One of Julian Assange's soundbites during the coverage of the sexual abuse charges brought against him last fall by two Swedish women has been: "Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism." He used the quote in an interview in December, adding, "I fell into a hornets' nest of revolutionary feminism." Today, with a British judge ordering his extradition Assange to Sweden to stand trial for "two counts of sexual molestation, one count of unlawful coercion, and one count of rape," The New York Times reprinted it, leading to much eye-rolling at feminist blogs. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown is now selling T-shirts reading "Hornet's Nest of Revolutionary Feminism," with the option of an arrow pointing down at the wearer's nether regions.

Assange's defense to the charges and attitudes towards the notion of consent has already angered feminists. "While [the women] wanted to have sex with him, they expressly did not want to have unprotected sex with him," writes Irin Carmon of Jezebel. "Why is it so hard for him to understand that the women may have wanted to engage in some sexual activity with him, but on their terms?" Slate's Amanda Marcotte, writing at Pandagon, agrees: "The notion that full consent should be required for sex to happen is hardly my idea of 'revolutionary feminism,' or a 'hornet’s nest.'"

But back to that phrase: "Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism." What on earth is Assange trying to say? We have a few theories.

  • Sweden is the world's leading supplier of feminism  In one of the most common usages, the construction "X is the Saudi Arabia of Y" seems to mean that X is rich in Y as a resource--the way Saudi Arabia bubbles with oil--and that X can enjoy great geopolitical leverage as a result. Chad Harbach, in an essay for n+1 a few years ago, called Canada "the Saudi Arabia of freshwater." When mineral deposits were found beneath Afghanistan last year, an internal memo at the Pentagon said that the country could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium." The problem with this analogy, though, is that if Assange has read his own site full of secret cables, he'd know that the U.S. suspects Saudi Arabia of vastly overstating its oil reserves. 
  • Feminism is just like Islamicism  It's long been popular to deride feminists as "feminazis." And perhaps Assange was just updating the slur. And as the homeland for Osama bin Laden and many of the 9/11 hijackers. But, if he was trying to compare feminists to Al Qaeda, "Saudi Arabia" is a poor choice of words: Al Qaeda is no supporter of the royal Saudi regime. 
  • The Swedish justice system is as opaque as Saudia Arabia's  The main argument in Assange's plea for the U.K. to deny his extradition was that he would not get a fair trial in Sweden. Bernard Porter at the London Review of Books admits to a certain squeamishness at the way the Swedish legal system handles cases like Assange's: "Sweden doesn't have a jury system and holds rape trials in secret. Swedish friends of mine fail to see a problem here. But it worries me, brought up to believe in the importance of being judged by one's peers." Maybe he is using the expression to imply that Sweden is as much an autocracy as Saudi Arabia. Of course, the problem there is that in Saudi Arabia, they can condemn people who even have consensual sex to death by stoning.