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Assange case: Has feminism gone too far?

By F. Brinley Bruton, msnbc.com

LONDON - Polemical filmmaker Michael Moore seems in no doubt that dark forces are behind the rape and sexual molestation accusations leveled against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden.

“Governments and corporations go after individuals … they go after people with this kind of lie and smear,” Moore told MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. “This is all a bunch of hooey as far as I’m concerned.”

But while many WikiLeaks supporters contend that powerful international interests are misusing Sweden’s sterling feminist credentials to stifle the man at the helm of the organization, the debate in the country has taken a dramatically different direction.

Many in Sweden reject claims that Assange, who appeared in a London court Tuesday, is the victim of a U.S.-led conspiracy. Instead, the country has been gripped by a very public and often explicit discussion about intimate behavior and relationships. The case has even made some question whether feminism has been taken too far in this supposed bastion of gender equality.

Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning after two women accused him of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Stockholm is seeking his extradition from Britain although he has not been charged with any crime.

Feminism is a mainstream concept in Sweden and the country has among the toughest sex crime laws in the world. In fact, lawyers have been known to joke that a man must get written permission before having sex.

“WikiLeaks has vocal supporters (in Sweden), who by the way I am one,” says prominent feminist and journalist Johanna Koljonen, whose blog posts helped kick-off a fervent discussion when she revealed in intimate detail an experience that echoed the allegations against Assange.

But her support for the organization has nothing to do with whether Assange is guilty or not under Swedish law, she added. However, his case has reminded her of an encounter that left her uncomfortable.

“I woke up in a sexual situation with a partner with whom I has just a few hours earlier had consensual sex on the condition that we use a condom,” she wrote.

“It is often very clear what a rape is and what has happened, but even then we know it’s difficult for the parties to get a fair hearing in court,” Koljonen added. “Then there are the situations in which acts have been performed which may or may not be illegal, depending on the parties’ negotiation of consent. This principle makes legal situations complicated, but it is of vital importance: we should not and cannot legislate acceptable sexual practice.”

Koljonen’s blog post fed a growing discussion and soon Prata om det (#prataomdet on Twitter), or “Talk about It”, was born. The website has received more than 226,000 page views with the average user staying for seven minutes.

'Honest conversation'
The site encourages users to discuss negative sexual experiences and reveal times when “boundaries were violated.”

“Initiating an honest conversation about sex and consent is scary,” the site says. “Reactions can be cold or even hostile towards those who try. Because of this, many people hold their tongue and put a lid on their thoughts – but that doesn’t make the thoughts go away.”

In a post entitled “I’m a nice guy,” one male user posted that despite his best efforts he has not always behaved in a way he is proud of.

“I have the notion that I have a very enlightened and equal view on sex,” he wrote. “Sadly, my feelings and practical application isn’t as evolved and that hurts both myself and others close to me.”

In Sweden, the word "tjatsex" - defined by Koljonen as "nagging sex ... sex that you talked someone into having even when they didn’t feel like it" - has even entered the mainsteam.

Journalist Sonja Schwarzenberger, who has been involved with the website since the beginning, says it is a forum for women and men to safely discuss negative sexual experiences.

“Our idea was, how not to make it black and white is to say, 'here it is, this is my experience.'”

Fair trials difficult?
For weeks, the debate has dominated the airwaves and newspapers in Sweden.

But while many view the ability to discuss the ambiguous intimate issues as a positive thing, the gray area often referred to and the country’s relatively broad definition of rape alarms others.

Pelle Billing, a M.D. who lectures and writes on gender and men's issues, worries that Sweden’s rape and domestic violence laws make it difficult for men to get a fair trial.

He cites a quote by the lawyer for Assange’s accusers, who went to the police for advice before deciding to file charges.

“Women who are assaulted don't always define it as that,” said lawyer Claes Borgstrom, who is the Swedish Social Democratic Party’s spokesman on gender equality. “It's a big problem in our society and it can be difficult to assess what has happened if you are not a lawyer."

“So how is man supposed to know what the boundaries are if the women don’t know?” Billing asks. According to him, feminism in Sweden has stopped being about equal rights and has begun to infringe on men’s rights.

So Billing spends little time worrying whether the case against Assange is the result of U.S. pressure on Sweden and instead focuses on whether Swedish courts uphold the presumption of innocence for men accused of rape and domestic violence.

Billing was excoriated in public for discussing his beliefs and the Assange case on a leading current affairs program.

'Without shame'
Even some Swedes who call themselves feminists concede that sexual violence and rape laws are sometimes applied unfairly.

“It is important in this Julian Assange case to understand the situation,” says Per Samuelson, a defense lawyer who focuses on defending men accused of rape. “Everyone (around the world) is shouting that Julian Assange is innocent (but) people in Sweden think otherwise because they tend to believe the women in over 90 percent of the cases.”

Comments like these no doubt trouble Assange and his defense team. But they are in stark contrast to the views espoused by vocal WikiLeaks supporters such as prominent Canadian feminist Naomi Klein.

“Rape is being used in the Assange prosecution in the same way that women's freedom was used to invade Afghanistan. Wake up!" she said of the case against him.

But for many in Sweden, the Assange case has crystallized important issues around personal boundaries, sexuality and the law.

As journalist Koljonen says: “How can judges and juries and the media be expected to speak honestly and think coolly about things we can’t even say to ourselves without shame?”