Feminism, Assange and the Politics of Rape

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[Pt I of Debate]


Late last month, two important figureheads of the third wave feminist movement, Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman, were invited on Democracy Now to discuss the recently alleged rape charges facing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The discussion quickly turned into a heated battlefield as Wolf and Friedman debated issues surrounding women’s moral and sexual agency, as well as the sketchy and controversial politics involved in the rape charges brought against Assange. This talk was hot indeed! And it offers an important example of the debates and conflicts that still splinter women within the feminist community as a whole.

I’ve taken the time to speak with many women and men about this debate, and have received a range of different responses. Some felt that Naomi Wolf sold out her feminist status by defending Julian Assange against these rape charges and “blaming the victims.” Others felt that it was Jaclyn Friedman who faltered by being caught in her own trauma issues and unable to grasp the larger picture. Still others felt torn between both positions and unable to make a final decision, feeling that both Wolf and Friedman made important points…

What do you think??

In offering your response, remember to work at keeping the dialogue civil and diplomatic, as these are tender issues. I’ve seen some gross name-calling and attacking of these two women happening on other feminist forums and I’d prefer this to be a productive discussion if there is an interest for it.  [Editor's Note Chris: Br. Olen's article on Unearthing New Norms of Online Conversation lays out our editorial policy at Beams & Struts with regards to commenting. We appreciate in advance respecting those norms.]

[Pt II of Debate] 

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  • Comment Link Patti DeSante Saturday, 08 January 2011 17:08 posted by Patti DeSante

    Thanks Vanessa for posting this...I was to be honest less interested in the content of what they were discussing than I was with watching what ensues when a woman who exhibits unhealthy masculine energy (Jacklyn) gets together and tries to discuss an important issue with a woman expressing unhealthy female energy (Naomi).

    Actually neither of them had seemed to express a healthy masculine or feminine energy and both of them were speaking from an already knowing position and were completely caught up in the drama of it all switching between speaking as a bully, the victim and the rescuer.

    No space opened atleast in terms of shedding more light around the content and its implications towards rape, rape victims and those implicated in rape. It was just two people asserting their need to be right. Pretty familiar territory..God what would happen if they had actually listened to what the other was saying without becoming defensive...or even asked other a question...neither one heard of listened to each other..another form of rape..

    anyways my two bits..

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Sunday, 09 January 2011 21:05 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Hi Patti,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
    I too felt that the sensitivity to meaningful and curious dialogue was lacking and that they were both holding into positions of already knowing, which stagnated the debate...

    That said, I also felt I personally resonated a bit more with Wolf's position. They both had good points, but I did feel Jaclyn to be a bit more stuck and reactive than Naomi was.

    I'm curious, Patti, what you mean by Jaclyn and Noami expressing unhealthy masculine and feminine energy?? I find those terms a bit confusing and would love for you to unpack that if you are interested...

  • Comment Link Emily Ann Baratta Monday, 10 January 2011 00:43 posted by Emily Ann Baratta

    First of all, I think it is ridiculous to suggest that everyone must be "enthusiastic" about having sex every time. Unenthusiastic sex does not equal assault.

    While I am put off by the immaturity of the discourse (the interruption tug-of-war, in particular) I agree with Naomi Wolf. This is not the first time she has shown an ability to go beyond the typical paradigm of her field to hold a nuanced position. She wrote an article on abortion in 2004, which I consider to be foundational to an Integral position on abortion (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/article820630.ecea).

    The problem is that even if Ms. Wolf is right, she did a terrible job of presenting her case in this debate. If you are interested in reading more about her position, without the unfortunate schoolyard antics, read her article on the Assange case: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/naomi-wolf/jaccuse-sweden-britain-an_b_795899.html

  • Comment Link Emily Ann Baratta Monday, 10 January 2011 00:45 posted by Emily Ann Baratta

    Somehow the final parenthesis and period got included in the URL of the first link when the comment was generated, so be sure to remove them to find the article.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Monday, 10 January 2011 03:52 posted by Bergen Vermette


    still having a bit of trouble accessing that link, even after removing the extras.

    any chance of reposting or including a title to search? it sounds interesting.


