Saturday, 25 August 2012

Left-wing heroes, pillars and beasts

English Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, 1776
Rape is "a most detestable crime," that ought to be "severely and impartially...punished with death."  But, he cautioned "it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused."        (quoted here)

American biologist and sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey
"The difference between a good time and rape often depends largely upon whether the girl's parents happened to be awake when she returned home." (same source) 

So that imaginary rapist, the guy wearing the trench coat, hanging out in the park or dark alleyways, waiting to rape unknown women at knife-point, roughing them up or maybe killing them, before scuttling away to hide in his solo house full of pornography until he needs to rape again.

You know the one.  He's been in movies, books, tv shows.  He's easily recognised.

Well, feminists knew he was largely imaginary, have known that's not how rape usually happens for a long time, because we listen to women who have been raped.  Much of the second-wave feminist anti-rape activism focused on proving that.  And we have.

Except have we, or are our imaginations still stunted?

Recent sexual violence cases splashed all over our front pages illustrate the fraughtness.  We have George Gwaze, acquitted because of the possibility - not the probability, or even proven likelihood mind, the possibility - that his semen had ended up in his niece's underwear, skirt and bedding in the wash.  Or was he aquitted because, as his lawyer said in summing up:
Mr Gwaze was a good, kind, loving family man and it would have been utterly inconceivable he would enter the girl's room and commit the "vicious, violent and heinous assault".
We have the schoolteacher in Kataia, charged with sexually abusing 49 boys, with hints there may be more.  He was able to keep offending despite suspicions as early as 2009, because he was seen as a "pillar in the community."  We have the "beast of Blenheim," ostracised by the people of Whanganui, who don't want any rapists living there. 

People of Whanganui - you already have rapists living there.  I'm sorry, but you do.  It's just that they don't look like our imaginary rapist, they are not quite "beastly" enough, they are "good, kind loving family men" and/or "pillars of the community."

Every time we pathologise someone who commits sexual violence, we make it harder to imagine how most rape and sexual violence happen.  We know, in New Zealand, that 29% of women and 9% of men will experience unwanted and distressing sexual contact during their lifetimes.  Most of those crimes will be perpetrated by people known to the person targetted.  Not beasts, not men in trenchcoats in dark alleys with knives, but men in families, men in relationships, men in our communities.

Every time we pathologise someone who commits sexual violence, we make it harder to identify how most people offend.  We miss clear indications - like semen in underwear - because we are desperate not to believe loving family men would behave like that.  We miss warning signs - like teachers inviting their students over to stay the night - because pillars of the community do good, not harm.  We rename what women say happened to them as "just sex" - because how can you be both a left-wing hero and a rapist

Part of the disgusting left wing defence of the rape allegations against Julian Assange is about this in my opinion.  This can't be "real" rape or "legitimate rape" or "cut and dried rape," because he  stands up for democracy and freedom of information against powerful state forces.  I'm not denying the (other) wider political context - I'm saying holding the view that Julian Assange's work with WikiLeaks is important does not mean he cannot possibly be a rapist.

Pathologising rapists doesn't stop men like Stuart Wilson or Julian Assange.  We need to stop imagining that trenchcoated man in the alley, and start dreaming about consent - so we can identify when it's not being sought or considered fundamental to sexual activity, and call that what it is.



ChundaMars said...

Well written, and very true. One quibble - women rape too, the possibility of which isn't allowed for in your post: "men in families, men in relationships, men in our communities".

Yes yes, I know the vast majority of rapes are committed by men, but I suspect the reporting of female perpetrated rape is very low, for much the same sort of reasons as identified in this post - people just can't conceive of women being capable of rape, the same as they can't conceive of a "good, kind, loving family man" being capable of rape.

Acid Queen said...

@Chunda: Yeah, what ABOUT those menz?


Liz said...

Acid Queen; I am a woman who was raped by a woman.
Where do the 'menz' enter that?

LudditeJourno said...

Chunda and Liz - in complete agreement that women also rape - but what I'm trying to explore in this post is something different. And the reason I've focussed in this post on male perpetrated sexual violence is to do with what we know about rape reported to the Police Chunda, you're right (99% perpetrated by men, 95% on women), but also to do with the specific victim blaming stuff that happens to women around allegations of sexual violence, evidenced in the two quotes I've given. It might be time to write some stuff about female perpetrated sexual violence soon, thanks, LJ

ChundaMars said...

@Liz: Many thanks - I'm not sure if I would have bothered replying to that post but after your comment it's clear I don't need to. Sorry to hear you had that experience too, and I hope you got all the support you needed afterwards.

