The rape identity

Cunt. Slut. Bitch. Whooore!

She was out late at night. She was dressed like a tramp. She drank too much. She drank at all. She smoked pot. She smoked crack. She smoked a cigarette. She waved away your smoke disapprovingly. She ate dinner with you. She went on a date with her boyfriend. She has marriage vows. She needed to be “fixed.” She had a smart mouth. She thought she was too good for you. She gave it up to that guy already. She’s nobody. She was.

She was asking for it.

We’re going down that tricky, tricky rabbit hole again with Naomi Wolf. Did you read her column in the Guardian? I can hardly believe that Wolf was ready to pen another thinly veiled apology for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is accused of raping two women in Sweden. This time she comes at it by blaming accusers for hiding behind anonymity laws.

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.

Wolf argues that protecting victim’s identities does a disservice to them because it treats them like children, rather than a “moral adult.” And, furthermore, it sets rape apart from other serious crimes.

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 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.

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.

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?

While the genesis of such laws may go back to Victorian times, protecting victim’s identities continues in modern times for a very good reason. It helps them survive. Because sexual assault isn’t like other crimes. There is no shame in getting your car stereo stolen. No one asks you what you were wearing when you got mugged. No one calls you a whore if your garage gets tagged with graffiti. And chances are no one is going to stalk you, threaten you or otherwise intimidate you for testifying in any of those cases. I agree with Wolf that it would be nice if we could let sexual assault survivors tell their stories in the light of day without fear of intimidation, black-listing or shame. But that’s not reality.

Look what happened right here in Nevada when former Governor Jim Gibbons was accused of attempting to sexually assault Chrissy Mazzeo. Even though the allegations surfaced weeks before the election — and her identity was fully disclosed — it didn’t stop Gibbons from being elected and the charges from being (shadily) dismissed. (And from Mazzeo moving out of Nevada to flee constant harassment from the media and public as well as saying she was black-listed in her profession as a cocktail waitress.)

Wolf is worried for the big-name man accused, Assange, and that his reputation will be damaged because of such allegations. But time and again we see that powerful men like Assange not only go free but often end up just as popular and successful as ever. Kobe is still shooting hoops. Schwarzenegger just finished his tenure as California governor (and is still appearing in movies). Even Wolf’s own example of Clarence Thomas offers little hope — he’s in a lifetime appointed position to the country’s highest court!

Where Wolf really loses me is when she insinuates that rape survivors are actually not “moral adults” because they hide behind protection laws. Isn’t that the ultimate victim-shaming, Ms. Wolf? You just said that rape allegations must not be coming from moral people if they don’t share their identity and every bloody detail of their experience with the world! Shame on you Ms. Wolf!

It’s a grim situation. But don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a lot of value to sexual assault victims coming forward. Secrecy and shame are the true violence of rape. Those can last a lifetime. And every survivor who tells their story; who has the courage to press charges; and is brave enough to walk into a courtroom has my deep respect. They have more courage than I do. And they do it not just for their own justice but for all those who fear for their lives or who can’t make it passed the threshold or who are told there isn’t enough evidence or who are silenced by the good-ol-boy network.

Perhaps the worst part of the whole Wolf column is buried at the end, where she correlates the Oscar Wilde sodomy trial of 1895 with the sex crime allegations against Assange.

The Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 is worth remembering. Wilde, like Assange, was held in solitary confinement. Like Assange, he faced a legal proceeding for alleged sex crimes in which there was state pressure on the outcome: the alleged behind-the-scenes involvement of the then prime minister, Lord Rosebery, ensured the likelihood of a “guilty” verdict. The roar of public opprobrium, in the wake of reports from accusers shielded in some cases by anonymity, also sealed Wilde’s fate. His sentence – two years’ hard labour – was atypically severe.

Wilde was tried for being gay. Assange is charged with rape. How are those two things similar? I know she is saying that because Wilde was famous that the government and courts went after him more harshly than a normal person. But even though the trial and sentencing were wrong — because hating gay people is wrong — I don’t see how that relates to Assange’s case. Being accused of rape is not the same as being gay. There is nothing wrong with being gay. However, rape is wrong. Period. There is no gray area there. If Assange did it, then he deserves appropriate punishment regardless of his celebrity or political status. Regardless if he is your personal hero. Regardless of the fact he is a powerful, wealthy, well-connected man.

If there is any take-away from the Oscar Wilde case it should be that we need to erase the stigma of rape, just as we have (mostly) erased the stigma of being gay. If you are a rape survivor, you should not have to carry any extra baggage with that experience. And I guess you could say that those sexual assault survivors who are brave enough to come forward with their stories are not unlike gays and lesbians who come out of the closet to give visibility to the LGBT community. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to “We were raped. We’re here. Get used to it.” (Although, in a way that would be kind of awesome.) But, maybe we could get to, “I won’t apologize for being raped.”

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