NEW YORK – It is difficult for me, as an advocate against rape and other forms of violence against women, to fathom the laziness and willful ignorance that characterize so much of the media coverage of the sexual-assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. To report that we are simply witnessing Swedish justice at work, one must be committed to doing no research – not even the bare minimum of picking up a phone. In fact, we are witnessing a bizarre aberration in the context of Sweden’s treatment of sex crime – a case that exposes the grim reality of indifference, or worse, that victims there and elsewhere face.
If I were raped in Uppsala, where Assange is alleged to have committed his crime, I could not expect top prosecutors to lobby governments to arrest my assailant. On the contrary, “ordinary” Swedish rapists and abusers of women should assume that the police might not respond when called. When I tried the rape-crisis hotline at the government-run Crisis Center for Women in Stockholm, no one even picked up – and there was no answering machine.
According to rape-crisis advocates in Sweden, one-third of Swedish women have been sexually assaulted by the time they leave their teens. Indeed, according to a study published in 2003, and other later studies through 2009, Sweden has the highest sexual-assault rate in Europe, and among the lowest conviction rates.
When I reached the Stockholm branch of Terrafem, a support organization for rape survivors, a volunteer told me that in her many years of experience, Sweden’s police, prosecutors, and magistrates had never mobilized in pursuit of any alleged perpetrator in ways remotely similar to their pursuit of Assange. The far more common scenario – in fact, the only reliable scenario – was that even cases accompanied by a significant amount of evidence were seldom prosecuted.
This, she explained, was because most rapes in Uppsala, Stockholm, and other cities occur when young women meet young men online and go to an apartment, where, as in the allegations in the Assange case, what began as consensual sex turns nonconsensual. But she said that this is exactly the scenario that Swedish police typically refuse to prosecute. Just as everywhere else, Sweden’s male-dominated police, she explained, do not tend to see these victims as “innocent,” and thus do not bother building a case for arrest.
She is right: According to a report by Amnesty International, as of 2008, the number of reported rapes in Sweden had quadrupled in 20 years, but only 20% of cases were ever prosecuted. And, while the prosecution rate constituted a minimal improvement on previous years, when less than 15% of cases ended up in court, the conviction rate for reported rapes “is markedly lower today than it was in 1965.” As a result, “in practice, many perpetrators enjoy impunity.”
Until 2006, women in Uppsala faced a remarkable hurdle in seeking justice: the city’s chief of police, Göran Lindberg, was himself a serial rapist, convicted in July 2010 of more than a dozen charges, including “serious sexual offenses.” One victim testified that she was told her rapist was the police chief, and that she would be framed if she told anyone about his assaults. Lindberg also served as the Police Academy’s spokesman against sexual violence. The Uppsala police force that is now investigating Assange either failed to or refused to investigate effectively the sadistic rapist with whom they worked every day.
In other words, the purported magical Swedish kingdom of female sexual equality, empowerment, and robust institutional support for rape victims – a land, conjured by Swedish prosecutors, that holds much of the global media in thrall – simply does not exist.
In the Assange case, the Swedish police supported the accusers in legally unprecedented ways – for example, by allowing them to tell their stories together and by allowing testimony from a boyfriend. But other alleged victims of gender-based abuse, sometimes in life-threatening circumstances, typically receive very different treatment. In particular, according to WAVE, a pan-European consortium of service providers for rape and sexual-abuse survivors, when migrants, who comprise 13.8% of Sweden’s population, report rape and abuse, they face high systemic hurdles in even telling their stories to police – including longstanding linguistic barriers in communicating with them at all.
Likewise, Swedish intake centers for victims of male violence are woefully underfunded – like all support services for rape and abuse victims across Europe and North America – leaving many women who face threats to their safety and that of their children waiting for unavailable places in shelters. When I emailed the Rape Crisis support institute in Uppsala, listed by the global rape-crisis organization RAINN, I received an automatic reply saying that the facility was temporarily closed.
So, for most raped Swedish women, the shelters are full, the hotlines inactive, and the police selectively look the other way – that is, unless they are busy chasing down a globally famous suspect.
We have been here before. Last year, when my left-wing colleagues were virtually unanimous in believing the New York Police Department’s narrative of a certain victim and a guilty-before-due-process rapist, I made the same call – to the local rape-crisis center. There, Harriet Lesser, who works every day with victims whose alleged attacker is not the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, confirmed that the official support shown for the victim – in advance of any investigation – was indeed unprecedented.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that Assange, much less Dominique Strauss-Kahn, committed no crime against women. Rather, Assange’s case, as was true with Strauss-Kahn’s, is being handled so differently from how the authorities handle all other rape cases that a corrupted standard of justice clearly is being applied. These aberrations add insult to the injury of women, undefended and without justice, who have been raped in the “normal” course of events – by violent nobodies.