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Naomi Wolf: Wrong Again on Rape | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Naomi Wolf: Wrong Again on Rape

Should the press reveal the names of complainants in rape cases? In the Guardian, Naomi Wolf says yes—beginning (but you knew this was coming) with the two women who've accused Julian Assange of forcing his attentions—his condomless attentions—on them. The same women she previously mocked on HuffPo as jealous whiners, and on Democracy Now!, accused of giving mixed messages to an ardent bedmate. No "let's wait until the trial," for her.

Anonymity, Wolf argues, is a relic of the Victorian era, when raped women were seen as damaged goods; permits stereotypes about rape victims to flourish, since people don't see that "ordinary women" get raped; harms women by treating them as children rather than moral agents; and impedes law enforcement. This last point is a little bizarre: doesn't Wolf realize that anonymity applies only to the media? Everyone in the justice system knows who the complainants are. Wolf also, as she often does, gets her facts wrong: Anita Hill, whom she cites as bravely volunteering her name and thereby spurring a great wave of "equal opportunity law," was not a complainant in a legal case. She was subpoenaed as a witness in the Senate hearings. Anonymity was never an option for her. Furthermore, Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas had nothing to do with rape, so why is Wolf even talking about her? Hill is in fact, the only real-life modern woman Wolf mentions in a piece that name checks Virginia Woolf, Coventry Patmore and Oscar Wilde.

Call me cynical, but I don't think Wolf would be taking this line, either about anonymity or date rape, if the accused were, say, George W. Bush, or, for that matter, Joe Sixpack. This is all about protecting Assange from what she believes are politically motivated charges. In other contexts, Wolf seems aware enough of the risks of exposure for women who accuse men of even minor acts of sexual aggression. After all, in 2004 she confessed in New York magazine that for twenty years she had not "been brave enough" to mention to any living soul that Harold Bloom had "sexually encroached upon" her by groping her thigh when he was her professor at Yale. Does she think she would have been more courageous if going to the dean would have meant seeing her name on the front page of the Yale Daily News, the New Haven Register and maybe even, given Bloom's celebrity, the New York Times? In fact, Wolf waited decades to make a peep and is furious at Yale, all these years later, for not acting on her non-complaint.

In defending her attacks on the women in the Assange case, Wolf often mentions her experience as a counselor and reporter on rape (she's reported on rape "more than any journalist I know," as she modestly put it on Democracy Now!). Does she really think rape victims (including of course male rape victims) would side with her on this? Yes, Naomi, I would like my extremely conservative extended family to know all about how I came not to be the virgin they think I am! Oh, Naomi, please, it's so important that everyone I meet knows I was raped at a frat party, because otherwise how will they know how to set up a group on Facebook calling for me to be sodomized unto death? The trouble with declaring anonymity an outworn custom is that the Victorian code that shamed rape victims is with us today, it's just that to the stereotypes of the sullied virgin and chaste wife have been added the crazy lying slut, the cocktease and the repressed frump who secretly "wants it." If Wolf has really spent as much time with rape victims as she claims, I can't believe she doesn't know how ready people are to attack the credibility of just about anyone who brings a charge of rape, including, often, the accuser's own friends and family. Disproving her own thesis, Wolf is quite willing to assume the worst about the Assange accusers, based on Internet rumors, early misreportings and spin from Assange and his lawyer.

I'm the first to admit that anonymity in this particular case is a close call at this point, since, although I've always supported anonymity for sex-crimes complainants, at the last minute I decided to name "Miss A" in my column two weeks ago. My thinking was that she had no real privacy left: her name is all over the Internet (some 113,000 Google hits); "Miss A" just looked so silly on the page. (I was also under the mistaken impression that, post-outing, the women had accepted a public role; in fact, they've been attacked so viciously, that Miss W has gone into hiding and Miss A has moved to the West Bank.) A number of people objected when the piece came online, and that night my editor and I changed it back to "Miss A." Better look a little prim than help the pack baying for their hides. (The original version still exists in the print magazine.)

Rape victims already face formidable obstacles in getting justice, which is a big reason why so many don't go to the police. (In the US, only about 13 percent of reported rapes result in a conviction; in the UK, it's about 6 percent.) Wolf argues that victims of other crimes don't get anonymity, but in no other crime do complainants face anything like the skepticism and hostility widely meted out to those who report sex crimes, especially when the accused is famous, respectable, admired, important or even just good-looking. Never mind what publicizing names would do for "women," the theoretical construct. What about the actual human beings who have been the victims of sex crimes? Why does Wolf want to increase their suffering? Isn't it bad enough that the police may well not take them seriously, their rape kits may not be processed, their credibility will be attacked in court in a way that would never happen if the crime were burglary or mugging and, if the defendant looks like one of their own—their son, their brother—at least some members of the jury will be looking for reasons to acquit?

Watch out for people who want to make life harder for real-life women on the grounds that it'll help "women." There is no end of ways in which increasing the odds against already victimized people can be portrayed as good for them—look at the debates around welfare and affirmative action. The best way to help real life rape victims is to make it easier for them to report attacks against them, so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice and prevented from harming others. If what women see all around them is that those who come forward have their lives shredded and their reputations, thanks to the Internet, forever linked to their most traumatic experience, they will decide, in even greater numbers than now, that coming forward just isn't worth it.

Right now, nothing prevents rape complainants from outing themselves, and some have done so. More power to them. But extraordinary heroism should not be forced on people, especially if the result is more silence for victims, more impunity for perpetrators. Naomi Wolf, who kept her own secret until the time was right for her, regardless of the effect on other women, should be the first to understand that.

 

 
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