Crying (Naomi) Wolf Over Rape

Naomi Wolf has been making the media rounds lately on the Julian Assange case, beginning  with three pieces on The Huffington Post and then in a debate on Democracy Now! She claimed that the governments involved in prosecuting Assange for rape are only “pimping feminism” to go after him in retaliation for WikiLeaks, and that pursuing this case is an affront to rape victims everywhere. Numerous other feminists disagree, including Katha Pollitt, Kate Harding, Jessica Valenti, Jaclyn Friedman, Melissa McEwan and Sady Doyle (the latter of whom started the #mooreandme campaign). They argue that, although the proceedings may be politically motivated, all rape allegations should be taken seriously—or none will be.

In her Democracy Now! debate with feminist Jaclyn Friedman, Wolf described the allegations that one of the women “woke to find him having sex with her” without a condom as a case that is based on “multiple instances of consent.” According to Wolf, because the women did not say “this is not consensual,” it was not rape.

Subsequently, Wolf has written two very similar articles, one for the Project Syndicate website and the other in The Guardian, which suggest that Assange’s accusers be named. Further, on two different BBC programs, Newsnight and World Have Your Say, she asserted that those who report rape or sexual assault should not be allowed to remain anonymous. Here are her own words, on World Have Your Say:

If you don’t want to issue a police report, and you don’t want to [pursue] further action, you have the choice to remain anonymous for the rest of your life.

According to Wolf, the anonymity of rape victims 1) facilitates rape cover-ups (though she cites no empirical data, only her anecdotal experience) and 2) is part of the reason that rape is not taken seriously. But the root of her argument is that women are not children (who should be shielded) but “moral adults” who should have to face their accusers like everyone else, because “engaging in a public act … should have major consequences.”

On BBC Newsnight, Wolf said,

Due process is a feminist goal. Uh, the rule of law—fairness for both genders is a feminist goal. And feminism shouldn’t mean special treatment for either gender; it should mean absolute fairness and equity in the rule of law.

But Wolf isn’t referring to equity at all—she’s describing a strict understanding of equality. Equity takes difference, disadvantage and structural inequality into account, whereas equality is treating everyone exactly the same, no matter what.

Wolf suggests that shielding rape victims is outdated because, well, it’s not like we live in the Victorian Era! This is a silencing argument that women hear all the time—something to the tune of, “There has been so much progress for women. I mean, you can vote, what are you bitching about?” That would be like me saying to Naomi Wolf, “Worrying about government corruption is so outdated, it’s not like we live in the McCarthy Era!” Of course, the McCarthy Era is a shameful piece of our history, but it does not mean the government never does anything wrong or unethical now and that people shouldn’t be up in arms about wrongdoings.

So, according to Wolf-think, it’s of little matter that those who make rape accusations are often re-victimized and harassed and vulnerable to further violence. To shield them from that is to treat them as though they are children! Equity, though–as distinguished from equality–is not about infantilizing a group of people and patting them on their heads: Equity is for grownups, based on the idea that in order to achieve a fair and just society, you have to account for the fact that some groups of people are oppressed, disadvantaged and do not have the same access to, say, bodily integrity, justice or safety that other groups of people have.

What Wolf is suggesting is a gender-blind policy which treats rape the same as any other crimes. But as we know from current research, color-blind ideology only perpetuates racial oppression by ignoring differences, it doesn’t end the oppression. Further, a gender-blind policy such as the  one Wolf proposes uses men’s experience, broadly, as a template to which everyone must conform—a strategy Simone de Beauvoir contests in the classic feminist text The Second Sex.

Wolf’s argument that naming rape victims will force institutions to take rape seriously ignores all sorts of evidence of crimes not being taken seriously despite the fact that the accusers are known. How about assaults against people of color, the disabled, gays and lesbians, genderqueer and transgender people, prostitutes or the homeless? These victims often get little respect, culturally or institutionally, even when their names are publicly proclaimed.

Wolf uses the gay and lesbian movement as evidence for her claims, citing “coming out” as being a transformative practice that has normalized being gay or lesbian. But coming out, for the most part, is an optional decision, and queer activists acknowledge that it isn’t the best or safest choice for all people. It’s also dismissive to act as though coming out has completely transformed how our justice system treats gays and lesbians.

