Since the Swedish Journalism Award nomination for #prataomdet happened to approximately coincide with the decision to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden, the connection existing in some people’s minds between the movement and the man has been reaffirmed. I was planning to write a brief post about #prataomdet from a journalism perspective but since I’m on the topic, let’s start with Assange, and I’ll return to the journalism stuff tomorrow.
The original trigger for my tweets that were just hours later to launch a national discussion on the topic of sexual gray areas was indeed the media coverage and internet shit storm surround the Assange case.
They were also – like everybody else’s reading of this in Sweden – influenced by other sex crime cases that had been in the media recently, such as the Bjästa case, in which a local community turned against the young victims of a rapist even after he had been sentenced guilty. You don’t need to point out to me that comparisons between the two cases are flawed since Assange may very well be innocent. That much is obvious, as is the fact that the victim-blaming mechanisms inherent in our culture have operated similarly in both cases.
That night in December, 2010, I had not followed the coverage at all, nor read any of the documents leaked from the investigation, or oriented myself in the details of the case or the exact wording or effect of Swedish criminal law – as indeed I have yet to do. I happen to be convinced that media speculation about on-going criminal cases is not very helpful. I’ll read up on the topic once real information is available, and will even then leave it to the criminal courts to judge the case, as should you.
What interested me that evening was the very different assumptions of guilt in UK and Swedish media – again, based solely on browsing headlines and reading what other people were saying on Twitter and Facebook – and how predictably the culture of victim blaming closed its noose on the women who raised charges. It seemed from all the talk that the case was far from clear-cut, and it struck me as rather heroic to even report a case so apparently vague and so unlikely to be given a fair hearing (since the judicial system seems to struggle even with straightforward sexual assault cases). Being prepared to go through that ordeal seemed pretty courageous especially given that the alleged perpetrator is a global superstar and apparently a personal idol of the alleged victims – and of many other intelligent people, including at that time myself.
By “heroic” I mean that even if charges in a situation like that had been of some very serious crime, the chances of bringing a perpetrator to justice in the end would perhaps have been low, while the personal cost measured for instance in internet hate would inevitably be very high (as proved to be the case). Bringing charges of a relatively speaking lesser crime, where proving anything one way or the other would be complicated or impossible, was even less likely to succeed even if the allegations were to be factually true. I didn’t and don’t know if they are, but I found it a fascinating conundrum. Perhaps, I mused, our justice system is in fact not very well equipped to judge these cases.
Then I told a personal story which illustrated why. I told of a sexual experience where I had, technically, been the victim of a crime (being penetrated in my sleep and – in violation of a previous agreement – without a condom). I hadn’t felt very bad about that part of it in the years since, and had never thought of it in terms of a crime. Instead, the memory had always been a shameful one to me because I had allowed the sex to continue out of shyness and social awkwardness, even though I remain convinced I could have stopped it with a word. It would still have happened, but it would not have continued.
Who was responsible in this situation? The man, who probably never knew I was not a willing participant, or me? And what could a court ever had made of this? And how could either of us ever had proved anything if it came to that?
Taking a case similar to my story to court was in my view heroic because it was daring (and it was daring because it was a little stupid from a sef-preservation perspective). Still, it would do something very important: test the system. Do our laws really protect the innocent? The man I had invited into my bed probably never even understood that he had crossed my boundaries and broken my trust. And also, if we were to consider me the victim of a crime, could our justice system have done anything about it? Probably not. But to try if it can, in a similar case (which I understood the Assange case to be), that seemed pretty interesting.
All of my tweets that evening are publicly available so following my thought process is pretty simple.
