Saturday, 8 January 2011
Since writing my most recent blog post about the Naomi Wolf anonymity debate there has been no cooling in the feminist furore her Guardian article started, particularly online. Twitter has produced a spoof commenter NaomifuckinWolf who is a 'rape apologist, feminist troll' and tweets horribly precient, yet darkly funny bon mots about the subject of rape and rape culture. Twitter also alerted me to the fact that Naomi herself would be appearing on the BBC World Service programme World Have Your Say on Friday 7th January* and that you could leave questions or comments on their webpage. Conscious of repeating myself across the entire internet, I cheekily left the blog link instead of a specially written comment, as I think the blog post said everything I wanted to convey. A couple of hours later, checking my email to see what Groupon were offering today, I received an email from the BBC asking if I would like to debate the subject with Naomi Wolf live on air at 6pm?
Having never met a soapbox I didn't want to stand on, I called them straight back and volunteered my services, expecting to do what I've done on phone in shows before and ask a question by phone. After establishing with the researcher that I do actually know something about the subject, I went off to leave a unexpected voicemail for a friend cancelling our drinks that night so I could caterwaul at the patriarchy, make some notes of precient points and ask the good folk of Twitter if there was anything else I should say? All this was in the comfort of my dressing gown with wet hair since that's the joy of a radio phone-in.
Plans changed so radically at twenty past five that my feet barely had time to touch the ground. Instead of doing the phone question, the editor and presenter had decided they would prefer to have me in as a studio guest. Already nervous about confronting one of the world's most famous feminists, I was suddenly sidetracked by the whirlwind of making myself presentable, getting dressed and in a cab to Holborn by 6pm. Thanks to the powers of black kohl pencil and Addison Lee, I managed this with two minutes to spare, making sure I was so distracted I didn't have any further time to think about my nerves.
I was whisked into the studio where presenter Ros Atkins was already speaking to Naomi live on air from New York. I just had time to sit down, check my notes, make sure I had Carmex to hand and join the debate when Naomi took a break from her impressive monologue reasserting her position and reminding us that she is special and unique in having this viewpoint...
Sadly in order to introduce my own points about personal experience of rape reporting, I didn't get time to tell Naomi she's isn't special or important to hold these views; she's just like every other rape apologist who wants to derail the real debate about why rape victims aren't well served by society and the authorities. It's not edgy, it's not clever and in her case it's not well argued either.
She seemed surprised when I said I had been raped and was speaking about my experiences, stumbling from her otherwise polished script, especially as I was vehemently disagreeing with her. I felt I had some difficulty in putting my point across since she barely let me have a word in edgeways, but I did get to raise the crucial issues about personal safety of victims after they've had their names and pictures splashed out everywhere. In between repeating my (fake) name about a hundred times in the manner I would use with a tired toddler and telling me how important my point was, she managed not to really address it, interrupting me when I tried to expand my point, but scolding me if I did the same.
Things got massively interesting when after repeating her experience of sexual harrassment by Harold Bloom she admitted she had been the victim of two attempted rapes that she had never told anyone at all about them before. It added an extra dimension of what-the-fuckery to her proposals and seemed oddly competitive in its timing as if she was trying to one up me or elict sympathy from audience and interviewer. She didn't get it as Ros Atkins immediately picked up this crucial point.
The woman who wants to remove anonymity from rape victims and coerce them into the public eye after being attacked could not apparently do that very thing herself, even with the protection of anonymity and the virtue of a privileged position in society. When coaxed further, she flipped and flopped, saying she had reported one to the police, hadn't told anyone about either and that on reflection she didn't think the second man had actually committed a crime, all the while failing to name either man in the public domain like she thought other non anonymous victims should. (I'm sure to the BBC's relief as unlike Naomi, they do believe in libel and slander laws!) At best it's a stunning lack of self awarenss and empathy, at worst it's a rank hypocrisy. Made cynical by the oppression Olympics I have encountered in the rape campaign group I used to volunteer with, I sensed the pouty tones of someone feeling less important than usual and the armchair psychologist in me wondered if she feels a failing in her handling of these events and wants to take this out on other victims?