@LJ: Sorry if it felt like I was trying to hijack, and please don't feel like you need to do a counter-post specifically about female perps. I agree completely regarding the victim blaming, and your point about the "trenchcoated man in the alley" distracting from the circumstances that most rape occurs in i.e. between people who already know each other.

Any further critiques along the lines of my first post I'll leave for another time :-)

Liz said...

Thank you Chunda. Sadly I had zero support, but that's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

LudditeJourno said...

Chunda - no apology necessary, and been thinking about queer sexual violence lots anyway, which is part of female perpetrated violence.
Liz - I am really sorry to hear that. I hope you have the support you need now, in all the forms that might take. Take care, LJ

Anonymous said...

I think it's unfair of you to discuss Gwaze as if he's guilty.

If you've looked at the evidence closely you will see that his prosecution was largely motivated by racism and a Western lack of understanding about HIV. You emphasise the "possibility" comment but that's completely taken out of context and rather misrepresentative of the evidence (or lack thereof in this case).

But yeah, let's ignore intersectionality and focus on how all the evil men are rapists. Let's ignore the fact that men of colour are disproportionately likely to be falsely accused by our justice system. It saddens me to see you furthering that persecution under the guise of rape activisim or feminism.


LudditeJourno said...

Whoa, me, I don't agree that's what I'm doing in this post at all and I don't agree that your claims for Mr Gwaze's trial were proven at all. I completely agree that men of colour are positioned in racist ways in terms of perpetration - the first rape trials in New Zealand resulted in a conviction for a Maori man raping a white woman, and a failure to convict two white men raping a Maori woman according to one scholar - in terms of the imaginary rapist, race is very relevant. But I don't agree that the evidence against Mr Gwaze was not pretty damn compelling. Or that his defence didn't run a very traditional line around why he couldn't have raped - because he was so nice. The semen evidence, in my opinion, was dealt with in a completely disgraceful way. They got a scientist to say it wasn't impossible that it was contaminated in the wash. That's all. Just not impossible.

But your last statement "men of colour disproportionately likely to be falsely accused" - where is your evidence of that in terms of sexual assault? I've never seen anything like that in NZ, and in fact the Police research on attrition suggests the opposite, that race of victim at least (they don't have all perpetrator demographics) is not a factor in attrition here. It's a dangerous knowledge claim to make about a crime as poorly responded to as rape unless you can back it up, in my opinion.

katy said...

Great post! In terms of Julian Assange, it has been disturbing to hear people like George Galloway, Terry Jones etc STILL saying things like "that wouldn't be considered rape in the UK". A lot of the discussion around the Julian Assange thing reminds me of the discussion when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape, the idea that it must have been a politically motivated set up.

Psycho Milt said...

...STILL saying things like "that wouldn't be considered rape in the UK"

Yes, that one really gets on my wick. For all I know it's true, but it's also completely irrelevant - Swedish law enforcement officials investigating an alleged crime in Sweden really don't need to give a shit what other countries' legislation has to say on the subject.

Re Gwaze, the quote is from his defence lawyer - a person hired specifically for the task of making dramatic, irrational appeals to the jurors' emotions. The lawyer would be as aware as you are what a load of old cobblers he was spouting.

Anonymous said...

"I don't agree that your claims for Mr Gwaze's trial were proven at all."

Well they evidently WERE proven because he was acquitted. By two separate juries.

My evidence of the false accusations for men of colour is regarding the innocence project. It's purely a matter of percentages. POC (not specifically NZ but around the world) are more likely to be targetted by police and have complaints against them taken more seriously. That means they disproportionately factor as victims of false complaints. Other evidence: if you look at all the overturned cases of rape in the States (mainly through improvements to DNA technology) they are almost always MoC.

My main point is that it's completely unreasonable for you to write this post from the presumption of his guilt. The thrust of your post is saying that we should never take rape lightly. I agree. But that doesn't mean that all people accused of rape aren't entitled to a defence. PARTICULARLY when the Gwaze case had nothing to do with believing the victim because there were no reports from any other family members that abuse was happening. The prosecution was entirely driven by the police. I certainly hope you aren't saying we should be taking the motives of the police at face value, are you?

At the end of the day, there was actually no evidence that he hurt his daughter at all. The only stuff which prompted the prosecution was Western doctors interpreting her HIV symptoms as proof of sexual assault. Anal tears are caused in numerous ways. Rape is one of those ways but in this case there was a much more PROBABLE explanation.

