Why Rape: Linguistic Currency, Nationalist Politics

Progressive journalists and activists have decried as bogus the warrant issued through Interpol for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest on the charge of “sex crimes” committed in Sweden. As information has come to light about the nature of these crimes (which were downgraded and then upgraded again in what were arguably oddly timed moves), it has become clear that it is improbable that the charges are anything but a political maneuver orchestrated in the shadows by the US, or, at the least, a government eager to curry favor with the US. In fact, the so-called crimes, which seem to amount to a protest over a broken condom and a few women scorned, do not come close to meeting the US Penal Code definition of rape.

What is troubling in this maneuver – aside from the overt oppression of information its success would condone – is the question of offense: why rape? Of all the many offenses that could be dreamed up as cause to arrest Assange, why choose sex crimes? Is it about the availability of an accusing party? Maybe. But it strikes me that there is another operation at work here – an attempt to secure public opinion against Assange as an assailant, as a violator of feminine dignity. Nation, after all, is often conceived of as precisely feminine – as the motherland.

Perhaps the intent of this warrant is not only to perform damage control and to contain Assange, but also to place him at the mercy of public opinion: not as the man behind the organization that has leaked the secrets of an imperialistic power, but as the man who raped an undeserving nation. I do not mean to suggest that sex crimes are not serious. In fact, rape is a terribly serious offense against a person’s right to her or his own body. Rape is personal; it affects us at a visceral level. So when a crime that is so personally affective is used as a political tool, we ought to pause for a moment and ask ourselves: Why this? Why now?

Mediatic representations of rape are highly stylized. News stories about sex crimes, particularly rape, focus on the element of surprise in such an attack. The old trope of a violent man jumping out of the bushes to attack an unsuspecting woman should be familiar to most television-watching Americans. In fact, despite what this imagery suggests, the incidence of rape has fallen significantly in the last twenty years[i], and almost seventy-five perfect of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.[ii] For a country so interested in the justification for a huge policing force, the function of these (mis)representations is pretty clear: they create a fear that helps to legitimize a police presence.

And in the case of Julian Assange, all the rhetorical significance of “rape” may very well be used as justification for precisely why he is so dangerous and must be tried in the US. How long after he stands trial in Sweden (if he stands trial in Sweden) will the US demand his extradition? Perhaps even more crucially, in what ways will public opinion be swayed for or against his prosecution stateside? We can be sure that this is a politico-ideological operation in part because state-sanctioned acts of sexual violence (such as those committed during the extraordinary rendition and torture of German citizen Khaled El-Masri)[iii] are never called rape despite the fact that they do meet the US Penal Code definition of that offense.

Prior to the sex charges brought against him by Sweden, Assange struck many in the American public as a ne’er-do-well hacker and an information thief. By turning him into a rapist – whether or not he is ever convicted does not really matter – he has become immediately dangerous. He is no longer operating in the murky waters of journalistic freedom and diplomatic relations, but in the crystal-clear waters of violence against women. Not the women who he allegedly “sexed-by-surprise” in Sweden, but against America herself. This is a tricky and highly politicized use of linguistic currency on the behalf of nationalist interests. Rape is, as forensic psychologists are so often quoted as saying, about power. This is certainly no less true of the political use of a rape charge to turn the tide against a so-called enemy of the state.

[i] Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Report, 2009.

[ii] Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. “The Offenders,” 2010.

[iii] American Civil Liberties Union. “US Pressured Germany not to Prosecute CIA Officers for Torture and Rendition,” November 29 2010.