Oddly enough, Wolf “came out” as a victim of sexual assault on World Have Your Say, in an obvious attempt to maintain credibility. But that’s not nearly the same as bringing charges of sexual assault, which is difficult for victims even with the promise of anonymity.

Anonymity isn’t the problem. An institution bent on dismissing rape victims will find new ways to do so, and making accusers’ names public will only lend them a hand. Problems like these don’t end when we revoke anonymity, but only when we address issues of privilege and oppression and, say, pay as much attention when a black woman turns up missing as when a white woman does.

But for right now we don’t live in that ideal world. We still live in a place where women’s issues are seen as secondary and where victims of sexual assault are often treated dismissively, disdainfully and even violently. In order to do justice to women and to all victims of sexual assault, we must listen to them. Instead, Wolf is dead set on ignoring the voices of women and victims of sexual assault, publicly condescending to them and asserting over and over that her “23 years of experience”—a phrase used so repetitiously it became the hashtag #23yrs on Twitter—means she knows what’s best for them and they don’t.

I owe a great debt to feminists engaged in dialogue about this issue via Twitter, Facebook, and throughout the blogosphere. I would also like to thank Michael Kimmel and Jessica Holden Sherwood for their much appreciated advice while I was writing this.

Photo from Flickr user Thomas Roche under Creative Commons 3.0

Editors note: This blog was originally wrongly bylined under Michele Kort’s name–our apologies to the author, Michaela Null.


  1. I love every syllable of this piece, I'm glad people are still speaking out about this. Thanks!

  2. Really well said/written. Naomi Wolf lost most of her credibility by saying waking up with someone raping you wasn't rape. If you're asleep, you can't consent. Therefore, rape. It's not hard. I really wish she would come to her senses, apologize and take back what she's said these past few weeks and then just be quiet for a while, listening to others talk.

  3. I appreciate your article! Thank you for articulating so well on the this issue; I had many very similar thoughts but could not piece it together like this. I agree, though there may definitely be a ulterior motive, if we do not take all rape and sexual assault allegations seriously then truly we are doing a disservice to feminism. I still respect many works of Naomi Wolf, however I disagree with her on this issue.

  4. snobographer says:

    I think Wolf's just backed herself into a corner defending Assange and can't bring herself to admit she was wrong. I mean a nationally known professional feminist and she's denying rape and the MRAs and other woman haters are citing her as the voice of reason. How does that look. Better change the subject and pretend the motive behind your arguments is empowerment. I'm embarrassed for her.

  5. Fabulous article!

    I think it's important to remember that rape doesn't just happen to women though – men are victims too, and cultural pressures can make it incredibly difficult for them to 'come out' about it, let along press charges. I think it's important to remember that, while the majority of rape victims are women, and that feminism has had and continues to have a huge role in fighting for justice for victims of sexual assault, rape is not exclusively a "women's issue". Which makes Wolf's claim that outing accusers is about gender equality null and void.

  6. Oh god, this happened to me. I very clearly said, I would only have sex with him with a condom. He argued repeatedly and I held my ground. I woke to him inside me without a condom. I know some people will say that isn't rape, but I felt totally violated. I am still suffering; I did not consent to that. In fact I specifically refused consent to that act unprotected. I don't know whether to say anything about it because I know people will respond this way and dismiss it. I feel for the woman who went through this.

    • thank the wolf says:

      That is wrong, what happened to you. It was a violation of trust.

      Do you think that man should go to prison? For how long?

      Do you think that man should be accused of rape all over the world?

      Assange isn’t charged with rape. He has been under court control for months, while being literally threatened with assassination and killing by leading US politicians — and with prosecution (for being a journalist) by the Obama administration.

      Bradley Manning is in prison right now. For a long time, under brutally abusive conditions.

      What is the punishment appropriate to that?

    • karen3224 says:

      Tobacky – thank you for sharing your experience to advise that this sexual abuse is very common.

  7. I debated Naomi Wolf on the BBC Radio show and it was aching clear each time she interrupted me that she has had this idea about anonymity and then rushed to discuss it on the world stage without stopping to check the details, consult the facts and address the real issues. Everything about it suggests she just wants to be heard talking, but it doesn't really matter what she's saying…which is just as well, because her argument could barely stand up while leaning against a wall.

