An anonymous correspondent wrote in last week:
I had an experience the other day which I’m still puzzling over. I serve on a major university committee, and I have known for some time that a colleague’s daughter is not at home, but in residential care in Big City more than a hundred miles away, and has been in and out of hospital. The other day I asked how her daughter was doing, and she started talking. It turns out her daughter’s problems (and a suicide attempt) are related to two rapes in school, which the young woman didn’t tell anyone about until recently. Suddenly my colleague stopped, and said “I’ve just told you more than I’ve told anyone else, and more than I should have.” It turns out they have been told that because of their daughter’s privacy rights they can’t talk about what is happening to her, so that (for instance) if I meet my colleague’s daughter some time down the road, I don’t look at her and say, “Oh, you’re the girl who was raped”. From other things my colleague said, it sounds as if her town HS has a culture of athletic impunity – ie. The athletes can do whatever they want.
This exchange has troubled me as a feminist on multiple levels: the fact of the rape of the high school-aged daughter concerns me deeply. But it also bothers me the way, it seems to me, the mother is herself victimized by the privacy concerns, which appear to be motivated by the belief that it would be terrible for people to know a person was raped. How can someone get any kind of support if people don’t know what’s happening? And what are the consequences of still protecting the identities of victims of sexual assault? Does that actually continue to suggest that they are responsible? That it’s something to be ashamed of?
Anyway, I could go on, but that’s the story. As a feminist, I believe that it can be helpful to talk about our experiences–including rape–with other people, so this made me kind of nuts. There’s a kind of enforced isolation for the parents, brought on by privacy concerns.
This concern with “privacy” seems to be part of the effort to make rape disappear, like the use of the term “sexual assault” instead of rape, and the fact that most rape victims are now labeled “accusers” instead of “victims.” (If someone breaks into your home and steals stuff, would you be called a “theft accuser,” and the perpetrator an “accused thief?” Whatever happened to that nice term, “alleged,” which suggested that it was Johnny Law doing the alleging, not an “accuser?”) In this brave, new “postfeminist” era, rape is always a woman’s responsibility/fault, and that after a rape, it’s her responsibility to keep her mouth shut. (For her own privacy, of course!) There are no victims in “postfeminism.”
Rapists are so thoroughly protected by the language we use now, which implies that rape victims are in fact the criminals by calling them “accusers.” This implies that the accusation of rape is the real act of aggression, instead of the rape itself. NPR has been running a series on rape and college women that is sympathetic with the victims of rape, but in their reporting they too use the odious noun “accuser.” See last night’s story for a good example–although the web headline uses the term “victim,” the story itself refers to a campus investigation of “the accused and the accuser,” and refers to the perp in this case as “the accused man” and “The man Margaux accuses,” and at one point says that “Margaux expected the man she accused to be expelled.” The man she accused? Not the man who raped her, which was the conclusion of the university investigation? The only time the word “victim” is used is when it’s used by the mother of the victim in this story. My students are shocked to hear that I think it’s become more difficult in the past twenty years to prosecute rape cases–but that’s the effect of talking about rape as though the accusation of rape is worse than rape.
Rape and its consequences for the young woman described above are similarly “disappeared” by this concern for the victim’s privacy–whether it’s her medical privacy or legal privacy, I’m not sure. (In any case–if the victim herself gives her parents permission to talk about her rapes, then that erases any possibility that they might violate her privacy, right?) This concern for the victim’s privacy rights in fact functions to conceal the crimes and the criminals–it’s the perpetrators’ privacy that is protected. And whose interests does that really serve? (I’ll be very interested to hear from readers who have expertise in the law and medicine here–how do privacy concerns dictate how you can and cannot deal with rape victims?)
Rape truly is a crime so terrible that we make sure that it never, ever happens. Women get raped every day–but we work so hard to ignore it or call it something else–we blame the victim, call her an “accuser,” suggest that the act of making an accusation of rape is worse than rape itself, and then we bully victims into silence by telling them that it’s for their own good, that they need to protect their privacy rights. When of course, the real crime we fear is a false accusation of rape–and that fear permits us to ignore the majority of rapes in the U.S. If any of you can stand to be any more disabused of your Whiggish notions of progress over time, go read Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006). Every time I assign the book, my women’s history students are fascinated (and utterly horrified) to see scenes from the eighteenth century play out almost identically to the way rape and rape investigations work today. Once again, that old devil, patriarchal equilibrium, rides again–something a lot of our women students understand all too well, even if they never read Block’s book.
Thanks to my anonymous correspondent for writing in, and my thoughts and best wishes are with the young woman.