On recruiting rape survivors for campaign ads

Jonathan Martin reports that the Obama campaign was looking to recruit a rape survivor to appear in an ad.

Kiersten Steward, director of public policy at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, served as a conduit between the campaign and victims and women’s advocates.
“Obviously, this is a big ask and I haven’t seen a script but presumably it will be a brief ‘this is what happened to me, we need someone who will fight for women like me, these are the guys to do it,'” Steward wrote in a Sept. 15 e-mail. “Again, that’s just my assumption, given how these things usually go.”

So it raises the question: Is this exploitative? Or is it simply a compelling way to draw attention to a very serious issue?
My gut reaction was similar to Megan at Jezebel‘s:

While I’m all for bringing more attention to the issue of sexual assault, I am more than a little disturbed that the Obama camp would be asking a victim to share her story (and likely be attacked by conservatives) in order to score some political points. It’s one thing to go to them and offer to share her story, but it’s another thing for them to come to her and ask.

But that’s not the side I ultimately end up on. Political and issue-based campaigns frequently recruit people with first-hand experience to speak publicly and in ads. I wondered, would my reaction be so strong if the Obama campaign was seeking a laid-off autoworker to discuss his economic policies? Decidedly not.

All too often rape survivors are seen as objects of pity, rather than as people who have agency and a powerful voice. At a basic level, it’s good to have real women (not actresses playing survivors, Lifetime-movie-style) stand up and speak to this issue from experience. The major caveat, of course, is that there cannot be any coercion involved. And it doesn’t look like there was. Politico quoted one woman who was asked to appear:

Mikele Shelton-Knight declined to do so, but said in an interview that she was glad the Obama campaign was seeking to highlight the issue.
“The more discussion about this the better,” said Shelton-Knight, a full-time victims advocate in the Richmond area.

While I’m sure conservatives will peg the Obama campaign’s recruitment of rape survivors as crass, I agree with Shelton-Knight. I’m glad the candidates’ policies on sexual violence are an issue in this campaign. And it’s a good thing to hear directly from a person who was affected (or would have been affected) by the policies in question. Yes, even when that person is a survivor of sexual violence.

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