  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Monday, 10 January 2011 05:13 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Thanks Emily, I agree with your thoughts on Naomi.

    Another great article she did on pornography


  • Comment Link Emily Ann Baratta Monday, 10 January 2011 16:12 posted by Emily Ann Baratta


    Here is the link to Naomi Wolf's article on abortion again:


  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Tuesday, 11 January 2011 04:45 posted by Bergen Vermette


  • Comment Link michael standingwolf Tuesday, 11 January 2011 18:34 posted by michael standingwolf

    i thought this was an engaging debate because both women make good points; however where jaclyn loses me is in her inability to acknowledge the ambiguity. the political situation alone is a massive red flag, and received surprisingly little mention in over a half-hour’s disucssion. but the allegations themselves are ambiguous, and from the point of view of judicial proceedings we can no more ignore the ambiguity than we can ignore rape. ambiguity demands that we suspend judgement and investigate to see where it leads, but in jaclyn’s mind the case is clear, assange is a rapist, and all that remains is to hand down the punishment. if her own rape was ambiguous then we might understand why she would adopt this approach, but if we’re committed to justice and fairness we cannot reasonably follow her.

    the main question this debate raised for me was the question of women’s agency. jaclyn for instance argues that the women did not protest and kept cooperating because they were terrified. now if we look at the whole context we can assume that the evening up until that point had been going reasonably well; the women certainly liked assange enough to invite him home, and there appears to have been a mutual understanding that some sort of sex was to follow. assange is then alleged to have ripped one’s clothes off aggressively, and to have held the other down. my question then is that given this larger context, and assuming that the women had suffered no previous assault, is it reasonable to assume that either of these two violent acts would have been sufficient to terrify the women into complete passivity? in other words, was either sufficient to completely deprive the women of their agency? i’m not intending to minimize the shock such acts would cause, or their gross inappropriateness, but i find it hard to imagine that most of the women i know would be subdued so easily.

    as i’ve been thinking about this i’ve been asking myself, what would have to have happened for me to consider this clearly and unambiguously rape? and the answer is that if, following either violent act, the women had said something like, “no, stop this, i don’t want this, get out of my house,” and then assange had attempted to continue. however no such message was apparently communicated at any point by either of them.

    my point is not to argue that absence of explicit refusal implies consent; it’s rather a broader question of what we think women are capable of. it’s well known that people will live down to expectations, and if we argue, even with the best of motives, that women are so weak that some unexpected roughness renders them completely powerless, then we’re basically admitting that pre-feminist attitudes toward women were right. my own view is that a lot of what passes for gender traits is simply the result of expectations. we expect boys to be tough; we expect them to be able to endure pain without crying, to push their limits, to fight back. these things are not natural to a great many boys, but a lifetime of that unwavering expectation can cause these traits to manifest. girls by contrast are rewarded for crying at the slightest thing; they’re assumed to be fragile and in need of protection. everything we do therefore to lend support to that attitude can help create these traits in girls and women, even though, as in the case with boys, they’re not at all natural.

    imagine that we brought up girls from day one with the same expectations that we have for boys. imagine that we simply assumed that girls are strong, that they’re tough, that they can take it, and that they’ll fight back. what kind of women would that create? and how would they respond when they take home a julian assange and he gets out of hand? it’s worth asking in this context if we would be calling julian assange a rapist if his partners had been men. i’m not saying that either set of gender expectations is fully healthy, but certainly training girls from birth to be helpless is a central part of the problem, and perhaps considering this situation to be rape unintentionally reinforces that message.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 11 January 2011 20:34 posted by Chris Dierkes


    I appreciated what you said. To me, there's this grey zone which is hard (in some instances) to call rape (if by rape we mean non-consensual sex) but where things are let's say "fuzzy". Fuzzy is probably not criminal.

