Lots and lots of talk in the past two weeks about the rape charges against Wikileaks frontman Julian Assange. Here is a representative roundup of links to some of the big-name blogs' commentary on the reaction to the charges. Some of the media coverage has been nothing short of embarrassing; note the many examples of stories that noted that the accuser was wearing clothing that was tight (and pink, the color of rape. Apparently.) In short, this situation is not telling us anything about prevailing attitudes in our society and in the media that we did not already know based on previous high-profile rape cases.
That said, I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made. As is often the case with emotionally charged issues, the concept of skepticism toward the charges has been painted with a very broad brush. In reality we are dealing with two separate issues: skepticism toward the accusation and skepticism toward the charges. Regarding the former, it does not make a difference if he's charged with pinching someone's ass in a bar or forcible rape; it's inappropriate to assume that the charges are made up, to openly speculate about the possibility, or to assume that the accused is guilty. Speculation is not only indicative of a lot of the worst aspects of reactionary thinking in our society – look, even Naomi Wolf jumped on the "she's lying" bandwagon – but it's also utterly pointless. Having established that the accused and accuser had intercourse under some disputed set of circumstances, how in the hell do you or I know what actually happened? Maybe she's lying. Maybe she isn't. Gee, that was productive.
Regarding the second issue – skepticism toward the charges and the authorities in Sweden – I'll argue until I'm out of oxygen that it's an entirely legitimate target. This is no a question of people accusing the accuser of fabricating the charges. It is a question of why the Swedish government suddenly decided that the accuser's charges, which were filed months ago, needed to be upgraded to Most Wanted "Scour the globe for this guy, he is an extraordinarily dangerous criminal" status a few hours after the accused squatted over the U.S. State Department and took an enormous Cleveland Steamer on its chest. These accusations are not new and yet the Swedish authorities did not file charges until August of 2010, conveniently on the tail of a summer of information disclosures by Wikileaks. The charges lingered for a few months and yet suddenly in early December Assange becomes the target of an international manhunt. I welcome anyone who provides me with contradictory statistics here, but I will go ahead and assume that there are very few international manhunts for accused date rapists originating out of Sweden. Or anywhere else for that matter.
So I'll register my own complaint here. Many others have already done a good job of pointing out the sad treatment to which the accuser has been subjected in the media, and I'll concur with that. On the other hand, why is there not more outrage directed at the Swedish prosecuting authorities who are obviously using the accuser, about whom they care little except as a means of targeting Assange, and her charges, which did not seem to be an urgent matter a few months ago and about which there has been no new evidence uncovered? It seems to me that an excellent way to motivate skepticism of rape charges in a society heavily predisposed toward skepticism on that issue is to ignore the accusations until it is politically desirable as a means to punish the accused for unrelated matters.
Of course, lacking the complex thinking skills necessary to separate these issues (i.e. a functioning brain) most people will just continue to heap their skepticism about the political motivation on the accuser herself. Because it's easier and, like, she was wearing a lot of pink or something.