I had no intention of writing about this issue – in fact, I’ve got a number of other things to write and had planned to do at least one of those tonight. However, I saw the debate between Naomi Wolf and Tory MP Louise Bagshawe on Newsnight. Then I started taking notice of the stuff on Twitter about it and found the link to Wolf’s Guardian piece and read some of the comments.
I’m definitely not qualified to comment on the rights or wrongs of Wolf’s argument. However, one thing that struck me was that the Newsnight debate was a classic progressive vs. conservative argument.
Wolf is arguing from a point of view of how things should be and proposing something that, in her view, would bring us there. Rape should never be acceptable to society and women should be empowered to openly accuse their attackers. Bagshawe, on the other hand, was arguing from a negative view of where we are now, where she believes women need to remain anonymous or they won’t report rapes.
I can’t remember exactly what words Bagshawe used, but fear and stigma have been used elsewhere. Fear is easy to understand – as a trade union activist, I’ve worked with a number of people who have faced serious bullying and harassment. Fear is a natural part of feeling under attack, even when accompanied by anger. Victims of bullying or harassment are often too afraid to say anything about what’s happening to them. I can hardly imagine how rape would amplify fear to extreme levels.
However, it’s the references to stigma that bothers me most. Unless I’m being hopelessly naïve, that must have changed since Victorian England. I’m not naïve enough to think that it never happens – that there are still black holes of unreconstructed sexism, that there are many cases when the accused is a more popular person than their victim, but I’d really like to think that these are a minority of cases.
It brings to mind the case in Listowel in Ireland just over a year ago, where a priest shook the hand of a man who had been convicted of sexual assault. The outpouring of revulsion about the whole situation – local support for the convicted man went beyond the priest – was huge in Ireland and beyond.
As I said, I don’t know if Naomi Wolf is right about the question of anonymity, but I can’t accept the conservative argument that what may have been necessary in Victorian times is necessary now. And if there is still a major issue of stigma against women who report rape and seek prosecution of their attackers, then that’s an issue that needs urgent social action to change people’s views.
Rape is obviously a huge personal trauma and the system needs to be designed to take account of and protect the individual victim, but if there are still social reasons for keeping the victim’s identity secret, they need to change.