  8. Antoinette says:

    This idea that Ms. Wolf is suggesting – that rape victims should not be anonymous — demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of criminal law and a defendant's concomitant right to face the accuser. Ms. Wolf is demanding that the identity of the rape victim be released for public/media consumption. That specifically in this case the public and the media should know who is accusing Assange of rape. She fundamentally misunderstands who has the right to be confronted with their accuser — only the defendant has the right to know who has accused him of rape — the public has no similar right; the public has not been accused of a crime, the public is not at risk of losing its liberty — only the defendant is at risk and therefore when criminal proceedings go forward the defendant and the defendant's attorney are fully informed of the alleged victim's name. I frankly do not understand what Ms. Wolf is talking about — she needs to watch a few episodes of Law and Order.

    I think Ms. Wolf had a serious lapse in judgment at the outset of this case and decided to write a series of sometimes flippant articles in the Huffington Post comparing the alleged victims to women who were regretting a one night stand – trivializing very serious facts of rape and sexual assault. Her continued defense of her position becomes more illogical with each passing day and I think she now finds herself in a position of either admitting an error in judgment (which clearly she does not want to admit) or continuing down this illogical and dangerous path – hurting women and rape victims in the process.

  9. I find it telling that the two accusers have the same lawyer, which implies a coordinated act or conspiracy, wouldn’t two seperate accusers normally have two different lawyers?

    Also, regardless of whether Assange committed a crime, unless it was a capital offense, supporting his capture is disproportionate because half the world is trying to kill him, and going to jail, or even pretrial detention, will doubtless mean they will succeed. So in this case the crime needs to be proven before Assange is captured, because he cannot be protected in custody, so capture is a death sentance.

    If the women are telling the truth, despite TRILLIONS in CIA incentives to frame him, it certainly sounds like some sort if significant crime, which needs a new name, just not a capital one.

  10. With the utter strangeness of the whole situation of Wikileaks and the threat to powerful interests that Wilileaks represents, I am willing to contemplate that Naomi Wolf is (perhaps) right about a few things. That Feminism could be in this one instance (likely) being pimped for some other agenda, that these -and only these- rape charges are (possibly) politically motivated. But I really wish Naomi would not have said anything. I really wish she would have found a way to suggest this possibility…while continuing to be a feminist. While not bringing up that enemy of women everywhere, the stereotype of a woman falsely crying rape for ulterior motives — or abstaining from this argument altogether! She is intelligent, articulate,passionate, and in the past she has been RIGHT. She has previously been a strong advocate. She could have found a way. Her understanding of laws in several countries should have been an asset here. But with what she has now said, sadly her SILENCE on the matter would have been a greater asset. I regret that the author of The Beauty Myth has been adversarial toward other feminists about, of all issues, rape charges. About one of the most basic problems with women and the law, an issue where women throughout the world have tremendous problems seeking and finding justice.

  11. I understand where Ms Wolf is coming from, and it feels as though two issues are being talked past one another. I'd like to see an article that explores how women are (ab)used by the US military to promote their invidious wars and suppressions. — The Assange case is one. Afghanistan, another. I don't deny harms to women. I just wonder how long women will let their issues be twisted and played to promote sympathy for broad-scale suppression and violence.

  12. Congratulations; you've succeeded in de-contextualizing the State-Sponsored Racketeering of Julian Assange for telling the truth. The people who accused him – regardless of guilt or innocence yet to be proved – made it about sex (please bear in mind that articles of impeachment were brought up against Clinton for sex while nothing at all confronted W. for intituting torture) and y'all gobbled it up. Is there no one at Ms., or any other publication who can separate the two issues?

  13. Colin Cote says:

    """Due process is a feminist goal. Uh, the rule of law—fairness for both genders is a feminist goal. """

    Then I suggest ""Feminists"" ditch that term and start calling themselves " Humanists" or Human Rights Activists.

    Or I shall start a Masculinist movement and farther divide society.. Makes as much sense…NOT !

  14. To the Editors of MsBlog:

    Let's see how much you really care about human rights.

