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.