Rapidly losing any respect I had for Naomi Wolf who seemed to be hellbent on backing her illogical argument with a combination of being patronising, overbearing and immature rather than actual fact, explanation and debate, I tried to remain calm when replying to her points, even though I sounded like an aggressively squeaky woodland creature in my own head. Although I would have liked to make several salient points here about how despite remaining anonymous I had managed to force change at both the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, I was glad that I did get the opportunity to challenge her when she mentioned her mother had been raped. Her mother is an admirable woman to allow that information to be broadcast globally, but Naomi again missed the point by a country mile and didn't seem to realise that by asking her mother's permission, she had afforded her the very choice she wishes to remove from others. It was like arguing with a 15 year old who has just discovered debating.
And it didn't get any better when Naomi launched into another monologue about how reporting rape should have consequences and suggesting that without anonymity, it had none right now. Obviously she doesn't believe that medical examinations, court cases, custodial sentences, police complaints, expense, time and trauma are already consequences. She seems to be erring on the right wing tabloid belief that women (and in this case, it is always women) report rape on a whim and the anti-rape pixies immediately condemn the nearest man on say-so alone and thrust him into a dungeon in a fairy tale castle forever and forever and all the feminists lived happily ever after. Even thought she was sure to tell us how she worked in a Rape Crisis centre for two years and barely saw a conviction, she thinks rape reporting is too easy. If she had her way, she'd spice it up a bit and make it the extreme version for the victim while shaking her head and pretending that rape culture and rape myths don't exist or influence conviction rates and thus don't need changing.
And if that wasn't mind blowing enough, she also thinks it's OK that you should only lose anonymity if you report to the police, creating a Solomon's choice for victims between the right to justice and the right to privacy. She cannot see that making it a choice between a system that is already failing (but that she doesn't propose changing in any other way) and the chance to seize back identity, makes it harder to get victims to speak up and thus handicaps conviction rates. I wanted to remind her 'you studied American Literature at Yale! Didn't you read The Crucible? Don't you remember John Proctor going to the gallows rather than lose his name? Don't you yourself make your living off your name, and by that extension your reputation and see the value it holds? Why can't you see that when stripped bare at a time of crisis, your name is all you have left?' But instead I was quite pleased that Ros moved things onto the submitted questions and gave my blood pressure time to reduce again.
Breathing deeply, I was interested to see that amongst the comments and questions, only one person (a man trotting out the high false allegation line) wholeheartedly backed her. Elani from Johannesburg seemed to agreeing with the status quo in South Africa and willing to do what she needed to obtain anti retrovirals. Naomi relaxed and lapped up this seeming support up while I willed Ros to ask would she still have reported without anonymity if she could have got the drugs any other way and to remind Naomi that South Africa has the highest reported rate of rape in the world with a conviction rate that makes Britain look good, even though over 20% of South African men have admitted raping a woman. If this is the country Naomi Wolf wants us to ape when it comes to dealing with rape, she blows my tiny mind completely.
I was further gobsmacked as we discussed the situations for rape victims in both Zambia and Liberia. Naomi Wolf acknowledged a serious stigma there and informed us that she wouldn't dream of telling another country how to handle its rape laws, despite being an American on the British BBC talking about a theory that came about because of an article about Sweden's rape laws. How I didn't snort loudly and contemptuously in my microphone, only God can tell us. Having decided that African women on the African continent could still have anonymity what with being all war-torn and lacking in democracy, but ignoring the cultural issues that follow some African women (and other immigrants) to Western countries, we moved on to try and address some specifics.
Sadie from the excellent Pandora's Project in Manchester asked Naomi Wolf exactly how victims who have reported and had their anonymity lifted should move on and rebuild their lives when facing stigma. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to say that since her proposals were dependent on tackling and condemning the heady combo of culture, media and myth that creates stigma, hopefully these victims wouldn't be in that situation, but Naomi showed once and for all that she doesn't actually care about changing the world, just making life more awkward for victims, and uttered the only realistic statement of the whole hour.
