I have lately been captivated by the feminist debate surrounding the sex-crimes allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Naomi Wolf has emerged as the most vocal supporter of Mr. Assange in the feminist community. This debate has raised interesting questions regarding the validity of the allegations, the political motivations behind the charges, and our role as supporters of sexual violence survivors in this discussion. I support Ms. Wolf’s opinion that there are political motivations behind the allegations against Mr. Assange and that the recent actions taken by international governments are dramatically atypical. However, I think Ms. Wolf’s latest editorial has gone too far.
In her editorial, “Julian Assange’s sex-crime accusers deserve to be named,” published on the Guardian online, Naomi Wolf argues that the two accusers of Mr. Assange, and subsequently all rape accusers, should be named in the media. She goes on to write that the anonymity that protects victims of sexual violence is outdated and actually hurts women. She argues that this anonymity allows rape myths to flourish and inhibits change. “Finally,” she writes, “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.”
If Ms. Wolf were as well versed in the reality of rape as she claims, then she would understand that rape is a crime of power. Taking away a victim’s right to anonymity only puts the power in the hands of the press and the general public. Let’s not be naïve about what would happen to rape accusers if their names were printed in the newspaper, repeated on television, and opened up for commenting on blogs.
Rape is already one of the most underreported crimes in the world. In the United States, only about 40% of rape victims report this crime to the police. There are many reasons contributing to this, including the cultural stigma against rape that Ms. Wolf claims to be interested in eradicating. However, there are other very real reasons that victims are hesitant to report. The most important of these is a victim’s safety. Nearly two-thirds of rape victims know their accusers, and more than 50% of all reported rape and sexual assaults occurred within a mile of the victim’s home. Many convicted rapists have also been arrested or convicted for other violent crimes, including physical assault.
What would happen if we denied men and women this anonymity? How many people would report rape and sexual assault?
The reality is that of the 40% of rape victims that do report this crime to police, there is only a 16% chance that the accused will end up in prison. This means that in most cases, even when a victim does go through with a criminal prosecution, the accused will likely be acquitted. Does this mean that most people who report rape are lying? No. It just means we are still very much a part of a society that does not understand the true motivations behind rape and does not possess a judicial process adequate to punish rapists.
If we follow Ms. Wolf’s logic, victims who brave the potentially degrading process of reporting rape to an often unsympathetic and misinformed police force should bear the moral responsibility of being named in the media. But when the perpetrators are acquitted, then what? Victims then face a lifetime of potential humiliation from a public that still doesn’t understand the true nature of rape or the failed judicial system of prosecuting this crime.
Let’s not forget the crime of rape itself and the effect that it has on victims. After being raped, victims suffer from extreme shame, guilt, fear, self-blame, and depression. Many victims are terrified to reveal that they have been raped even to their friends and family members. As Ms. Wolf points out, our culture has traditionally blamed and stigmatized rape victims, leading them to stay silent. Adding forced public scrutiny to this burden would only create another obstacle to reporting.
Ms. Wolf frames her argument as a protection of feminism, characterizing the privacy that rape accusers are granted as “condescending” to women.
This is not an issue of feminism. Feminists (and I proudly call myself a feminist) are empathetic to the struggle of rape survivors because rape is perpetuated by a culture that objectifies and demeans women. Furthermore, many feminists are survivors of rape themselves. However, both men and women are victims of sexual violence, and the stigma that rape survivors face is a unique and deeply rooted issue. And the fact is that rape survivors themselves should not be used, against their will, as a tool to end the stigmas our culture perpetuates.
I agree with Ms. Wolf that when survivors allow themselves to be named, they help to end some of the myths about “who” is raped and what a rape survivor looks and acts like. Every time we stand up and speak, we increase awareness and communication about this issue. However, it is an individual decision to speak. One that should not be taken away from us. Every rape is different, every survivor is different. And we each have the right to share our story when the time is right with whomever we wish to share it with. This decision should not be made by the police or a judge, and certainly not by a journalist.
Ms. Wolf presents an argument that is logically interesting and academically worth considering. What it lacks is a connection to the reality of the crime of rape and a true concern for the well-being of rape survivors. It is clear that her primary motivation is to turn Mr. Assange into a hero. But her lofty rhetoric effectively silences the voices of rape survivors, and only serves to delegitimize the issue of rape culture.
Ms. Wolf frequently cites her numerous interviews with rape victims as justification for her arguments. My arguments do not deserve consideration simply because I am a survivor of rape. But it is because I am a rape survivor that I reject her recommendations. To use her own words: “Motivated by good intentions, the outcome harms women.” And men. I respect Ms. Wolf as a journalist and a feminist, but Ms. Wolf does not speak for me. I prefer the right to speak for myself.
-Emily Monroe, End the Silence Campaign