    Here is a March, 2011 case from Astoria, OR. Adult woman plies kids, including a 14 year old boy with booze, gets him drunk, has her way with him, and then is sentenced to….. 30 days. Boy is too ashamed to come to the sentencing hearing. 30 days for behavior that is at minimum statutory rape squared and in my humble opinion worse than that. He better hope she didn't get pregnant or she and the State or Oregon can go after him for a lifetime of child support payments too, for the privileged of having been raped.

    Question to MsBlog editors — are you outraged? will you speak up? will you run a piece?

    Silence = Death.

    • TinkerBell says:

      frank is absolutely right.

      there is no way to move forward if all we do is move from one extreme on the left to one extreme on the right…

      we need to look at criminality and motives and less on accusation and media sensationalism.

  15. thank the wolf says:

    Naomi Wolf sure caused a ruckus with her common-sense, female-respecting, politically conscious and on-point discussion of the Assange case.

    Case in point: where are all the “every accusation counts” feminists when it comes to the DSK rape of a hotel maid?

    No ambiguity here. She was physically attacked while at work and immediately reported the crime. Unlike Assange, he is a member of the French ruling class and scion of international banking. And he raped an African immigrant working in service.

    Funny. The New York Times (Jim Dwyer) and New York Post both ran “she’s an unreliable hooker” stories based on anonymous “law enforcement” sources.

    DSK has MULTIPLE people who have accused him of rape, harassment, and so on throughout his entire career.

    Assange is accused by two women who BOTH say they had consensual sex with him. And that he was inconsiderate and didn’t respect them very much. There is no charge that he beat, threatened, drugged, harmed or otherwise attempted or engaged in a “crime of violence”. NONE. Absolutely none.

    This might be hard for those in the echo chamber to understand, but while some (very small) circles believe women’s lives are essentially rape victims, that isn’t the experience of most women. Grown women, with jobs and careers and so on don’t equate everything with rape.

    Wolf, like most thinking people, doesn’t view anything Assange is even accused of doing as “rape”. Nor is he charged with rape. Let me say that again: Julian Assange is not charged with rape, and no woman went to police and said “I was forced to have sex with Julian Assange.” They said they were never afraid, and initially simply wanted the state to force and HIV test on him.

    Think about that! The women said that they were not forced to have sex. They chose to have sex (repeatedly) with a celebrity, and then he was a cad. And they went to the cops.. for that?

    Funny how the wheels of justice started turning while there was an around the clock “kill assange” meme coming out of the USA and British elite. Funny how this man who, months later, is STILL not charged with ANY CRIME — has been placed under the state supervision of the very governments whose illegality and abuse his journalism has uncovered.

    Not knowing the guy, he seems like a narcissist with fairly typical and uninteresting sexual practices for a famous man. But he has NEVER been charged with rape — and it is quite reasonable the think it’s all a set up to smear and tar a whistle-blower. Anyone else remember the FBI going through the files of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist? I sure do. And so does he, which is why Ellsberg spoke out in defense of Assange.

    Naomi Wolf deserves credit for refusing the sordid, moronic orthodoxy that passes as “feminism”.

    And you all will never even apologize. It won’t matter that Assange isn’t charged, or that the women who went to police didn’t ask for rape charges, or that British, US and Swedish (NATO) governments have conspired to destroy this man. It hasn’t worked. And women are smart enough to know when they are being played for fools.

    If we took the “take all accusations seriously” approach, ANY fool could convince ANYONE to believe ANYTHING. Any man who challenges the state just has to be accused of some indiscretion… then watch the “feminists” follow orders from Dick Cheney… just like they did when “feminists” campaigned to colonize Afghanistan (as if US intervention ever did anything but promote the very feudal crap women there have to put up with).

    Reactionary feminism is its own worst enemy, and should notice what strange friends it has.

  16. I think that Wolf is so starry eyed over Assange and his operation that she’s simply unwilling to consider what she’s throwing away in her rush to defend him.

    It’s a naive and childish approach. Is Assange guilty? Maybe. Does that necessarily negate his work? Maybe not. But is he important enough that we should change how we handle accusations of rape so that his precious work and reputation should not be disrupted?

    No. No he is not.

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