17 January 2011

Feeling a bit claustrophobic over this Naomi Wolf debate

It's a rare moment when I call for a demerit on anyone's feminist card and almost unheard of for me to call for someone's card to be revoked outright. That's why the past month's debate about Naomi Wolf has me feeling a bit boxed in. It's not the first time feminism has fit me too snug for comfort, only the most recent.

Do not read that as in support of all of what Wolf has been saying since Assange was arrested on rape charges. Rather this post is about how the full force of the online feminist community came charging against Wolf. Lori at Feministing wrote a good piece on how to respectfully disagree with Wolf, but that only scratches the surface.

Wolf started responding to the arrest in a way, I think we would all want, questioning why HE deserved to be arrested on rape changes when there surely must be other accused rapists on the loose. When Wolf started to change the debate from whether or not a country used rape charges to arrest a man who released state secrets to the world to whether or not rape accusers should be anonymous the feminist community released its wrath on Wolf.

The climate was chilling. There was no room for debate. How do you ask a question in an environment where a fake Naomi Wolf Twitter account was quickly set up to mock her?

How do we as feminists question the judicial system to increase justice for rape survivors? How do we discuss the slippery slope of consent? After reading the charges, it is still not clear to me if the woman who woke up with Assange on her was sleeping in the same bed as him or not. I was and still am scared to ask this question because I think some would see this as questioning her truth. The vocal feminists in the debate seemed to adhere to the idea that consent must be given at every opportunity. But do we all do that? Can we have a conversation about that? Not if we should, but do we? And if not, why? How do we tell men that silence is not consent when in some relationships it is? The women didn't go to the police asking for rape charges and what do feminists think of that? Are we so unable to make that decision ourselves that the police have to make it? What kind of message does that send to women who might want to check in with the police and make the decision herself? Yes, I do question the purpose of moving forward with rape or domestic violence charges without the survivor's approval. I get why, I'm just not 100% sold on it.

But really, how can we have a civil debate about anything, even the toughest issues, if we are vilified? I think that Wolf's arrogance on Democracy Now! vilified her enough. We didn't need to add to her fall from grace. How many people, feminist or not, had serious and honest questions, but felt too scared to ask them? How are we to reach out of our circle to reach new people?

Maybe my questions are dumb and stupid and I'm the only one thinking them, fine. But when I take gender & women's studies courses, the best ones start off with a statement of safety. That they are safe spaces to debate, ask questions, clarify issues....Why can't we have that same standard with our conversations online?


Unknown said...

I think you raise extremely valid and important questions to be asked. I like Naomi Wolf, and while I do not agree with everything she has said in relation to the Assange case, I don't think disagreeing with one aspect of a person's perspective negates all of the things you agree on. I have been so frustrated with the conversation over this, because it sound like a bunch of people screaming, and that doesn't do anyone any good.

Unknown said...

As always, so appreciate you.

Not in agreement, on the whole, however, I think for me one of the biggest issues I take with Wolf, which I suspect you do, too, is both seeming to position herself as the arbiter of who has and has not been "really raped," and also not making clear that while yes, the charges against Assange were taken more seriously than most, that is *because rape charges are most frequently not taken seriously enough* and ALL of them should be taken this seriously.

(I confess, I also was very perplexed about her constant claims of working with rape survivors for over 20 years in the DN debate. Where? When? And if so, why just talk about that work now? And where's the sensitivity for ALL survivors and possible victims we'd expect from any of us who really do that work to that degree?)

Unknown said...

Additionally, I think it's important to hold a very strong line that it doesn't matter if the woman involved was sleeping in bed with this man. I support your right to ask questions like those (to ask any questions, really), but at the same time, I'm not sure I understand their relevance, since we know that spousal rape, for instance, remains prevalent, and that occurs to women who share a bed with the person raping them nightly.

I think any of us trying to figure out what happened or didn't is just not useful or all that appropriate unless we're part of the justice system involved in the case. I think all we really need to know is that charges were filed, charges which almost never get filed without real cause due to the way the justice system does NOT serve many victims, and we should take those charges seriously, especially around anyone who was potentially victimized by what is being charged occurred: as in, who may have been sexually assaulted.

Unknown said...

(Suffice it to say, I could talk a blue streak about the questions you asked about consent given my work, but I presumed they were rhetorical. If not, and you want to talk about that, let's do it!)

Unknown said...

I began to call myself a feminist after reading Backlash by Naomi Wolf in college. It not only encouraged me to go be more active on the student newspaper, but it also encouraged me to get a minor in Women's Studies and truly changed how I view my world, the world.

So hearing some of Wolf's comments I was broken-hearted, and I think that is what many people writing viciously have felt. I had the instinct to as well. But I couldn't bring myself to criticize this woman I credit for my own feminist awakening.

However, I do think it makes sense to question why this rape charge was taken seriously when so many aren't. Why this man, this famous (or infamous) man can be charged when so many non-famous men aren't.

And I agree with Hcorinna about the details being really none of our business. The same way that the name of the accuser/survivor is none of our business. We're not the judge or the jury. But we deserve the right to see an accuser brought to trial, as do the women who he is accused of attacking.

I commend you, Roni. Highly. You're awesome for writing this, even though you hit cringe while posting.

Kate Harding said...

I second everything Heather said, and I'll also add that from her first HuffPo piece -- posted a week before the first interview you link to here -- Wolf has not simply been asking important questions about why this particular accused rapist was pursued so aggressively; she has been claiming that the charges against him do not describe rape, and that taking them seriously insults "real" survivors.

In fact, instead of using this as an opportunity to talk about how accused rapists routinely go free -- which I absolutely would have supported -- she came right out of the gate smearing the alleged victims and specifically trying to damage their credibility. She relied on a culture that assumes accusers are liars, and contributed to a climate in which victims are afraid they'll be ridiculed and publicly humiliated if they come forward -- all while claiming to speak for both feminists and "real" survivors. And that's before she even got to the stuff about anonymity.

So as a survivor and a feminist, I'm absolutely furious at her. People aren't piling on Wolf for kicks; this is about genuine, deeply felt anger at someone claiming to speak for feminists while saying things that actively harm sexual assault victims. You certainly don't have to agree with every word said by everyone who's spoken out against her -- I don't! -- or write off everything Wolf's ever done, but it sounds to me like you're characterizing other feminists' sincere anger as overblown and even silencing here, simply because you don't share it. And that kind of breaks my heart.

Veronica said...

Kimberly - Thank you. I've had others tell me that they also felt it was a screaming match instead of a discussion or debate of the issues.

HC - My goal was not to debate the issues, but rather point out that the debate as it is was too loud for others to participate in. Some of those questions are truly mine, but I'm not feeling safe enough to claim them anymore. Any learning I have to do needs to take place in a safe off-line space. And that's so not directed towards you.

Cinnamon - The only reason I started to list out questions for details of the possible crime was that they seemed to have become the center of the debate. In other words, what is consent? Do we, in the USA, have a different definition? Do some relationships?

Kate - You are correct in that I missed something in the debate for my post. Yes, she was trying to be arbiter of what is and what is not rape. The anger was not unfounded, she deserved it. But I contend that the debate was silencing. And if saying that breaks your heart, I am sorry because it also breaks mine.