On #MooreandMe, Pt. II: Naomi Wolf and Protecting Accusers’ Anonymity

Part of what has so revived the #MooreandMe Twitter hashtag this week is renowned feminist Naomi Wolf’s January 5 op-ed for the Guardian, titled “Julian Assange’s sex-crime accusers deserve to be named.” Wolf argues that shielding rape accusers from the public spotlight infantilizes women, allows unethical organizations to hush up accusations, and is morally irresponsible.

So Naomi Wolf’s name was pulled into #MooreandMe, the link to her Guardian article trended for a bit, and many feminists reacted to her op-ed with immediate censure and rebuttals, including Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, Tracy Clark-Flory for Salon, and Jaclyn Friedman, who had previously debated Wolf on Democracy Now!. Friedman tweeted this gem of the 140-character medium:

Generally, I’m not comfortable with revoking this or that person’s “feminist card,” but I think Friedman explains herself well when she tweets the logic behind declaring Wolf neither a feminist nor an ally:

[Wolf] is doing enormous active harm to untold women by perpetuating vile and pervasive myths with a platform larger than any of us together could dream of having”¦she is creating more violence in the world for other women, by making it easier for rapists to rape with impunity”¦she has now done irrevocably too much damage, &we [sic] disavow her.

But the debate over whether Wolf deserves to claim the title “feminist” will have to be taken up by someone decidedly more invested than me–I would much rather discuss the statements about rape accusers in Wolf’s op-ed, the unspoken implications lurking behind those statements, and whether anonymity is something rape accusers “deserve.”

Wolf’s first point vís-a-vís anonymity is that it is outmoded and reminiscent of the Victorian Age, when all women everywhere possessed fainting couches and smelling salts and couldn’t even be convicted of a crime:

The convention of shielding rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian era, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified in what descended to us as modern law. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death”, rendering women ““ supposed to be virgins until marriage ““ “damaged goods”. The practice of not naming rape victims took hold for this reason.

“¦ “Good” women’s ostensible fragility and sexual purity was used to exclude them from influencing outcomes that affected their destinies. For example, women could not fully participate in legal proceedings. Indeed, suffragists fought for the right to be found guilty of one’s own crimes.

Allow me to nitpick (because sloppy journalism, mystery sources, and playing fast and loose with historical narratives piss me off)– citing “the Victorian era” and all its incumbent visions of sexual prudery as the source of anonymity for rape victims is clever in its implication, but foolish in that it doesn’t take into account the fact that widely circulated newspapers were only just becoming popular in the Victorian era.

Before the Industrial Revolution and advanced printing technology allowed “penny papers” to be mass-produced on the cheap, the public wouldn’t have had access to the names of rape accusers and accused outside the relatively small social circles of villages and towns. The new laws likely evolved hand-in-hand with the newspaper’s capability to broadcast information to a wide audience, and those laws/practices continue today because we still have the capability to reveal the name of a rape victim to practically anyone in the world. More on why that factor is important later.

More nitpicking: the sentence about suffragists insisting women have the right to be prosecuted for crimes is misleading. Woolf infers that women were somehow shielded from legal consequences; however, I could find no evidence of the same online, and it is a fact that prisons for women did exist in Victorian England (just read Charles Dickens’ chilling account of Newgate), so we can surmise that women were, in fact, accountable to the law.

The spheres in which Victorian women suffered from exclusion under the law primarily involved property–before the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882, married British women were not allowed to own or control property, ceding any inheritance to their husband. Perhaps this is what Woolf was aiming for when she mentioned Victorian women being barred from “legal proceedings,” but if so, it has no bearing on her argument.

Wolf seeks to liken those who would grant rape accusers’ anonymity to the Victorian taste-makers who would have considered a raped woman bereft of her chastity and therefore “broken.” Not only does Wolf’s argument ignore male rape victims, it’s an absurd accusation. Feminists have been working for decades to do the precise opposite–to ensure that rape crisis centers and hotlines are available to counsel hurting victims, to create safe spaces (both online and IRL) where victims can talk through their experiences, and to ensure victims move forward and reclaim their full lives in the healthiest manner possible.

