An Open Letter to Naomi Wolf: Why Rape is Different

Ms Wolf-

I recently ran across your article, Why is Rape Different?, in which you argue that allowing rape survivors to remain anonymous when we don’t do the same for any other crime victim infantilizes women and makes rape prosecutions more difficult. Although you wrote this some months ago, it’s still bouncing around on twitter, so I feel moved to respond.

You make the claim that:

It is wrong – and sexist – to treat female sex-crime accusers as if they were children, and it is wrong to try anyone, male or female, in the court of public opinion on the basis of anonymous accusations. Anonymity for rape accusers is long overdue for retirement.

So let me explain to you, Ms Wolf, why rape is different.

First, this arrangement is not specific to female survivors. It also protects male survivors. The fact that you gloss over the existence of this unfortunately large population displays a level of ignorance on the topic that is unpardonable.

Second,what makes rape different from other crimes is that, for no other crime do we allow the accuser to be attacked, shamed, or vilified to the same degree. If I get mugged, even if it happened while I was flashing my wallet, I don’t really have to worry about being blamed for it. Sure, some people will tell me that I should have been more careful about letting my wallet be visible, but that wouldn’t be used by the defense attorney to justify the actions of the person on trial for the crime. Nor would it be used in the media to claim that I deserved to have it stolen. If my car gets broken into because I leave a bag on the back seat, even if I’m told that my actions increased the likelihood of having my window broken and my property stolen, they aren’t going to be used to explain away the crime.

Simply put, accusations of rape need to be treated differently because the crime itself is already treated differently.

Third, nothing in the current structure requires accusers to remain anonymous. As you pointed out, some accusers do come forward and that is often when things begin to change on a larger scale. But you suggest forcing people to do so, rather than giving them the option. If you think that will encourage more survivors to make police reports, I have some nice beachfront property in Florida I’d like to sell you.

I agree with you when you say:

It is no one’s business whom a victim has slept with previously, or what she [sic] was wearing when she was attacked. But preventing an accuser’s sexual history from entering into an investigation or prosecution is not the same as providing anonymity.

And if you genuinely want to make things better, how about pushing for ending the common practice of discussing what someone was wearing, their sexual history, or any of the other ways in which rape accusers are discredited, shamed, and silenced? Maybe if we stop making reporting rape such an ordeal, more people will be willing to step forward and make their accusations publicly.

I think you’re right that anonymous accusations aren’t taken as seriously and are less likely to lead to positive change. But rather than stripping away what little protection that rape survivors have, you’d do better to push for enough safety that it becomes unnecessary. That’s much harder work, and it’ll be much more successful at ending a culture that perpetuates rape. In the meantime, as much as anonymity causes other problems, when it comes to rape accusations, it’s better than nothing.

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9 Responses so far.

  1. RJones says:

    I agree with what you’re saying to Ms. Wolf, and I in no way am saying that I think rape victims shouldn’t be able to maintain anonymity.

    I did want to comment that victim blaming is a much more universal reaction than you accounted for above. A friend recently had her car broken into and a cheap 4-year old GPS stolen. Every person she interacted with at her workplace, in her workplace’s security team, and the police all immediately said, “You shouldn’t have left that in your car, that’s why it happened.” The security team went so far as lecturing her, and when she commented that the security team that patrols the parking lot might have noticed her broken into car and let her know at some point during the day, the GPS was brought back up as some sort of reason why the security team had done nothing wrong. The police also spent more time talking about not leaving things in her car than they did taking the report (though, really, all knew the report was just for insurance claim purposes). And my friend was affected by the reactions–she felt less safe, knowing that the security team and police were more concerned about finding a way to blame her than protecting her property. She was ashamed, in the moment, and later with time to analyze it it all made her angry.

    The big difference here, of course, is the scale of the trauma. If “everyone” thinks my friend deserved to have her car broken into, well big damn deal. She thought about it a bit, ranted a bit, and got over it. Rape victims face a much larger and drawn out reaction, and are in a place to be far more wounded by victim blaming.

  2. Charlie says:

    Fair enough. And even so, it’s orders of magnitude bigger when it comes to rape.

  3. Clarence says:

    I believe both alleged victim and alleged perp should have their names protected. This stuff ruins lives both ways. But if I have to choose between Noami’s vision and the current setup? I choose Noami, because I am not a fan of hypocrisy.

  4. Seraph says:

    RJones: but did anyone say that her car wasn’t “really” broken into, or that she “wanted” her car broken into and that means that it wasn’t a crime? At least victim blaming in other areas doesn’t usually entail denial that a crime was, in fact, committed.

  5. Justin says:

    Clarence: We should always beware falsely limited options. I agree that the pre-emptive shaming should be stopped in both directions, unless the case is obviously open and shut and the court case is merely a question of how severe the punishment is. Millions (or is it billions, considering rape/assault odds…) of women (and perhaps untold numbers of men) get their lives incredibly screwed up by these horrible acts. Should DSK’s name not been in the papers, considering the number of other women who have come forward telling their stories, or should his name have been suppressed until the trial was over?

    Many men have had their lives ruined by false allegations of rape, brought against them by people with a grudge or an angle, or mistaken identity. Hiding their names during the initial parts of the trial may well reduce the damage caused by people who blacken the name of legitimate victims of rape with selfish efforts to destroy others for personal gain.

    There are usually improvements to be made in any system, especially as time passes, but we should be wary for false dichotomies and hidden better options.

  6. P.K. says:

    The DSK case is a prime example of the need for plaintiff anonymity. The alleged victim, having been convicted without due process of perjury for reporting the event, will now be forever labelled as the woman who cried wolf. Her chance of getting another job, let alone a better job, has been destroyed. She has become an embarrassing liability to the hotel where the encounter happened.
    Back in 1978, a man I knew was murdered while driving a taxi. The local press reported rumours that the death was related to involvement with drugs, illegal gambling and prostitution. His memory was thoroughly besmirched, and then the truth was revealed: the killer was his girlfriend’s jealous ex.
    If we can’t trust the police or the press to avoid defamation, and we can’t trust the public not to spread malicious gossip, we must allow the courts to protect those not proven guilty by banning the publication of the names of all those involved in criminal cases until after the verdict is rendered, and of victims and witnesses unless they or their heirs consent to identification.

  7. Ami in Deutschland says:

    Why do the victims names need to be published at all? Here in Germany, privacy laws protect victims and perpetrators, so that it is an exception when the names or images of victims or the accused appear in the media. Does it serve the public interest to let everyone, even those far distant and unrelated, know who exactly was robbed, murdered or raped and who was accused of doing it?

  8. Miriam Pia says:

    FYI: current research shows that only 5% of rape allegations are false. If someone tells you they were raped, treat them like its the truth and help them. Crime victims, including victims of sex crimes are often disoriented and may not flee from the perpetrator especially if that person is known to them. Most female victims know the person who has assaulted them – its often a relative. Most male victims, especially juveniles, were assaulted by an older boy who lives nearby. That’s just how it really works. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.

  9. Amrita Sridar says:

    Also, Naomi Wolf misses out the important point- that anonymity is maintained only when it comes to the press and other sources of news media. So anonymity really doesn’t affect legal proceedings or hinder it.

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