    [btw, I completely agree with you that last time I checked a person was innocent until proven guilty and Assange was alleged to have raped these women whereas Jacyln says he is a rapist. Thanks for raising that important point.]

    The law has to be built around fairly absolute categories. Consent/non-consent, rape/not rape, and so on. And I'm not sure the legal world is the best forum to deal with these kinds of issues. The legality is (as you say) muddied even further in this specific case by the governmental issues and Assange's work on Wikileaks.

    The sexual terrain is a very dicey one and somehow the necessary black/white nature of the law (guilty or innocent) can't deal with the subtleties at play here.

    My (fairly random and not totally informed) guess would be that something went down that was not exactly kosher let's say but probably didn't constitute rape. But it's hard to say that in a charged environment of accusations and perspective taking.

    As to your other point re: cultural conditioning, I'll have to think more about that one.

  • Comment Link Rebecca Bailin Wednesday, 12 January 2011 09:14 posted by Rebecca Bailin

    Well I finally managed to watch this debate.

    My personal motto: “the answer is always both.”

    A few observations
    1. We don’t know what happened. But what happened is nearly irrelevant to this debate because the case was being used to explore a principle. The two women were trying to figure out what constitutes consent. Not easy.
    2. Making points on TV is harder than it looks. I tried to throw out having my opinion skewed by who looked more nervous or more articulate. Jaclyn, having been raped, was likely more personally triggered although I felt both women were deeply invested in the issue. Which, I think was healthy. Wolf was way more invested in the danger to Assange from the US government. Probably also healthy.
    4. I agree with Emily that “enthusiasm” is an unrealistically high standard by which to judge consent.
    5. The women agreed that the investigation of Assange was politically motivated and I think they made that point pretty clearly.

    I think the problem here is that we’re trying to create a standard that applies to all levels of evolution. Which we probably would have to do in a legal proceeding. But if we could take levels of evolution into account than we would have, I think, a better way to judge the context of consent in this type of ambiguous situation. We are not talking about rape in the Congo. We’re not talking about the epidemic of human trafficking. We’re talking about an ambiguous situation in Sweden. We’re talking about a boundary case.

    For lack of a better way to talk about this, let’s say that the answer is different for women who are lower stages of evolution than women who are at higher stages of evolution. Greater development, I think, gives a person more awareness, more agency, more choice.

    I think Jaclyn’s point is important and that it applies most to women that are less evolved: a woman who is socialized and educated to feel that her value is only in her sexual attractiveness is more likely to feel weak and to feel that a man’s wants are more important than hers. She may be more likely to acquiesce to sex acts that violate her. She may be more afraid. She may doubt her own sense of her own revulsion. Women who are incest survivors may have particular issues. I believe it is possible for a woman who has felt privately violated to still be so invested in pleasing her man that she gives him a party later.

    To me the likelihood of finding women at this level of evolution is lowest on the planet in Sweden. But who knows?

    So it may be reasonable to ask that a higher standard be imposed than that the woman explicitly refused sex. It is reasonable to take her mental state into account: if she is frightened or drugged or asleep she should not be expected to explicitly refuse. It seems reasonable to me that having sex with someone who is asleep or drugged or whom you’re holding down is not OK.

    So there I’m with Jaclyn.

    I believe a more highly evolved woman is much more accountable and responsible. This woman is less likely to feel utterly powerless, is less likely to acquiesce, is less likely to give a party for a man she feels violated her, etc. I think this woman needs to explicitly say “no” and be responsible for it. (Although I’m not sure even she can say much of a “no” if she’s asleep. Thank God I’m not a heavy enough sleeper to have missed any sex!) I would put myself in this camp. Afraid of Assange? He may be a hot computer guy but I would be willing to kick his ass. He don’ look too tough.

    The real question then, is what is a man’s responsibility? If he’s more highly evolved then he can be more sensitive to whether a woman really wants to have sex with him and he can back off if he feels that a woman is afraid and not really giving active consent. And he should be responsible for that. But if he’s not that evolved then he needs a more explicit consent from the woman and that may be just the situation in which she isn’t as capable of knowing herself and knowing her strength enough to give it.

