Defending Assange, Ecuador’s President Kindles a Controversy over Defining Rape

The decision to help keep Assange out of Sweden shines light on Latin America’s problematic attitude toward rape

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Chris Helgren / Reuters

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London, where he is taking refuge, on Aug. 19, 2012

This isn’t exactly International Male Sensitivity Week. First we had Missouri Congressman and Dark Ages darling Todd Akin sparking a global firestorm of criticism, and calls from his own Republican Party that he drop his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, by suggesting that “legitimate” female rape victims rarely get pregnant. Akin later apologized and said he meant to say “forcible” rape — but that still betrayed the backwardly narrow definition of rape that Akin and so many other anti–abortion rights conservatives hold.

Now we have Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who last week granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, reminding us just how at home Akin would likely feel in Latin America, even in countries run by leftists like Correa. Talking to reporters on Wednesday in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Correa noted with a disturbingly matter-of-fact air that the sexual assault two women in Sweden accuse Assange of committing against them in 2010 “would not be considered in any case a felony in Latin America.”

(MORE: Assange’s Special Asylum: Why Ecuador Isn’t Nice to Anyone Else)

You can attribute Akin’s remarks to his fundamentalist Christianity; you can ascribe Correa’s observation to his region’s retro machismo. But both cases point up that around the world we still have too limited an appreciation of what rape is. It was only this year, for example, that the U.S. Department of Justice broadened its definition of rape (unchanged since 1927) to include not just instances of violent violation but also those in which the victim is incapacitated, when “physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent.” That bothers many right-wingers because, they fear, it means more women can claim rape when seeking an abortion. But, at least in the case of Assange, a liberal hero for his release of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables, it also irks many who object to the particular rape accusations made against him.

Assange, who has not been formally charged, is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden — where he fears he may in turn be extradited to the U.S. to face an espionage trial. Both of Assange’s Swedish accusers allege that even though they originally engaged in consensual sex with him, it became nonconsensual rape when he ignored their pleas to stop the intercourse — using his weight to hold them down, according to Swedish investigators — because he refused to wear a condom. In one case, the woman accuses Assange of initiating unprotected sex while she was asleep and unaware.

The WikiLeaks leader has denied the accusations and calls them politically motivated. But if they’re proved to be true, they certainly conform to the idea of rape. And that’s what makes the cavalier attitudes about the definition of “legitimate” sexual violence so troubling, not just among American pro-life lawmakers but, as Correa reminds us, among lawmakers in developing regions like Latin America (like the pro-Correa national assemblyman Rolando Panchana, who recently warned, à la the Akin crowd, that women will abuse the rape exception if Ecuador allows it). Correa, who critics say is shielding Assange as a way of kicking Washington in the shins, should have thought twice before downplaying what Assange is alleged to have done. Rape is a plague in every part of the world, and in Latin America it’s a “serious and pervasive problem,” according to the South Africa–based Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI). In a 2010 SVRI report, as much as 47% of females in some corners of the region say they’ve been sexually assaulted in their lifetime — and they are “most at risk of sexual violence from intimate partners.”

(MORE: The Gunboat Diplomacy Trap: How Ecuador Used Assange to School the Brits)

In other words, in those instances of rape, like date rape, that radical pro-lifers and radical machistas don’t like to characterize as rape. The SVRI, in fact, lists “legitimization of violence against women by intimate partners” as a main cause of Latin America’s high sexual-violence rate – and its low rate of arrests, let along convictions, when rapes are reported. “In most parts of the region,” the SVRI concluded, “government responses to sexual violence have been weak.”

To be fair, Correa did also say in Guayaquil on Wednesday that “it has never been the intention of the Ecuadorean government or Julian Assange not to respond to” the allegations against him. The main reason Assange is balking at extradition to Sweden, Correa insisted, is the fear of being subsequently hauled to the U.S. But that’s highly unlikely since Sweden almost never extradites people to countries where they could face the death penalty, as Assange might in the U.S. As a result, Assange’s critics say he really doesn’t want to go to Sweden to answer the sexual-assault charges — and that Correa just wants to exploit the case to both burnish his anti-yanqui street cred and deflect attention from his crackdown on the media and free speech in Ecuador.

But what Correa may have done in Guayaquil instead is shine a brighter light on Latin America’s questionable approach to rape. If anything, given that Correa made his remark just days after Akin’s gaffe, he at least demonstrated a questionable sense of timing.

MORE: Out of Ecuador: Another U.S. Ambassador Bites the WikiDust