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Wed 22 May 2019
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Sexism is a potent political force and an important part of Assange’s legacy. We ignore it at our own peril.

Much has been, and will be, written about the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his potential extradition to the United States.

Some will argue that extraditing Assange to face charges of conspiring to hack into US Government computer systems would set a chilling precedent that could endanger the institution of journalism, while others will believe that he, like anyone else, should face justice for his alleged criminal activity.

But, as these discussions play out, we shouldn’t lose sight of why he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the first place and what that tells us about him.

The undeniable misogyny of Julian Assange is the thread that weaves together so many of the seemingly unrelated pieces of the WikiLeaks saga.

Julian Assange was not a “political prisoner”; in fact, he wasn’t a prisoner at all. He wasn’t being pursued for bravely standing up for truth; rather, he was hiding from it.

Assange is a misogynist who spent nearly seven years living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London because he didn’t want to return to Sweden to answer to the two women accusing him of sex crimes. Regardless of your feelings toward WikiLeaks, this is a major part of Assange’s legacy – and it matters.

The undeniable misogyny of Julian Assange is the thread that weaves together so many of the seemingly unrelated pieces of the WikiLeaks saga.

It was his lack of respect for women’s bodily autonomy that resulted in the charges that he ultimately hid from in the safety of the embassy, and it was his disdain for feminism and the “establishment” he believes it represents that made bedfellows out of Assange, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin.


Hiding from the Truth

Assange stands accused of non-consensually tearing a condom during sex with one woman and of non-consensually having unprotected sex with another woman while she was asleep. Both are crimes in Sweden, where the incidents allegedly took place, and similar cases have been successfully prosecuted in other countries, as well.

Like other forms of sexual assault, the act of removing or breaking a condom during sex is a way of exercising power and control over a woman’s body, and is rooted in an ideology of male dominance in which access to women’s bodies is viewed as a man’s right. Men who engage in and encourage the behavior typically believe they have a right to “spread their seed” and often view women as little more than vessels to be used and then discarded.

Assange’s own statements speak to his motives.

According to court transcripts, Assange allegedly said he “wanted to impregnate women” and “preferred virgins because he would be the first to impregnate them”. He also reportedly told one of his alleged victims that “Sweden is a good country to have kids in”.

There is no indication that either of his accusers had any intention to become pregnant – in fact, both women had insisted on using protection, but Assange allegedly disregarded that.

According to court transcripts, Assange allegedly said he ‘wanted to impregnate women’ and ‘preferred virgins because he would be the first to impregnate them’.

It’s unclear if Assange has engaged in this behavior with other women, but it is clear that he was fixated on, if not obsessed with, impregnating women. By the time he was accused of sexual assault, he had impregnated at least four women, all of whom gave birth to the children.

Assange’s case became a flashpoint in the debate over sexual assault, feminism, and feminist constructions of sexual assault.

The allegations against him were met with a tidal wave of backlash from Assange himself, as well as his supporters and, of course, men’s right activists (MRAs) and other like-minded men who found common cause in wanting to delegitimise his accusers and, more broadly, the feminist movement that they blamed for making victims out of men like Assange. To this day, Assange and his defenders reject the idea that Assange’s alleged behavior even constituted sexual misconduct.

It’s important to note here that, initially, Assange’s two accusers only went to the police when he refused to voluntarily get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Even then, an arrest warrant was only issued because there was no way to force him to take a test without one.

Assange was eventually arrested in the UK and then bailed out with the help of WikiLeaks’ supporters. More than a year later, the UK Supreme Court decided that Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face the charges, but they never got the chance. The next time Assange was seen publicly was on the balcony of London’s Ecuadorian Embassy.


Assange’s Anti-Feminist Vendetta

When the allegations against Assange emerged, there was disagreement within WikiLeaks regarding how to handle the case.

For the most part, Assange’s colleagues wanted to keep the charges against him separate from the organisation of WikiLeaks, but Assange had a different idea. He saw an opportunity to use WikiLeaks and its growing base of supporters to smear his accusers by pitting them against WikiLeaks and framing them as manipulative women who had set him up to take down the organisation he founded.

Risk Trailer

In the documentary ‘Risk’, Assange described how he hoped to use WikiLeaks to turn his accusers into pariahs in an effort to persuade them to drop the charges against him.

“An actual court case is going to be very, very hard for these women,” he warned. “They will be reviled forever by a large segment of the global population, so I don’t think it’s in their interest to proceed that way.”