She urged victims to use their local Rape Crisis centres and then reminded us that these are always underfunded and struggling, so listeners should get their chequebook out and help them. I call these wise words if she actually meant to help Rape Crisis orgs rather than flood them with a tsunami of even more frightened and traumatised victims to challenge them further. She also showed massive ignorance of the fact that there is no central government funding for Rape Crisis in the entire UK, a situation started by Labour and of course continued by the coalition. She might as well have been telling a victim to start their own support group...
Beryl from Uganda then brought the conversation back to the elephant in the room and mentioned stigma again as a very very pressing concerns for victims. Naomi seemed to dismiss this again as a quaint African custom and started to explain to us that anonymity was increasing stigma as it prevented victims from forming the same style of grass roots movement that allowed homosexuality and abortion to be more openly discussed. Ignoring the fact that she herself radically shifted her ideas on abortion when she had kids, she again missed the point that generally the people speaking out to de-stigmatise these subjects had a choice in the matter (even her beloved Oscar Wilde.) and that anonymity is being used even today in the current pro choice Twitter campain by IAmDrTiller. She also then grasped at another straw and told us all that the police and press take other crimes without a sexual element to them super seriously and that proved why anonymity was a bad thing
Having almost burst trying not to interrupt up til now, I just couldn't let her naivety stand and told her a little bit about how the police reacted when I was bitten in the shoulder in a bar. Nothing sexual about it, very violent, extremely life changing and I was literally laughed out of the police station. It became abundantly obvious that Naomi Wolf really doesn't inhabit the real world, but a rarified circle where her opinion and tireless self promotion count above all else and nothing, not least the truth, is going to spoil that.
But kudos to her, just as the programme drew to a close, she did acquaint herself with the truth and admit that she wrote her first piece in the Huffington Post on December 7th defending Julian Assange without the full details of the allegations about him and that it was inaccurate. She did not however apologise for other assertions she made that it isn't rape if the victim is sleeping or unconscious and she continued to sound like a petulant teenager defending her favourite popstar when discussing Assange.
She also flounced off the line the second the programme went off air, not even waiting to thank the BBC or Ros for an hour of barely interrupted self propaganda. I like to think it's because she was scared I might tell her about yet another assault against me, forcing her to tell us about the time she was propositioned by Joe Camel being sleazy in an undergraduate bar or something else she hadn't mentioned before, but I think it's more because despite being well raised and educated up the wazoo, Naomi Wolf just doesn't have very good manners and couldn't wait to slam the door on the way out.
Ros Atkins remained utterly impartial as he thanked me for my time, but other staff were less discreet, telling me there had been some serious swearing in the office every time she Helen, Helen, Helen'd me. We were all agreed though that Naomi is seriously good at holding her own (admittedly to the point of derailing) and that she could talk the hind leg of a field full of donkeys and frankly any interjection was an achievement, even though I had a million other points to make.
I then went to meet some of the London Jezebels for a drink (as originally planned) and commenced a good natured post mortem of my unexpected evening. They were delightfully supportive as were other friends and feminist allies on Twitter and Facebook (especially those who got a hashtag going!) and it became apparent that most people, even those who don't have to pretend because they don't know me, that Naomi Wolf did not come across well, couldn't even back her weak argument up and came across as self promoting, shockingly unself aware and lacking in a real comprehension of the intricacies of the subject she has appointed herself High Priestess of.
I make no illusion that I am speaking for myself and putting forward what I have learnt from own experiences, rather than talking for all rape victims. I suggest if Naomi Wolf learns one thing from this whole debate, it's to speak a little less and listen a little more...
*The iPlayer link should be available worldwide for the next seven days until 00.00 GMT January 14th. If not, please contact me for a recording of the whole programme.