Saturday, January 1, 2011

Naomi Wolf: Scrap anonymity for rape accusers because it treats them like children

Happy New Year.

Many of her facts are flat-out wrong (about the prevalence of false rape claims, for example), but feminist icon Naomi Wolf says anonymity for rape accusers should be scrapped. Excerpts: 

Why is rape different?

As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny. We know Assange by name. But his accusers – the two Swedish women who have brought the complaints against him – are consistently identified only as “Miss A” and “Miss W,” and their images are blurred.

News organizations argue that the policy is motivated by respect for the alleged victims. But the same organizations would never report charges of, say, fraud – or, indeed, non-sexual assault – against a suspect who has been named on the basis on anonymous accusations. In fact, despite its good intentions, providing anonymity in sex-crime cases is extremely harmful to women.

The convention of not naming rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian period, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified and reported in ways that prefigure our own era. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death,” rendering women – who were supposed to be virgins until marriage – “damaged goods.”
. . . .
Indeed, one of the rights for which suffragists fought was the right to be convicted of one’s own crimes. Nonetheless, even after women gained legal rights – and even as other assumptions about women have gone the way of smelling salts and whalebone stays – the condescending Victorian convention of not identifying women who make sex-crime charges remains with us.

That convention not only is an insult to women, but also makes rape prosecutions far more difficult. Overwhelmingly, anonymity serves institutions that do not want to prosecute rapists or sexual harassers.
. . . .
The lesson is clear: when charges are made anonymously, no one takes them as seriously as charges brought in public, resulting in institutionalized impunity for sexual predators.
. . . .
Feminists have long argued that rape must be treated like any other crime. But in no other crime are accusers kept behind a wall of anonymity. Treating rape so differently serves only to maintain its mischaracterization as a “different” kind of crime, loaded with cultural baggage and projections.

Finally, there is a profound moral issue at stake. Though children’s identities should, of course, be shielded in sex-crime allegations, women are not children. If one makes a serious criminal accusation, one must wish to be treated – and one must treat oneself – as a moral adult.

That is why justice systems – at least in democracies – typically demand that the accused be able to face his or her accuser. Why, for example, in a case that is so dependent on public opinion – and on which so much depends – must Assange face allegations that may have grave consequences for him, while his accusers remain hidden?

So-called “rape shield” laws should be used to protect alleged victims. It is no one’s business whom a victim has slept with previously, or what she 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.

Nor should it be. After all, motive and context are legitimate questions in any serious criminal allegation. Hill, for example, knew that she would have to explain why she waited years to accuse Thomas, her former employer. Likewise, adult accusers of Church-protected sex criminals knew that they would have to answer fundamental questions (notably, many of them have identified themselves, which has helped get real prosecutions).

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.