We, the Women’s Campaign of Cambridge University, want to tell you about the Cambridge Union Society. It is a society that was set up in Cambridge in 1815 to practice debate. Just so we’re clear, it is in no way affiliated with the Student Union of Cambridge University. On the face of it, reading its own online mission statement, the Cambridge Union Society seems to have respectable aims. They write that they are committed to using debate “to challenge the presumptions and prejudices of a wide range of ideas, opinions and beliefs” and “to making our society as inclusive as possible.”
These commitments, however, do not reflect the speakers they have invited over the last two years.
They invited Julian Assange to speak in March 2011 just four months after he was placed under house arrest for sexual assault charges.
The year after, in March 2012, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was invited despite being in ongoing legal proceedings for rape in the US.
Now we see Julian Assange, reinvited to the Union, scheduled to speak via video link on November 27th. This is despite his continued European Arrest Warrant and the subsequent fact that he is a criminal in the eyes of British Law. He is shamefully seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in order to avoid facing two allegations of rape.
By inviting these two men at times when both were in the middle of a trial investigating allegations of rape, Cambridge Union Society is failing at challenging the presumptions and prejudices of our time and they are certainly failing at making our society as inclusive as possible. The reason we are particularly disappointed at the repeated invitations to accused rapists, is that we know that Cambridge Union Society are aware that rape and sexual assault are among the least well understood, treated and convicted crimes, in either law or public opinion. This is particularly true in Britain, which has the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe, at 6%.
The National Union of Students’ recent “No Platform for Rape Apologists” motion which passed on 26th September 2012 mandated that the NUS shall “not offer a platform to speakers who are rape deniers, and blame and undermine rape victims, nor shall it officially support any event that does.” The Cambridge Union Society’s invitation to Julian Assange after the NUS’s motion shows no awareness of how their repeated invitations to alleged rapists undermine the voices of rape survivors. Instead, by inviting him now, the Cambridge Union Society are riding on a tide of publicity created from the traumatic experiences of rape survivors to raise the profile of their own name.
The biggest problem in our eyes, however, is that by privileging Strauss-Kahn and Assange’s public personae, they are colluding in the horrific silence and shame around rape. By giving these men a platform at a time when both of their public images were at risk, the Cambridge Union Society allows these two men to share the privilege that a CUS platform holds. In doing this, they have enabled both figures to attempt to revamp their public personae and so aid in undermining the allegations made by survivors. They, like so much of society as we have seen in the recent disclosures regarding Jimmy Saville, ignore the simple fact that people who may be considered important in society are capable of rape and other crimes. If presented with rape allegations, they must face them like anybody else.
We ask that Cambridge Union Society revoke the invitation to Assange and, in doing so, take the first steps to changing themselves from being an institution that colludes with societal trivialization of rape.
See the petition by clicking here.