It actually does your argument a disservice to use Gwaze as your example because he is almost certainly innocent. Stick to those for which rape culture is at play: Assange, DSK, etc.

Gwaze has now been found not guilty in separate trials. It's completely unacceptable of you to insinuate his guilt. This wasn't even one of those cases (like Scott Guy) where the evidence wasn't presented well enough to secure a conviction. In Gwaze's case there simply wasn't evidence.


Simoon said...

I don't think it makes sense to draw any firm conclusions re: the Gwaze trial about why the two juries both delivered the verdict that they did. I don't think it necessarily means the jury even had a view on whether the prosecution was motivated by racism.

The Gwaze case is unusual. It's not a case where the defence is based on consent or mistaken identity - the defence disputed that the physical event happened at all.

LJ has a good point that arguments like "the accused is a nice/well-known/funny/family/business/wikileaks hero/left-wing/pillar of the community/religious/[insert adjective here] man and therefore it's inconceivable he's a rapist" may well have more power with juries than they should.

Perhaps this already happens, but I wonder whether Judges should caution juries against attaching too much weight to these kind of factors. The more these kinds of arguments are accepted, the harder it is for victims to come forward.

Perhaps these types of arguments do sometimes help persuade a jury to acquit someone who is innocent. That doesn't mean there's not a problem if juries give them more weight than they should, because that can lead to acquitting people who are guilty too.

Moz said...

"not a crime in England". Good to know we've moved on so conclusively from the colonial period.

Would these people be as assertive in defense of someone on trial for spousal rape here fled to Singapore or China then resisted extradition of the grounds that it isn't a crime where they are now? Especially since the extradition treaties are very specific that what counts is that the offense is a crime where committed.

Sure, if the Swedes were proposing to kill Assange if they found him guilty I'd object. And that's actually the only objection I can see - that he might be extradited to the US and tortured or killed. Of course, the UK has a really shitty record on that front too, so it's not as if he's any safer there.

The objections really seem to come down to "but foreign!" or "but that wasn't real rape. FTS.

Safety tip for travelers: obey the local laws even if you disagree with them. Or don't go there.

Hugh said...

"Would these people be as assertive in defense of someone on trial for spousal rape here fled to Singapore or China then resisted extradition of the grounds that it isn't a crime where they are now?"

Ah but you see English laws are not just the laws of one of 200 odd sovereign entities - they are ENGLISH LAWS, a product of centuries of unbroken common law and scholarly precedent and blablablabla. So, yes, you're correct.

As far as I can tell the "if he's extradited to Sweden he'll be extradited to the USA and tortured/executed/jailed for life" argument has two major flaws in it.

Firstly, the USA has yet to initiate any sort of criminal proceedings against Assange - they seem to be focusing their legal wrath on the people who gave him information.

Secondly, even if the USA were to initiate any sort of criminal proceedings, or for that matter any extra-legal kidnap proceedings, Assange would be just as vulnerable to them in the UK as he would be in Sweden.

I think it's possible to support Wikileaks and at the same time support Assange going to Sweden. Wikileaks can survive without him. It's an organisation and, while he may have founded it, he's not its soul.

katy said...

BTW from what I understand what Assange is accused of IS rape under British law. The people asserting it isn't obviously don't understand what rape is. Which is a worry.

Moz said...

Katy, thanks for the reminder. It's easy to forget that in the midst of the discussion.

portia said...


Unfortunately, it is far from clear that the US has not focused their legal wrath upon Assange. While the US government has made no official extradition request (yet), there are rumours of a sealed indictment against Assange on charges of espionage under a law of WWI vintage, which has never before been used against a journalist. US government officials have called for Assange’s execution (Sen Dianne Feinstein among others). Their harsh, vindictive treatment of Bradley Manning does not bode well for those who may also be involved. Maybe the US won’t try to get their hands on him, but if it were me, I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it.

This whole mess could be solved immediately by Sweden and Britain agreeing in writing not to turn Assange over to any third country. Both Swedish and British governments have the authority to make that undertaking any time they want. If, as they claim, they have no intention of transshipping Assange to Gitmo, why would they refuse? Looks a bit fishy.

You’re quite right, though, that Assange is just as vulnerable in Britain as in Sweden. That’s why he’s holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Hugh said...

@portia: The odds of any foreign country respecting a sealed indictment are pretty small. The process the US needs to go to through to initiate extradition is pretty well laid out, and they have not yet begun to initiate it. I agree that they -could- begin to initiate it, but I think their prosecution of Manning actually shows that they intend to prevent future leaks by attempting to deter the leakers, not the receivers of the information. This, while cold blooded, is pretty rational - since all leaks begin with people with official access to information, it's easier for the government to focus on those already in their power.

