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On the anonymity of sex-crime accusers and Naomi Wolf

January 5th, 2011     by Anastasia Szakowski     Comments

The last time I wrote about the Assange case, I addressed media’s inability to separate the allegations against him and the work of WikiLeaks. I argued that while Assange has done good things (WikiLeaks), it is entirely possible that he is capable of not-so-good things (like rape). It was this reductionist thinking - and of course, the endless victim-blaming and fanatical apologism - that was bothering me the most about how the allegations are being discussed.

This time, I want to talk about Naomi Wolf. Remember her? She wrote The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities, establishing herself as a strong feminist and progressive leader. Today, she published an article calling for an end to the anonymity of sex-crime accusers. According to Wolf, “shielding rape accusers” is a “relic from the Victorian era,” in which raped women were considered “damaged goods.”

She writes:

…even after women gained legal rights - and as other assumptions about women went the way of whalebone stays - the convention of not naming women who make sex-crime allegations remains. Not only is this convention condescending, but it makes rape prosecutions more difficult… [and] 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.

In other words: Things are all better now, so let’s expose accusers, mmmkay?

Newsflash 1: It’s not all better. Granting accusers anonymity provides the protection necessary to ensure the case makes it to trial. The stigma surrounding rape, or what Wolf calls being “damaged goods,” has not been left in the past. The trauma, shame, and humiliation often associated with being raped still very much exists.

Newsflash 2: Attaching an accuser’s identity to a case usually results in unnecessary and inevitable victim-blaming, harassment, and bullying. Just because an accuser is unidentified, it doesn’t mean that the public thinks rape doesn’t exist. Wolf should give people more credit.

She goes on:

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.

Feminists have argued for rape to be treated as a serious crime, yes, but that doesn’t put it on the same level as say, theft. Rape is a different kind of crime. Sexual assault is much more complex than theft or driving under the influence, and to deny that is reducing rape to its illegality.

Wolf’s final, and most disturbing, argument, is that revealing the identities of Assange’s accusers is necessary because he’s a public figure and public opinion matters. She asks:

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? 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.

My response to this is yes, because the judicial decision-making and questioning will happen in the courtroom, not in the newspapers. Media don’t decide how a defendant is charged.

And just when I thought the article couldn’t get any more awful, I got to this part:

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.

So in other words, Wolf thinks that Assange’s nine days in jail for rape charges = Wilde’s two-year sentence for being homosexual. NOT THE SAME, NAOMI WOLF. I don’t know whether the allegations against Assange are true or not, but I can confidently say that equating the two cases is entirely inappropriate.

And this isn’t the first time Naomi Wolf has pissed me off. After media fully picked up the charges against Assange, she immediately dismissed them, penning this awful piece about her assumption that the accusers are merely exacting revenge for Assange’s promiscuous ways. And since when did she use her experience with sexual assault victims to write a series of allegations off as political theatre? While she makes a fine point in that article - that rape is not ever taken this seriously by any judicial system, so Interpol’s actions are entirely political - her bias is clear. She seems unable to accept that even though Assange is being pursued aggressively, he could also be guilty.

I’m disappointed, Naomi Wolf. And as my Twitter feed (especially with the #mooreandme tag) fills with messages like “I wish I could go back in time and erase what The Beauty Myth meant to me” and “I’m so old I remember when Naomi Wolf was a feminist,” I know I’m not alone.


Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman will be live chatting about the fallout of progressive leadership from the Assange accusations here at 1:30 PM, EST, today (January 6th).

Watch Jaclyn Friedman debate Naomi Wolf on this subject on Democracy Now (around 48 minutes).

Tags: media savvy, rape culture

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