While pinning the utmost value on virginity is foolish, it’s important to note that a rape victim has had something valuable stolen from her–many valuable things actually, which may include her sense of safety, her sexual autonomy, and/or her self-worth. Focusing on the value of what rapists steal from their victims is not the same as telling a victim he or she is worthless pending an assault.

Anonymity serves institutions that do not want to prosecute rapists. In the US military, for instance, the shielding of accusers’ identities allows officials to evade responsibility for transparent reporting of assaults ““ and thus not to prosecute sex crimes systematically. The same is true with universities. My alma mater, Yale, used anonymity to sweep incidents under the carpet for two decades. Charges made anonymously are not taken as seriously as charges brought in public.

It is only when victims have waived their anonymity ““ a difficult, often painful thing to do ““ that institutions change. It was Anita Hill‘s decision in 1991 not to make anonymous accusations against Clarence Thomas, now a US supreme court justice, that spurred a wave of enforcement of equal opportunity law. Hill knew that her motives would be questioned. But as a lawyer she understood how unethical anonymous allegations are, and how unlikely to bring about change.

The blame for failure to properly prosecute charges of sexual assault should fall first and foremost at the feet of those officials who exploit their power in order to silence women and let rapists off the hook. But Woolf doesn’t take that tack, naturally.

Let’s dig into Wolf’s examples, starting with the U.S. military. The military offers active duty soldiers the opportunity to file either a restricted or a non-restricted sexual assault report. Filing a restricted report allows the victim to “confidentially disclose the crime to specifically identified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling without triggering the official investigative process.”

Army publication The Stars and Stripes reports on why the restricted option is available:

Experts maintain that sexual assault victims throughout U.S. society are reluctant to report an assault, forgoing medical and psychological care, to maintain their privacy and avoid being themselves blamed. (emphasis mine)

If the victim chooses to file a non-restricted report, which will initiate a criminal investigation, the details of the assault, including victim’s identity, are released within 24 hours to investigators and the base commander. So unless the victim personally elects to disallow an investigation, one will go forward. I fail to see how the military’s system for granting anonymity allows for any more than the usual, omnipresent opportunities for authorities, from policemen to counselors, to game the system and silence victims.

The military could rescind its restricted reporting measure, but I’m not sure that alternative is in any way victim-friendly. The military is infamous for being something of a good ol’ boys’ club–despite the integration of women in most branches, the overall environment is often hostile towards women. We have to ask ourselves–is it more important to force all soldiers who have been victimized and want to report to come forward and identify themselves (ensuring that many forgo reporting altogether), or is it more important to allow an avenue for the victims (overwhelmingly female) who are concerned about repercussions on their personal lives and careers to report and receive necessary medical help and counseling?

I will choose the latter answer every time.

In regards to universities, The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (1990) requires those that participate in government financial aid programs to disclose the crimes that occur on their campuses in an annual report, in addition to keeping a public log of all crimes reported or known of on campus in the past 60 days.

While the Clery Act has helped hold universities responsible, campus police have proven themselves to be such unreliable arbiters of justice that a new Act ought to be drafted, one which requires campus police to turn over violent crimes investigations to local county, town, or city police forces.

The issue with inept campus police has nothing to do with victims being assured their names will be protected, and everything to do with police taking advantage of their authority to arbitrarily decide whose allegations are worth pursuing. All too often, the judgment calls of these campus police organizations seem to line up more with universities’ interests than with victims’.

RE: the Anita Hill example–Ms. Hill testified against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings only after her interview with the FBI, wherein she alleged sexual misconduct against Thomas, was leaked to the media. At that point, it would have been impossible to testify before the Senate anonymously, and we can only speculate about whether or not Hill would have made the decision to testify had her identity not already been leaked. While her actions should be applauded, they don’t line up with what the average assault victim experiences during a trial scenario.