    I think this debate and the commentary points up an error we make frequently in this community – we answer for ourselves and our own level of evolution. We are at a given moment in history, a given moment in evolution. We have to recognize where we are but also that history has power. I feel like our anti-Green zeal sometimes makes us forget history’s power. Some women have evolved past the point of acquiescing but there’s a long, violent history of learned (and violently coerced) acquiescence that is not forgotten in a flash.

    So both views, in my opinion, are correct but they apply to different levels of evolution.

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Wednesday, 12 January 2011 15:04 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Hey Rebecca and Micheal, thanks for both of your great and well-thought out responses!

    @Rebecca- I really like that you are putting a developmental lens on this, and I couldn't agree more that different women have different capacities depending on their own cultural, historical, developmental and trauma background. I guess my concern though is, how do we actually measure this in a case like Assange, or any other case for that matter? It seems that development is anything but cut and dry, and that even high functioning women can have very immature sexual development (men too). This is also complicated by a culture that sometimes overly supports the victim paradigm (what you are calling green, which for those of you who aren't familiar with the color jargon is another shorthand for postmodernism and the values of pluralism, relativism and sensitivity to minority differences as well as victimization).

    I think we also have to take into account that women can be very conflicted around their own desire and what they actually want from men, which leads to implications of it being hard for men to always read what a woman is actually wanting. Women have their own draws towards powerful men and can have very unconscious and mixed-motives around who they choose to sleep with. Until we are really clear about what we want, we can't ask men to be mind-readers. Of course, ideally, we should do it together, both men and women gaining more consciousness and awareness of each other, so your point is well taken.

    @Micheal- first of all thanks for posting! I know you are new to the site and that you aren't yet familiar with the integral jargon, so bare with us :)

    You said: "my own view is that a lot of what passes for gender traits is simply the result of expectations. we expect boys to be tough; we expect them to be able to endure pain without crying, to push their limits, to fight back. these things are not natural to a great many boys, but a lifetime of that unwavering expectation can cause these traits to manifest. girls by contrast are rewarded for crying at the slightest thing; they’re assumed to be fragile and in need of protection. everything we do therefore to lend support to that attitude can help create these traits in girls and women, even though, as in the case with boys, they’re not at all natural."

    I really appreciate you bringing that out and I think it adds a complexity to the conversation as well. Yes, we have to take into account development and cultural background, but what about the way that gender expectations shape what we actually think is natural to women and men? Where do we draw that line? And where do these ideas come from? The idea that women are delicate flowers comes largely out of Victorian values... how do we become conscious of these stereotypes, without belittling women who have been in very victimized situations? It is a delicate balance we all have to learn to walk with more skill, and I don't think there are any easy answers.

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Wednesday, 12 January 2011 15:17 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Also, if you want to see how the feminist community is responding this debate, check out this link to a thread running as commentary from Bitch magazine (a well known feminist magazine that I actually quite like). There is also a link here that includes a piece feminist Andi Zeisler wrote about Naomi Wolf that you can find if you you click on the highlighted words "Douchebag Degree recipient Naomi Wolf" Sad stuff...


  • Comment Link Rebecca Bailin Thursday, 13 January 2011 00:45 posted by Rebecca Bailin


    Yes, I agree that we cannot expect men to be mind readers.

    Given that we do need objective measures, and given that there are woman all along the maturity spectrum, I would probably lean more toward the objective measures that Jaclyn is offering.

    If we are able to establish that Assange in fact did hold one of the women down, that would be a factor. If he did have sex with a woman while she was asleep, that would be a factor.

    I think it's reasonable to expect men to get a freely given, affirmative "yes" and if there's holding down to be done to have a negotiated "safe word" and all the safety procedures that responsible BDSM players use. I get that affirmative "yes"es are not cut and dried given that participants may be half-asleep, half-drunk, etc., but I also don't think Jaclyn's is an unreasonable position.

