Naomi Wolf just went on BBC Radio to defend her recent article calling for mandatory disclosure of the identities of people who bring rape complaints. The interview provoked a firestorm of criticism on Twitter as it was happening — it was the latest in a series of public statements by Wolf that have shocked and disappointed her former feminist allies.
Much of what Wolf said today repeated things she’s said in the past, but some of it was new, and worth examining. A few random thoughts follow, and then some conclusions.
She said on several occasions that the policy she’d advocating is a “Western” one, and wouldn’t necessarily be applicable to countries in the developing world where the stigma of rape is greater. But certainly the stigma of rape varies greatly within Western societies as well as non-Western ones. Her suggestion that her proposal should be tailored to local conditions directly contradicts, it seems to me, her insistence that it should be adopted throughout the West.
Another oddity was her decision to double-down on her widely criticized comparison of the stigma attached to rape to that which attached to homosexuality and abortion in the past. It was only, she said, because people came out of the closet as gay or as women who had had abortions that those stigmas began to fade.
The obvious rejoinder to this is one that has already often been made — that those people came forward voluntarily, and that those who were forced to disclose against their will often suffered mightily for it. But there’s another, deeper way in which this argument fails:
The same process has occurred, and is occurring, with regard to rape.
To have been sexually assaulted is seen as far less shameful now than it was in the past, and a major reason for that is the willingness of women and men to come forward and describe their experiences. The cultural process that Wolf takes as her model in the case of abortion and homosexuality has an exact analogue in the case of sexual assault, and it argues for a policy that is the precise opposite of the one she’s put forward.
So why is she advocating this change, in such a huge break from standard feminist policy and her own past views? A telling moment came when she described reporting a rape to the police as “a public act which should have major consequences.” Such a decision has major consequences today, of course. It’s not an easy or inconsequential thing to do, by any means. But Wolf is arguing here that it should be harder.
This is, I think, a fundamental weirdness of her position. Over and over again, she’s confronted with contradictions in her stance, only to brush them off. She concedes that rapists target people who have been raped before, for instance, but rejects the idea that publishing the names of complainants could expose them to danger. She offers no hard evidence to support the idea that shielding complainants’ names provides comfort to rapists, while conflating the salutary effects of voluntary and mandatory disclosure. She veers wildly between arguing that mandatory disclosure is possible because our cultural attitudes toward rape have become more enlightened and arguing that it’s necessary because they’re so backward.
But at no point does she articulate any argument that connects up to the one she alluded to in the statement I quoted above — that rape reporting “should have major consequences.”
She can’t acknowledge this, of course, because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge that her concern here is not for those who have been raped. But remember where this all came from — remember what incident drew her, at the age of 48, to adopt a position that she herself describes as a break from her past beliefs.
The spur to her new position was an accusation of rape that she believes to be false and frivolous.
I hate to say it, but once you understand that, everything else starts to make sense.
Update | In her BBC interview today, Wolf acknowledged that her first published essay on the Assange sexual assault case was based on incomplete and inaccurate information. In that piece, “Julian Assange Captured By World’s Dating Police,” published at the Huffington Post on December 7, Wolf declared that Assange was “accused of having consensual sex with two women,” and proceeded to malign his accusers’ character and motivations in a variety of other ways.
That essay was published exactly thirty-one days ago. As Wolf notes, its falsity was exposed by a thorough report on the charges that appeared in The Guardian ten days later. And yet Wolf has neither pulled the essay nor posted any correction to it in the intervening three weeks.
As a sometime blogger at the Huffington Post, I know that it’s not only possible but quite easy to edit your submissions to that site after they appear. So why hasn’t Wolf done so in this instance?