picture". I just want the "bigger picture" to include the
communication rights of women as well. Even something basic like
Wikipedia publishing the names of both the women - this is clearly a
violation of their right to privacyi. Have we become so caught up in the
fight for transparency that we fail to distinguish the difference
between individuals and institutions?



Does it have to be either/or? Sounds eeriely like Bush's rhetoric:
You're either for us or against us. Terrifying. I don't think we can
reasonably argue for the defence of communication rights, for the right
to information and expression and assembly and privacy, by making it at
the expense of women's lives and realities. Or by simply saying that
it's a political ruse, let's not take it seriously, let's put in a 20%
effort to dismantle the arguments of sexual assault so we can dismiss it
once and for all and focus on the "bigger picture". We would fail
grievously as human rights advocates if we do this. We really do need to
engage with this issue, and think about the "bigger picture" of the
defence of women's human rights. And sexual rights. And even if it's
uncomfortable, or challenging, we have to do it. Or we might as well
just stop fighting all together.



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And a note on the "convenience" of the interpol's speedy cooperation and action in the arrest of Assange:



[The action of arrest and charges against Assange] is very convenient, and it feels like wow - is that what it takes for the international community to take rape seriously? I feel that this results in several things: 1) it conflates
Assange with Wikileaks, and turns a collaborative endeavour with
collectively defined principles into a personified character - with
individual flaws; 2) in the process, weakens what something like Wikileaks
represents and operationalises in terms of FoE (freedom of expression) and FoI (freedom of informationi), transparency and
governancei, into an individual's violation of human rights; 3) and
through the arguments of morality linked to sexuality no less - a
familiar and tiring but effective tactic in cases of content regulationi
(e.g. porn, child protection, blackmail of public officials through
public dissemination of their private pictures etc); 4) makes a mockery
of women's rights movements and efforts into getting recognition and
judicial redress for sexual violence; 5) in the process, seriously
compromises the advancement that has already been made; 6) turns it into
a binary argument - you are either for us or against us, for everyone in
all sides of the equation. Everyone loses.



But I do feel the charges need to be taken seriously and on its own
merit. It's problematic that Assange takes condom use so lightly. And by
repeatedly stating that this is about Wikileaks and it's without basis
and dismissing the offence, he is not doing anyone any favour. It
encourages the impasse. It's especially hard to raise the issue of the
violation of sexual rights when this gets shut down as feminists being
against freedom of expression and information. It's a difficult tension,
but not one that is new. Feminists working on the issue of pornography
have been attempting to nuance and disentangle from the polarised debate
for decades. The issue is not about whether or not to allow for freedom
of information/expression, but whose, and under what kinds of power
structure? Which is also at the heart of the Wikileaks debate I think..
in terms of disclosure, of what, by whom, to what effect, and how that
can help to balance out power relations between actors and members of
civil society.



So the challenge would be to forefront that, and not to lose sight of
the also real and related issue of 1) Assange's alleged individual violation of
rights as charged; 2) politicisation or mobilisation of sexuality and
sexual rights issue in the attempt to rationalise the dangers of or to
discredit the need for, openness and transparency.

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