    I think expecting an affirmative yes is not assuming that women are powerless.

    I can understand the frustration with Wolf and I can understand the frustration with Jaclyn.

  • Comment Link Rebecca Coates Friday, 14 January 2011 02:04 posted by Rebecca Coates

    The issue of consent is so thorny because, as Rebecca pointed out, different women have different abilities to assert themselves. I agree with Michael that we don't want to go down the Victorian road to the point where the law's overprotectiveness of women actually increases their lack of agency; on the other hand, women are certainly socialized to be nice, not make a fuss, smile, etc., and some men take advantage of this, giving a coercive edge to what seems like consensual sex.

    Both Wolf and Friedman are seeing the same events through these two opposite lenses: in Wolf's scenario, the women are free to tell Assange to get lost and bear full responsibility for their own experiences (good or bad) of the sexual encounters; in Friedman's there is an implicit threat in Assange's actions (the physical force and the badgering about the condom) which means the women were too afraid to offer an explicit refusal.

    There's no way to tell which scenario is more accurate without speaking to the women themselves. But what should the legal boundaries be for rape or sexual coercion? I do think that women who don't speak up about their sexual needs and desires should bear responsibility for the bad sex that results, but I also think it's naive to remove every sexual encounter from the larger cultural context in which women have been socialized to defer and shamed about their own sexuality for centuries. But does that mean men should be liable for rape if they don't get an unambiguous, unequivocal "yes"? That sounds unrealistic (not to mention unenforceable) to me.

    So I guess I'm saying... I'm really not sure. But I'm sure glad we're having this debate!

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Friday, 14 January 2011 04:36 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Great points Rebecca B. and Rebecca C.

    I too feel continually ambivalent about this. I totally see what you are saying Rebecca B. in regards your desire to implement Friedman's consent model for these cases of rape. I suppose my concerns bubble up when I think about ambiguous cases like when women consent, but then decide after that they felt violated in some way (perhaps some trauma was re-stimulated in some way during or after the act leaving the woman to feel abused in some way). How much is the man responsible for in these cases? Also, when do we demarcate the lines when someone is being even subtly coerced? Someone may consent simply out of fear or out of being afraid the guy won't like her, and she might feel subtly coerced, but how do we determine responsibility in these cases?

    Also, my concern about the Assange case is that these women never actually reported rape to the police. They went to the cops trying to enforce that Assange get an STD test, and it was the State that prosecuted Assange for rape. When Naomi Wolf tried to speak to the fact that these women didn't actually charge Assange for rape, Friedman just kept interrupting and reacting saying it was rape and these women were just scared, and it felt incongruent and overly dramatic. If the women didn't even report a rape, why is Friedman so insistent that it was rape? This is where I started to loose some interest in Friedman's position. I felt like she was just defaulting to victimization on reflex and that is what concerns me about these models...

    Any thoughts?

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 14 January 2011 17:46 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I think that one of the difficulties here is that we have a criminal system (almost if not entirely) built around retribution. A more mediation or rehabilitative model would seem more appropriate in this case. Especially given as Vanessa said, the women only went to the police in order to get STD testing.

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Friday, 14 January 2011 19:31 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Great point, Chris.

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Saturday, 15 January 2011 18:03 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    I just wanted to build on your comment here, Chris, because I was reminded of the article I wrote a year back with Diane Musho Hamilton, who is both a Zen teacher and works for the judiciary as a mediator in sexual harassment cases.

    We did a dialogue exploring sexual harassment issues and I remember Diane saying that as a mediator, she tries to do everything she can to work through sexual harassment cases with the two people involved without it having to go to court, for just the reasons you are pointing out. She said that it is way easier to handle these issues through private mediation processes, but as soon as it goes to court and lawyers get involved, it often gets nasty quite quickly, and these cases get more difficult to deal with because laws are designed to see things in black and white, whereas mediation is better equipped to deal with shades of grey... I think that is part of what we are seeing here.

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