Naomi Wolf has written an essay at the Guardian in which she argues against laws and policies that protect the anonymity of women who have gone to police (or other authorities, such as campus officials) with allegations of rape. The practice is, she argues, “a relic of the Victorian era” — a “bad law and bad policy” that impedes the fight against rape and should be abandoned.
I left what appears below as a comment on her essay at the Guardian website. Because of its relevance to campus sexual assault policies and recent conversations on this blog, I am reposting it here.
One note: I framed this response in the context of women who had been raped because that was the context of Wolf’s original essay, and because of the analogy to abortion. Everything I said applies at least as strongly to men who have been raped, however, and I’ve posted a follow-up comment to that effect.
Naomi Wolf writes:
And I do, yes, believe that long term there would have been less stigma — like with abortion, that used to be so shrouded in shame and secrecy. That begann to change women Gloria Steinem and other feminists in the seventies began to say, ‘I had an abortion.’ You saw it happened in all kinds of circumstances, not just to ‘sluts’ or ‘bad’ women.
Yes. Certainly. But as you note, these women came forward voluntarily, which is not what you called for in your original piece.
The abortion analogy is an apt one, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. What would have happened if, in the wake of the legalization of abortion, a law had been passed mandating that the name of every woman who obtained one be made publicly available? Would that have reduced the stigma of abortion? Perhaps. But it would also have sent many women underground, driving them to back-alley abortionists because they feared the consequences in their families, among their friends, in their workplaces if the fact of their abortion had become known.
So too with rape. Yes, it can be a powerful and valuable thing when a woman comes forward to talk publicly about her experience. Absolutely. No feminist I know would dispute that. But the moral force of that choice comes from the fact that it was a choice.
What would happen if women were forced to disclose rapes, if their names were disseminated without their permission? Some good things. But also some horrible things.
Some women would refuse to go to the police out of fear of stigma. Their rapists would be allowed to continue to act with impunity. Other women, raped by friends or family members, would be shamed or rejected by their loved ones. Some would be the targets of retaliation by their rapists’ supporters.
These dangers are all real for women who have been raped, and they stand as barriers to effective prosecution of rapists. Your policy of mandatory reporting would raise those barriers higher.
You want women who have been raped to be treated as “moral adults.” But isn’t the essence of moral adulthood that we each have the freedom to choose when and under what circumstances we talk about our own experiences? Shouldn’t someone advocating moral adulthood encourage women to come forward on their own, rather than advocating for women to have that decision taken out of their hands?
In a previous comment you told us that your mother was raped when she was twelve, and that she agrees with your position on this issue. But you also said this:
She gave me her permission to say so and to disclose her experience.
You asked her for her permission, and she gave it. If she hadn’t, wouldn’t you have respected that decision? Wouldn’t any decent human being do just that?