Fennstein is not a "US government official" any more than a Labour backbencher is - she has no authority to initiate prosecutions, much less executions. And I will point out that if Assange is facing the death penalty both the UK and Sweden are legally unable to extradite him based on their own laws and voluminous case law. So if you take the threats of execution seriously (I don't) they actually show Assange is -more- safe.

"You’re quite right, though, that Assange is just as vulnerable in Britain as in Sweden. That’s why he’s holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy."

It doesn't explain why he has fought so hard to not go to Sweden, though.

portia said...


Feinstein is Chair of the Senate Select Committeee on Intelligence, the committee which oversees all US intelligence agencies. While that’s not a cabinet secretary, it’s more than a backbencher. Her publicly stated opinions are likely to reflect the views of the agencies her committee oversees. While they certainly can’t initiate prosecutions, intelligence agencies in the states do influence policy. Prosecution of Assange would be more of a political prosecution, part of the war on whistle-blowers, than a mere criminal justice matter. I think the US would very much like to punish Assange if they can get him. When the classified information was first published Assange was vilified in the states as the new Bin Laden. Punishing Assange would be a triumph.

And you’re right that foreign countries don’t need to respect sealed indictments. The US game would be to wait quietly until Assange is in Swedish hands, unseal the indictment and demand his extradition. Sweden has proven itself compliant to US coercion in the past. The UNHRC found Sweden in breach of the global ban on torture for its role in handing over 2 asylum seekers to the CIA, which rendered them to Egypt to be tortured in 2001. While that was over 10 years ago, not much has changed in the relationship between the US and Sweden since then, and it’s reasonable to expect that any US request would be treated deferentially. Regarding the death penalty issue, the US routinely promises not to seek the death penalty when extraditing prisoners from countries that oppose it, which ends their objection. So instead of lethal injection Assange would face 200 years to life in Supermax. Not so sure that’s an improvement.

The point I am trying to make is that Assange’s fear of ending up in US custody post his extradition to Sweden is quite rational, given both the odds of it happening, and the magnitude of what he stands to lose if it happens. If Sweden’s only concern were investigating the sexual assault charges he faces, they would have given the no-third-country guarantee ages ago.

Hugh said...

" The US game would be to wait quietly until Assange is in Swedish hands"

Why? You've said yourself he is as easy to get to in the UK as he is in Sweden, so why wasn't the supposed indictment unsealed when he was in British government custody?

portia said...


The sentence of mine you reference was intended to speak to the position as it now stands, i.e. if he steps outside the Ecuadorian embassy he will be arrested. Once he’s in custody everyone can take their time, because he’s not going anywhere without the consent of whoever is holding him.

Answering for the actions of the US government is not actually my job. But it sure looks like they consider it polite to let Sweden go first, as long as they can get him eventually. Maybe they figure if Assange is found guilty in Sweden of sexual assault, fewer people will care if he’s prosecuted in the US for committing acts of journalism. That’s speculation, of course.

I think Assange should face whatever prosecution the Swedish deem necessary, like any other defendant. But Assange has repeatedly offered to go to Sweden provided he gets a guarantee that he won’t be turned over to a third country. I realise that answering for the British and Swedish governments is not actually your job, but why do you suppose they haven’t called his bluff and given the guarantee? If no one is interested in seeing him extradited to the US.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say I find your speculation unconvincing. On the one hand, you are implying that the USA is burning to get their hands on Assange and impose a draconian punishment on him, on the other hand, they are willing to wait out of deference to Swedish sensibilities?

I can only speculate on the Swedish government's refusal to promise Assange won't get extradited, but my guess is this - in Sweden, as in most countries, extradition requests are resolved by courts, and the Swedish government doesn't have the power to overrule its own judiciary preemptively. They can't pronounce that Assange won't be extradited any more than they can pronounce he won't be found guilty.

Hugh said...

That last Anon was me as you can probably tell. Sorry.

portia said...

Heh. Yeah, I figured that was you.

Actually, under Swedish law it is the government that decides extradition requests. According to Mark Klamberg, professor of international law at the University of Stockholm, "Even if the supreme court has found that there are no obstacles, the government can refuse extradition.” So it must be some other reason.

I find the attribution of human emotions to institutions of government rather misleading. It is not at all inconsistent for an institution to desire an outcome AND be willing to wait for it if waiting brings some advantage. The advantage here is not unruffled Swedish sensibilities but the cover of appearing to be a good international citizen waiting their turn with their NATO allies.