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Sexual politics and the veneer of free speech

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — One intriguing story that has come to light as a result of the latest round of WikiLeaks revelations is, to use a somewhat dated term, the sexual politics in Sweden. I, like many, I’m sure, had assumed that Sweden is among the most sexually liberated developed countries. As it turns out, it actually isn’t, in some unexpected ways.

Earlier this year, Julian Assange, founder-director of WikiLeaks, went to Sweden and had sex with two women, apparently consensually. The upshot months after the fact was his arrest in Britain that ended in a judge’s decision to release him on bail.

What happened? Time magazine has given one reason in “Behind Assange’s Arrest: Sweden’s Sex-Crime Problem” (Dec 16). The Swedish prosecutors’ decisions to bring charges against Assange following the two women’s complaints is a result of that country’s “internal dialogue.” (The Swedish authorities stumbled, with the first prosecutor bringing the charges, then dropping them, followed by the second one reinstituting them. That has invited suspicions of U.S. intervention, which, for all we know, may prove to be true.)

Yes, Time began by noting that, in Sweden, women are liberated and actively seek sexual encounters in bars and such (and readily take men home, as happened to Assange). But “Sweden has by far the highest incidence of reported rapes in Europe, and one of the lowest conviction rates in the developed world.” Hence, the pressure on its government from international and domestic bodies to do something about it.

The two women’s complaints, as described by Time, may partly explain the large discrepancy between reported incidence and actual conviction. They are attenuated examples of “date rape,” which, like “suppressed memories,” was a hot topic in the United States some years ago. Allegations in this category are often too subjective to be treated as “crimes” — unless the criminal code is written in such a way as to accept whatever is alleged as fact. The details added by the Guardian a day later (“10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange,” Dec. 17) seem to reinforce the nature of what happened between Assange and the two women.

As the same newspaper — one of the four to which WikiLeaks passed “secret” diplomatic cables to be published at their discretion — has made clear, rules on sexual engagement are fine-tuned in the United Kingdom as well. Still, this aspect of the WikiLeaks uproar has reminded me of some of the surprising things I learned about Sweden several years ago.

In the U.S., matters sexual readily become bizarrely schizophrenic, creating the divide between highfalutin sanctimoniousness and flat-out realism.

Take abortion: Ever since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, which deemed the wholesale ban on abortion unconstitutional, the pro-choice (reproductive rights) vs. pro-life (sanctity of life) schism has been a contentious issue in America. For now, abortion is permitted up to the third trimester. Yet, in Sweden, a national health board must give permission on abortions that go beyond the second trimester.

This is one thing I found when I read Rutgers University’s annual report, “The State of Our Unions,” five years ago. It contained some other eye-openers — if, of course, you have the vague notion that “Sweden is sexually liberated.”

Another surprise was in vitro fertilization. As the recent Hollywood movie “The Kids Are All Right” has shown, what the Japanese call “outside-the-body fertilization” is wholly accepted in the U.S. In Sweden, the practice is highly restricted.

In addition, sperm banks, which I gather form an indispensable part of in vitro fertilization, are banned outright in Sweden. In the U.S., there may be some procedures you are required to follow, but there are, apparently, no legal restrictions.

Speaking of “banks,” in 2002 “the Swedish government authorized the creation of Europe’s second stem cell bank,” I have learned more recently. The 2008 report of the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life doesn’t say, but I’m certain that step was part of the European reaction to President George W. Bush’s announcement, in the summer of 2001, to sharply restrict stem cell research.

Bush, the avowed believer in the sanctity of life who nonetheless did not mind killing huge numbers of people for the gospel of democracy, defines the stem cell question, in his account of his White House years, “Decision Points,” as a “philosophical clash between science and morality.” (Some have called his book “Delusion Points.”)

To cite just one more example, in the U.S., for all the talk about love and family, having a child or children poses no hindrance for dumping your spouse. It’s all about custody and money. In Sweden, if you have a child or children 16 years or younger, you must set aside a waiting period of six months before a divorce is granted.

So, appearance and reality can differ; of course, my examples reflect my jaundiced perception. More important, the sexual charges against Assange are incidental to WikiLeaks’ disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables en masse.

But with the U.S. reaction to what WikiLeaks has done, the discrepancy between appearance and reality becomes a serious matter, because in this case, the appearance in effect was solidly based on the U.S. advocacy of “global online freedom.” Yet the U.S. reacted in a manner the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has characterized as “derangement.”

So, in a speech on Internet freedom in January this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quoted from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to affirm that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The main purpose of her speech was to condemn China and others for censoring the Internet and to extol the virtues of the free flow of information on another marvel of American technological invention.

On Nov. 29, however, she flipped and condemned WikiLeaks, declaring that the disclosure “puts people’s lives in danger [and] threatens our national security.” I do not have to cite the rants of the lint- head Sarah Palin and the formerly moderate politician Mike Huckabee, let alone some others’ calls for Assange’s assassination. It takes only a second for the U.S. to shed its veneer of freedom of speech.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.