According to an information sheet titled “What will happen in court?,” written by the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault,  accusers may request a closed court during the committal hearing (wherein a judge determines whether there is enough compelling evidence to proceed to trial), and while the entire trial itself will likely not be closed court, “on application by the prosecution and at a Judge’s discretion, the court can be closed while the victim/survivor gives their evidence.”

These provisions ensure the accuser’s identity is known to the prosecution, defense, and judge–how would the judicial process possibly be aided by that identity being released to the media? It would simply be an unnecessary hindrance and distraction, one that would discourage women from coming forward to report a crime that 60% of victims already choose not to report.

And since undetected rapists are often repeat offenders, discouraging victims from reporting rape means even more rapists loose, free to victimize even more people.

The convention of anonymity, conversely, lets rape myths flourish. When accusers are identified, it becomes clear that rape can happen to anyone. Stereotypes about how “real” rape victims look and act fall away, and myths about false reporting of rape relative to other crimes can be challenged.

Enough rape victims have been outed or have chosen to shed their anonymity that any old canards about “every rape victim” looking this way or acting that way should have died the death of hateful misinformation, a thousand times over. But Woolf is assuming that the people who propagate these stereotypes can be swayed by numbers or logic or statistics or facts–they can’t.

Melissa McEwan’s “Rape Culture 101″ post over at Shakesville is perhaps the most exhaustive, enlightening post I’ve ever read concerning rape culture in that it details dozens of the ways people excuse rapists and put the onus on victims to prevent rape:

Rape culture is the idea that only certain people rape–and only certain people get raped. Rape culture is ignoring that the thing about rapists is that they rape people “¦ Rape culture is the narrative that sex workers can’t be raped. Rape culture is the assertion that wives can’t be raped. Rape culture is the contention that only nice girls can be raped “¦ Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing that the victim of every rapist shares in common is bad fucking luck. Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Rape culture is avoiding talking about what an absurdly unreasonable expectation that is, since rapists don’t announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple.

Wolf is mistakenly laying the blame for “rape myths” squarely on top of activists who seek to protect victims’ privacy (and, by association, on those victims who don’t reveal their identities publicly), instead of admitting that these “myths” are really tools of a patriarchal, misogynistic, rape culture.

If all the educational efforts of schools and non-profits and women’s health centers haven’t succeeded in preventing rapes (and that, really is the issue here–we want to prevent rape, not just dispel the inconvenient myths that flourish around rape) or dispelling myths, why does Wolf believe that shoving victims into the spotlight will suddenly enlighten people? It’s far more likely to give victim-blamers more fodder for such derailing arguments as “Well, she was wearing a miniskirt” and “I’ve heard of that girl–she’s a huge slut” and “Of course she got raped–she’s pretty/ugly/bitchy/loud/quiet/white/black/brown/etc.” Evil doesn’t go away when it’s confronted by the light of truth, it just finds ways to corrupt the truth to fit its purposes.

Feminists have long argued that rape must be treated like any other crime. But in no other crime are accusers’ identities hidden. Treating rape differently serves only to maintain its mischaracterisation as a “different” kind of crime, loaded with cultural baggage.

I’ll make a deal with you, Naomi Wolf–when as many rapists serve time as do murderers, thieves, drug possessors, et. al., we can dust off this paragraph and have a go at treating rape “like any other crime.” But as long as 15 out of 16 rapists never see the inside of a jail cell, it is absurd to argue that we should treat rape like other crimes–rape is a “different” kind of crime in that its victims are unusually villainized in the media and the low conviction rate for accused rapists allows many of them back out on the streets, where they can harass their victims, who are likely already dealing with the fallout from being accused of “over-reacting” or even purposely reporting a false rape.

