Julian Assange, Chick Magnet?

Despite his most-wanted status and allegations of sexual misconduct, the WikiLeaks founder is intriguingly attractive to many women. Tracy Quan examines how his misbehavior grabs attention.

12.13.10 10:37 PM ET

Are allegations of sexual misconduct involving two different women in Stockholm turning Julian Assange into a new kind of celebrity pin-up? Is the WikiLeaks founder now a civilian porn star?

His image has certainly changed as a result of the Swedish rape charges leading to his arrest in London. Jon Stewart's parody coverage of the story has relentlessly emphasized not his cable-stealing skulduggery but—his blondness.

Gallery: Julian Assange's Hair: A Brief History

The absurd focus on Assange's hair and his problems with women (when we could be thinking instead of WikiLeaks’ revelations about Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard's relationship with the U.S. State Department, or civilian casualties from the wars) is instructive. Oddly enough, I'm reminded of the moment in the last election cycle when Obama was being hailed as a "pimp" by adoring Facebook supporters.

It seems we haven't evolved or grown much these past few years, but biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of five smart, accessible books on things evolutionary, takes a longer view. She says our erotic obsession with celebrities “has to do with the loss of local community. For millions of years, we sat and talked about the girl on the other side of the fire pit because we both knew her. Today we go to work and our work buddies don’t know who our neighbor is, so we’re left with talking to each other about the only people we all do know: celebrities.”

And celebrities, it seems, talk about each other. Notable female defenders of Assange include the photogenic British socialite Jemima Khan (Hugh Grant’s former companion), who offered to contribute to Assange’s bail last week, and American feminist Naomi Wolf, lambasted on Salon for making fun of the sexual accusations from her Huffington Post perch.

Assange, it seems, has caused Wolf to show a different side of herself compared to, in 2004, when she blasted Harold Bloom for “unwanted sexual advances” on the cover of New York magazine. Fisher said, “It certainly is strange that she would carry on about an incident with Harold Bloom and then attack two women who themselves are equally upset by an alleged sexual assault.”

You can take sexual assault seriously and still ponder the timing of the Assange arrest and the nature of those two intimate encounters.

When it comes to unclear sexual situations, Fisher cautions that we learn “more about the people talking about them than we do about the people who were actually involved.”

Subversive guys with cavalier notions about female consent are nothing new. Think of late Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who described rape as “insurrectionary” in his bestselling memoir, Soul on Ice. Nor have women always been put off by such attitudes. Cleaver’s feisty radical lawyer, Beverly Axelrod, started a romance with her client while he was doing time for rape.

But that was the ‘60s. If Julian Assange, now in Wandsworth prison, were to call sexual assault a form of revenge against the power structure, I’m quite sure Jemima, Naomi, and Arianna Huffington (yet another high-profile lady supporter) would be keeping their distance. Working in Assange’s favor is a certain ambiguity about the accusations—that and the bad-boy hacker aura that surrounds his rather earnest persona.

Assange, who, after being in hiding, politely, if belatedly, turned himself in to British police and claimed the sexual encounters were fully consensual, is no Eldridge Cleaver. Still, the allegations of molestation and abuse arouse feminine interest: Wolf, who pointed out that heaps of men act like “narcissistic jerks,” seems to view Assange as, perhaps, a rather special one. Do we have a vanilla version of the Axelrod-Cleaver dynamic here?

On some level, Assange’s supporters may want to believe he overstepped boundaries, without thinking of him as a thug. This distinction certainly happened with Bill Clinton and his feminist fans. Pro-choice Clinton apparently exposing himself to Paula Jones was, according to Gloria Steinem, not guilty of sexual harassment, while anti-choice conservative Clarence Thomas telling dirty jokes was a serious offense.

When a political ally, or foe, is accused of sexual misconduct, many women seem to have trouble with consistency or objectivity. Roman Polanski gets more sympathy than you’d expect because his attackers sound like socially conservative vigilantes—something Assange has in common with the director. Vigilante style commentary from William Kristol and Jonah Goldberg (“Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?” wrote Goldberg in the Chicago Tribune) may endanger his safety, but might also make him a lot more attractive to a lot more straight women. (Some gay men, too. asked readers last week, “ Would You Hit That?”)

And then there are the charges themselves. We are told that a condom broke during sex, and Assange continued after one woman asked him to stop. With the second woman, he allegedly began having sex with her while she was asleep and didn’t wear a condom.

If William Kristol were accused of doing any of the above during a sexual encounter, he wouldn’t inspire nearly as much sympathy among liberal women. Yet Wolf, dwelling in a “boys will be boys” way on Assange’s allegedly boorish dating style, reminds us that female appetites are as unpredictable as those of men. And—pro-Assange cynics are quick to note—both accusers were happy to hang out with Assange after the apparently non-consensual activities occurred. One threw a party, the other shared a meal.

Michael Moore: Why I Posted Assange’s BailWhat can explain this ambiguity? Could it be that living in Sweden, a country with considerable feminist cred, where 85 percent of the men take paid parental leave, drives some women nuts? Perhaps being surrounded by a nation of sensitive egalitarian guys makes a lot of women—even professional feminists—nostalgic for a golden age of insensitivity which Assange, an Australian national, had the ability to conjure up for them. That he’s also engaged in meaningful political activism makes for a heady contradiction.

Fisher sees Assange as “a hunter,” she says, because “look at what he’s done. He’s got information and today, information is power. It’s like raw meat. Or money, and it makes him very powerful, very sexually attractive.”

If Assange, now 39, is extradited to Sweden and permitted to stay there, it’s likely he will attract interested women who find him intriguing because of, not in spite of, the accusations. Men who have done far worse things to women are sitting in prison receiving love letters from sympathetic females.

Of course, conspiracy theories abound here, too. You can take sexual assault seriously and still ponder the timing of the Assange arrest and the nature of those two intimate encounters. WikiLeaks has been so government-shaking that it’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which the rape accusations are part of a larger plan to distract us from the content he has disseminated.

If Assange’s two accusers add up to a very sophisticated “ honeytrap,” he’s part of a tradition that includes Israeli whistleblower Mordecai Vannunu. Seduced in 1986 by “Cindy,” a young woman working for Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, Vannunu went to jail for 18 years. Vannunu—a naive 31-year-old wandering around Central London, determined to expose Israel’s nuclear-weapons program—believed he had picked her up.

That ruse wouldn’t have been necessary with Assange. At 39, he seems far more experienced than the young Vannunu, who was secretly lured away and handled quite roughly. Assange has wisely protected himself by publicly surrendering to authorities. A modern honeytrap with a sex-positive, Euro-feminist spin makes sense in these gentler yet deadly times.

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Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.