Considering my own experience in the light of the coverage of a real-world court case had made me understand a bunch of interesting things about negotiating borders in my own sexual practice. So I suggested to my followers that it would be pretty damn Spartacus if everyone who had a similar experience would stand up and say so. I suggested tagging the conversation “thanksN”, N being the name of one of the Assange case women. Then I thought better of it – for starters, because the name was not in fact meant to be in the public domain, and because it was suggested to me that the women would probably want no more attention ever again. But my primary reason for directly changing my mind was that it was obvious that a tag like that would make it seem like these stories suggest something about guilt in the case in question. Which would of course have been exactly contrary to my point as stated above.
Let me repeat for clarity: my first thought was pretty stupid. But I was thinking aloud, and I changed my mind. Read it for yourself, no secrets there.
However, I do think that anyone who followed the #prataomdet conversation that followed will realize that it pertains to the Assange case, albeit indirectly. Starting from my very first story, #prataomdet illustrated with any number of autobiographical experiences that assigning guilt in negative sexual situations is very complicated indeed – and that big chunks of what our legal system claims to be able to do it probably isn’t.
Now, many of the stories that emerged in the following two weeks, especially on Twitter (a medium that is famously not great with nuance) were descriptions of out-an-out crimes. Sex under force, sexual violence, sexual harassment. Even in those cases, however, the victims sharing their stories often asked themselves why they hadn’t spoken up or acted differently – and came up with all kinds of interesting responses, some biological, most cultural.
But most of the stories were like mine: about situations that were not black-and-white, about bad decisions and social fears and utter failures of communication. This came to be known as the “gray area”.
They were about the many reasons we have sex – gratitude, feeling flattered, needing a place to stay the night, believing that is how we prove our manliness, because we love someone who wants it now, to get it over with, because our bodies are aroused and our brains can’t stop it, because we think it’ll make us feel more grown up, etc – and about the ways all of these reasons control our decision making in sexual situations.
Men wrote about the pressure to perform; men and women wrote about how our cultural focus on penetration in sex often made them continue intercourse even when it physically hurt them: women wrote about not wanting to create a scene and thus not asking any questions even when they, for instance, regained consciousness in the middle of intercourse in a bedroom at a party with no idea of how they got there. Women, including myself, also wrote about themselves as perpetrators (based on our cultural double standard that women give sex as a gift to men, who are assumed to always want to receive it, and are therefore not socially allowed any other reaction than horny gratitude when being, for instance, groped by women). We even had a double blog text from a female victim and male perpetrator both looking back at the same situation and describing their respective subjective understanding of what had happened and why.
How does all this pertain to Assange? Well, when it comes to specifics, you’d
have to ask someone who knows the details of the case. But questions have been raised in the pro-Wikileaks community (to which I would like to say that I belong, although they’d probably not have me now) about whether all of #prataomdet was an Anti-Assange campaign. Now, clearly that was not my intention, but I’ve been forced to consider pretty carefully whether I may have started such a movement accidentally. My answer is no.
The #prataomdet texts make the following things very clear: that there are thousands of conceivable sexual situations in which the real or communicated wishes of one or both of the parties have been violated, in which the other party is not necessarily even aware that this has happened, and/or in which one party notices the other person is not happy, but does not feel responsible for what has transpired. Yet, the experience of the violated party is quite often that the other person should have known, should have guessed, should have heard, should have remembered.
And when this is the case, as with the experience I myself described that evening in December, I am very doubtful that a court case helps anyone. What we have here is not a legal problem, it is a cultural problem that #prataomdet was designed to both chart and address. I believe we succeeded.
Separately or together these stories say nothing about the innocence or guilt of Julian Assange, and how could they? But on aggregate I would say that they suggest that both the women and Assange may be telling the truth as they experienced it at the time and/or have constructed it afterwards (given that human memory in general is not super reliable). If anything, this understanding is in the interest of the defense, so if you must accuse the #prataomdet movement for taking sides, that is probably the side to which you should be pointing.
All of this said, I personally still advocate reporting a sex crime over not reporting one. But I also suspect that the integrity of the legal system as well as our sexual happiness would be greatly enhanced by better communication before, during and after sex. That was the goal of #prataomdet.