Protecting victims’ identities is a bid to shield them should their case never go to trial (which, according to RAINN, happens in 60% of reported cases), to spare them the repeated trauma of having to read about their assault in the morning paper, and to stave off the victim-blaming masses that, due to rape culture and general callousness, have no problem posting the personal information of alleged victims (the full names and home addresses of Assange’s accusers are now all over the internet, not that I’m about to link to them) or commenting on whether or not they were “asking for it.”

Finally, there is a profound moral issue here. Though children’s identities should, of course, be shielded, women are not children. If one makes a serious criminal accusation, one must be treated as a moral adult. The importance of this is particularly clear in the Assange case, where public opinion matters far more than usual. Here, geopolitical state pressure, as well as the pressure of public attitudes about Assange, weigh unusually heavily. Can judicial decision-making be impartial when the accused is exposed to the glare of media scrutiny and attack by the US government, while his accusers remain hidden?

As I’ve demonstrated in previous paragraphs, women who file rape charges still have to testify, under oath, in a court of law–they are most certainly treated as “moral adults,” in the same manner that someone who files a different type of charge would be. And there are punishments for filing false reports–the NYC weather woman who falsely claimed to have been raped is now facing a fine and jail time.

What Wolf is really saying is not that she wants women to be held to a moral standard by the police or the criminal justice system–she wants them to be held accountable by the media, which, as we know, always does a bang-up job reporting fair, salient facts.

Apparently, Wolf believes that since “media scrutiny” is fucking up Assange’s chances for a fair trial, if we just unleash his alleged victims’ identities into the same, intense fray, that will even the score. Funny, it sounds like she wants the public to pore over the leaked details of the attacks and make uninformed, willy-nilly judgment calls about the accusers, doesn’t it?

I’ll admit, whole-heartedly, that the timing of these allegations and the decision of the Swedish authorities to suddenly pursue them with incredible vim and vigor is terribly suspicious. Political pressure is undoubtedly playing a role in Assange being forced to stand trial for a crime  for which most men would never answer. Still, should the argument be, “Most rapists get away with this, so why not Assange?” or should it be, “Assange needs to answer to his accusers, Wikileaks or no Wikileaks, and though the circumstances are fishy, the allegations themselves ought to be taken seriously”?

I vote the latter.

It is no one’s business whom a victim of sex crime has had sex with previously, or what she was wearing when attacked. Laws exist to protect women from such inquiries. But some questions of motive and context, for both parties, are legitimate in any serious allegation.

Ok, please wake me up when these laws are actually enforced against the vast numbers of internet commenters speculating about the sex lives of Julian Assange’s accusers right now. See, sometimes laws exist which don’t really effect the average citizen (jay-walking, anyone?), and when shitty things are perpetuated on a societal level (like rape myths and victim-blaming), it becomes that much harder to put a stop to them.

And of course “questions of motive and context “¦ are legitimate”–but it’s up to a judge and/or a jury to decide how and why, not the masses who read a summary about the assaults over coffee and a bagel.

I’ll spare you Wolf’s comparison between Assange and Oscar Wilde because it’s really too ludicrous and unconvincing for my already-taxed brain to pick apart right now. Instead, let’s busy ourselves with Woolf’s concluding paragraph:

“¦ The lesson for us? Top-level political pressure and virulent public opprobrium ““ inflamed and enabled by anonymous accusations ““ can grossly distort legal process.

Wolf, are you even listening to yourself at this point? Did you know that Assange’s accusers have been referred to as “the most hated women in the world” (public opprobrium? check!), that their personal information has been widely available since last August (anonymous accusations? not anymore!), that details of their assault charges have been widely available since December 19, and yet the case for Assange isn’t shaping up to make him look any less like an egotistical maniac who allegedly raped two women?!

The lesson for us? A) Don’t read anything by your feminist icons (or could-be-maybe-in-the-future feminist icons, in my case, since I’m not that familiar with Wolf’s work) and B) don’t be swayed by faulty arguments that attempt to excuse and mythologize and recontextualize everything about rape but the bottom line–rapists rape, victims are victimized, and taking away victims’ anonymity won’t make any of that better.

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