‘I fell into a hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism,’ Assange said in a 2010 interview.

When Swedish authorities took out an international arrest warrant after Assange fled the country and failed to show up for a police interview, he responded by blaming the charges on a government conspiracy, saying the women were “honeytraps” sent by the CIA. Supporters of WikiLeaks followed his lead, crafting new conspiracy theories to explain away the accusations and launching a vicious smear campaign against the two women.

Both of his accusers’ identities were leaked and private details about their lives were spread all over the internet. Defenders of Assange took to the web to encourage people to dig into the women’s lives and post pictures, video, and other private information, which was then used to further the narrative that Assange himself had crafted.  

In 2017, the investigation into Assange was “discontinued” – not because prosecutors no longer considered him a suspect, but because they could not officially notify him of the criminal allegations against him while he was inside the embassy.

Throughout it all, Assange saw himself as a victim – a victim of censorship, of a vast global conspiracy, of overbearing sexual assault laws, of feminist culture run amok. Before long, his vendetta against his two accusers had broadened into a full-fledged information war against feminism.

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“I fell into a hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism,” Assange said in a 2010 interview during which he also described Sweden as “the Saudi Arabia of feminism”.

In one scene in ‘Risk’, Assange admitted that he privately believed that one of his accusers was running a “tag team” against him along with a lesbian nightclub owner and a rogue female police officer. The whole scheme, Assange told his lawyer, was part of a “radical feminist political positioning thing”. His remarks were so outrageous that even his own female lawyer was left speechless.

And while the WikiLeaks founder often claimed to be a victim of the “media machine”, many mainstream publications were happy to amplify his version of events. The UK’s Daily Mail described one of his accusers as a “seasoned feminist warrior” – not in a complimentary manner – while another prominent website referred to her as a “psychotic feminist”.


WikiLeaks as a Vehicle for Weaponised Misogyny

Over the years, Assange has continued to use WikiLeaks as a vehicle to carry out his personal agenda and wage war against the feminist movement.

His beliefs about feminism – namely, that it’s a repressive movement aimed at punishing men – bear striking similarity to the beliefs espoused by men’s rights activists and far-right ideologues. But, by cloaking his hostility towards feminism under the banner of an organisation that was heralded by many on the left, Assange managed to establish broader appeal for his brand of misogyny.

In 2015, WikiLeaks used its official Twitter account, which is widely believed to be run at least in part by Assange himself, to launch an anti-feminist tirade that positioned feminism as a threat to free speech and questioned whether feminism was “a reactionary vehicle to push state interests such as censorship and imprisonment”.

Some of the tweets included links to blog posts suggesting that the sexual assault accusations against Assange may have been fabricated as a justification for his arrest, while other tweets accused feminists of collaborating with state authorities to quash free speech.

“[M]any calling themselves ‘feminists’ campaign for extreme censorship and imprisonment,” WikiLeaks tweeted in response to a question asking how it defined feminism.

WikiLeaks’ hostility toward feminism was praised by men’s rights activists, who see feminism as an “authoritarian movement” centered around “supremacism, hate, subjugation, capitalism, and war”. At times, WikiLeaks pushed talking points that appeared to be designed specifically to appeal to this demographic – namely, aggrieved young men who harbor deep resentment towards women.

Less than a month ago, on March 30, WikiLeaks tweeted a graphic from the Washington Post, adding a caption that said: “One in three US men under thirty is not having sex – a three-fold increase in 10 years. But the statistic has diverged from sex for women. Historically, sexual inequality between men is associated with gang formation, risk taking and political turbulence.”

The next day, WikiLeaks tweeted the same graphic, this time with a different caption: “Why Trump won: Did millions of young men, stripped of romance and children (possibly by the soar in wealth inequality post the 2008 crash), vent their disappointment via memetic warfare against an avowedly feminist candidate? Who will harness this army of free time in 2020?”

Though WikiLeaks may not have intended to do so, the March 30 tweet acknowledged something very significant: misogyny is such a potent political force that it has the potential to change the course of history.

Millions of men did, indeed, revolt against a feminist candidate in 2016. But, it was not “free time” or “disappointment” that was their primary motivation, nor was it lack of sex. It was misogyny that united these men, functioning as an ideology so strong that it overpowered traditional partisan affiliations.

Hostility toward women was found to be one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump in 2016 – even stronger than so-called “economic anxiety” and about the same as party identification. In study after study, higher levels of sexism, particularly anti-feminist attitudes, were found to be associated with a greater likelihood of voting for Trump and a lower likelihood of supporting Clinton.

