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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52 Comments

  1. a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “Why are we assuming that the boy-molestation-by-teachers are all “merely” statutory rapes? They are as coercive as any other form of child molestation, and should be prosecuted as such.”
    “We’re” not assuming anything, as you may notice by the variety of opinions on this board. /I/ was not assuming anything about these particular cases. I was merely talking theoretically, about statutory rape cases. I mean come on, you’ve never known anyone who was the younger party in a “statutory rape”? Well, I have. As far as student-teacher “statutory rape” situations go, I’m sure sometimes the student really wanted it, sometimes they felt like they’d been assaulted. I’m just saying I don’t think you can generalize and say that all statutory rape cases are equivalent with sexual assault.
    And once again, there was no reason to bring statutory rape up on this thread, as Biden’s record is on violent crime.

  2. southern students for choice
    Posted October 2, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    There’s so many issues here it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s look at two: one, the issue of casting a rape victim (or an actress/actor portraying a rape victim) in an ad, and two, using the ad as a political endorsement of a particular candidate.
    On issue one, it’s not controversial to use a rape victim or an actress/actor portraying one in an ad, that’s been done for decades in PSAs for hotlines and shelters. So if the ad was coming from a 527 or a less politicized nonprofit advocacy group it could be very effective with little risk of criticism for ‘exploiting’ rape victims, and good would be done for both political parties – including third parties, if anyone this cycle cares to include them — to ask party leaders and voters to consider issues involving sexual or domestic violence.
    And yeah, it would also be to the Democrats benefit in the end to do so, although it might still be better to not focus so much on a particular victim’s performance in even an effective ad as the voice and position of a victim advocate or titled spokesperson, who coincidentally might also identify themselves as a victim. Focusing on an advocate instead of a particular victim would serve a double duty of promoting advocates and the various services they offer, and not so much evoking sympathy for a particular victim. In any case though an ad using a rape victim or actress/actor portraying one which argued for advocacy but stopped short of endorsing a candidate has the advantage that there just aren’t any groups out there who favor sexual violence to produce ads with an opposing point of view.
    On issue two, using a rape victim or an actor/actress portraying one in a PAC ad, the issue of rape victims ‘endorsing’ a candidate would become an issue. How can one say that rape victims in general should ‘endorse’ a particular candidate, or by implication, that the opponent somehow is ‘soft on’ sexual violence? Of course the intent is not to say that the opponent is tolerant of violence, but the implication would be there for many people.
    In response to that inevitable implication, even if such an endorsement ad successfully ran, the opponent – or endorsing PACs – would then likely produce counter-ads which would also include rape victims, or actor/actresses portraying victims, and it could become at least to some in the public and the press which would be analyzing these ads a battle not of which party has the best platform addressing issues of concern to rape victims, but which victims are the most believable or legitimate. Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that the most believable or legitimate victim as portrayed in hypothetical PAC ads would be an old person in a nursing home, a developmentally disabled child, an undocumented immigrant, or someone overweight or unlikely to be considered attractive, but to say the least many of them are victims too.
    That’s maybe a best-case scenario for how a battle of PAC ads involving rape victims would play out. Maybe the worse case, at least in retaliation, would be a reprise of ads including imagery of not of victims but of offenders. It probably wouldn’t end up as bad as the 1988 ‘Willie Horton’ ad, but it’s easy to imagine a party that benefited from the bogus claims made four years ago in the ‘Swift Boat’ ads getting close in some markets – and that would be a bad thing, right, even if odds are that such an ad would be run in markets where progressives are in the minority. The ’88 ‘Willie Horton’ ad was negative and disgusting and was quickly pulled from the air but … as Lee Atwater might have said, ‘it worked’. The ‘Willie Horton’ ad and a slightly less offensive but more effective ‘Revolving Door’ ad was effective at helping George HW Bush influence polls, particularly among women, which at the time of the ads showed Dukakis in the lead and, many argue, helped elect Bush that fall. One may hope that women have changed in how they’d view an ad like that from where they were in 1988, but if the Republicans are even a fraction right in judging that a candidate like Sarah Palin could win their votes at least in the red states, many women in those states may have changed less than one would hope.
    Palin is becoming such a freaking joke at this point that even Republicans are starting to laugh at much of what she says, at least Republicans who haven’t donated much to the RNC this year. With the polls so much in their favor at this time, it doesn’t seem likely that the DNC or the Obama campaign would risk producing a potentially edgy ad like is being considered here.
    But back to a question that should be asked, if an ad like this is considered — is there a difference – or is this a distinction without a difference – in the likely effectiveness of casting rape victims, or actors portraying victims – in nonprofit PSAs, even 527 ads, and PAC ads that would explicitly endorse a particular candidate or party?

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