December 8 Update | Please read this before commenting.

Here’s how a widely-circulated story printed in Slate magazine yesterday described the incidents that led to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s Interpol arrest warrant:

“During a business trip to Stockholm last August, Assange had unprotected sex with two women … who upon realizing that they had both slept with him—and that he had blown them both off—jointly approached police about his refusal to take an STD test. At the time, Assange’s Swedish lawyer confirmed that ‘the principal concern the women had about Assange’s behavior … related to his lack of interest in using condoms and his refusal to undergo testing, at the women’s request, for sexually transmitted disease.’ (Assange actually did use a condom with one of the women, but it broke.) … Theconsent of both women to sex with Assange has been confirmed by prosecutors,’ as a former attorney wrote in an impassioned op-ed.” [bold and italics in original]

But here’s how the New York Times reported the incidents back on November 19:

“According to accounts the women gave to the police and friends, they each had consensual sexual encounters with Mr. Assange that became nonconsensual. One woman said that Mr. Assange had ignored her appeals to stop after a condom broke. The other woman said that she and Mr. Assange had begun a sexual encounter using a condom, but that Mr. Assange did not comply with her appeals to stop when it was no longer in use.”

Note: See second update below for new details on the charges released by Swedish authorities on December 7.

Slate characterizes this as a case in which Swedish prosecutors have confirmed that the sex in each instance was consensual, but are pursuing charges anyway. Their only sources for this claim, though, are two of Assange’s lawyers. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Slate vouches for the lawyers’ analysis in their own account of the incidents, even though it’s clear that whether the sex was consensual is under dispute. (Even the Daily Mail — Slate’s only non-Assange source for their piece — whose own reporting is deeply creepy in many ways, is more honest about the charges than Slate is.)

And that’s another thing — the phrasing of the second quote from the Assange lawyer. According to the Times accounts, both women initially consented to sex, but withdrew consent when a condom broke or was removed. If that’s the case, then the lawyer’s gloss — that the “consent … to sex … has been confirmed” — is technically accurate but fundamentally dishonest. If someone consents to sex with you, then asks you to stop, and you don’t stop, that’s rape.

One final confusing element of this story is Assange lawyer Mark Stephens’ recent claim that “Assange is wanted not for allegations of rape, as previously reported, but for something called ‘sex by surprise.’” I’ve been able to find no reference to such a charge in Swedish law, and no confirmation in any media coverage of the Assange story of any such alteration to the charges.

I have no opinion on whether Assange is guilty of the charges against him. I by no means reject the possibility that he’s being set up — I just don’t know. But I’m getting a strong sense that his lawyers are misrepresenting what’s being alleged, and I’m troubled by the online media’s willingness to go along with those misrepresentations. For more on the media and blogosphere’s questionable treatment of this case see this comprehensive post from reader/commenter Neogaia.

December 7 Update | Assange has been arrested in London in connection with the sex charges against him. The charges are rape, sexual coercion, and molestation — not the mythical “sex by surprise.” (See this excellent post for more on “sex by surprise” — the phrase doesn’t refer to any Sweden-specific crime — it’s actually just a dismissive Swedish slang term for rape.)

Comparing the charges announced by police with those listed in the official English-language translation of the Swedish penal code, we see that Assange’s lawyer’s claim that the charges against him carry a maximum penalty of a 5000 Kroner fine (variously described in US media as $700 or $715) is also false. Rape carries a maximum penalty of six years, sexual coercion and sexual molestation two years each.

Update | The Swedish authorities have released details of the allegations against Assange. They claim that he used his body weight to hold one woman down during a non-consensual sexual act, that he had sex with her without using a condom in violation of her “express wish,” and that four days later he “deliberately molested” her “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity.” The other complainant alleges that he took sexual advantage of her while she was asleep, and that he did not use a condom.

Update | I should note for clarity’s sake that Assange hasn’t actually been charged with anything. He’s been arrested, and the Swedish authorities have specified the charges they’re considering filing against him, but those charges have not been filed at this time. Sweden is seeking to extradite him for questioning, nothing more.

Update | Again, please read this before commenting.