And, behind the scenes, similar forces were quietly bringing together another group of men: Julian Assange, then-candidate Donald Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Trump, Putin and Assange – and Hillary Clinton

While the alliance of Trump, Putin, and Assange may appear unlikely when viewed through the lens of traditional political ideology, the trio are united by a different type of philosophy: sexism.

There were, of course, other dynamics at play, but one cannot overlook the very public history of sexism exhibited by all three men, nor can we discount the special hatred of Hillary Clinton that they shared.

According to one former WikiLeaks employee, Assange wanted to “settle a score” with Clinton, whom he blamed for the US Government’s hostile position toward WikiLeaks, among other things. Putin believed the Panama Papers – a trove of more than 10 million documents leaked in 2016 – were a personal attack sponsored by Clinton, and he was reportedly eager to get revenge for it. Trump, meanwhile, spent his 2016 campaign calling Clinton a “nasty woman”, stalking her on the debate stage, and leading chants of “lock her up”.

At one point, WikiLeaks paired a set of unrelated email exchanges to make it look like Clinton and her aides were worried about her health.

Both Trump and Putin have codified their sexism into law, while Assange and Trump both stand accused of sexual assault. And, much like Assange, Trump responded to the accusations against him by rejecting the notion that the behavior he admitted to on tape – groping women’s genitals – was even sexual assault at all.

As an organisation, WikiLeaks exploited sexism to weaponise the hacked materials it disseminated during the 2016 campaign. Among other themes, WikiLeaks used Hillary Clinton’s age against her, implying that she was frail, in failing health, and unfit for the presidency. At one point, WikiLeaks paired a set of unrelated email exchanges to make it look like Clinton and her aides were worried about her health. The emails were sent two months apart, with the first exchange mentioning the topic of “decision fatigue” and the second discussing prescription sleep medication.

By pairing the emails and adding commentary on Twitter, WikiLeaks was trying to send the message that Clinton was suffering from abnormal fatigue and needed “wake-up pills” to keep herself going – a classic case of disinformation, in which real documents were cherry-picked, taken out of context, and weaponised to spin a misleading narrative. With an underlying current of sexism, the fabricated story was made even more believable.

WikiLeaks came through again two months later, with a new email dump that provided a crucial distraction from the infamous Access Hollywood tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. While no singular event decided the outcome of the election, this is widely considered to be one of the most significant factors in Trump’s victory.


“We All Know What This Is About”

With Assange back in the headlines, the sexual assault allegations against him are once again making news. And, once again, the allegations are being framed as a distraction from the cause.

Assange’s defenders would like us to overlook the sexual assault charges because those aren’t the real issue. Sure, they may be serious charges, but there are other noble causes to consider: free speech, anti-imperialism, non-interventionism, dismantling the surveillance state, to name a few. Justice for sexual assault victims, it seems, will just have to wait.

The story of Assange is a reflection of our society’s priorities – and when it comes to the list of Very Serious Issues, sexual assault is still relegated to the bottom.

Take, for example, British Labour party MP Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, who has spoken out in defence of Assange and against his extradition.

“We all know what this is about,” Abbott said recently in response to a letter by dozens of lawmakers urging the British Government to focus its attention on the original charges against Assange. “It’s not about the rape charges, serious as they are.”

We do know what this is about. It’s about priorities – and for Assange defenders, sexual assault is simply not one of them. There are serious issues to consider, you see, and we shouldn’t let something trivial like sexual assault get in the way.

This is sexism in action. It’s the same type of sexism that motivated WikiLeaks’ supporters to denigrate Assange’s accusers and ignore the allegation against him. It’s the same type of sexism that convinced millions of voters to overlook the sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump and fuelled the revolt against a feminist candidate in 2016. And it’s the same type of sexism that allows Assange’s defenders to see a freedom fighter in a man who stands accused of habitually violating the reproductive freedom of multiple women.

The story of Assange is a reflection of our society’s priorities – and when it comes to the list of Very Serious Issues, sexual assault is still relegated to the bottom.

As we are once again encouraged to put the accusations against Assange on the back-burner, it’s worth considering what might have happened if more people had recognised his misogyny and listened to his accusers in the first place.

Perhaps if we had taken them more seriously – and if we had considered the potent political power of sexism – we would have been more prepared to deal with the tidal wave of sexism that helped sweep Donald Trump into office.

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