When I was fifteen years old, I became a feminist. It happened a few weeks into my first semester of eleventh grade, not long after I had returned from a three-month exchange to France. When I left my hometown of Sydney, Australia, for a small town in Brittany, I was a reasonably slender competitive jazz dancer. When I came back three months later – three months of winter, spent eating French home cooking in a village with no dance studio or gym and with no daylight in which to go jogging – I was two or three clothing sizes larger. For the first time in my life, I was failing, utterly, to adhere to the dominant standard of female beauty. It was during my time in France, my body expanding more with every passing day, that I first put my fingers down my throat, a desperate and pointless attempt to cleanse myself of the new bulges and stretch marks that were turning my body into something I didn’t recognize, something I hated.
I returned home to Sydney and started eleventh grade, my face puffy and my body too big for the uniform that had fit only a few months earlier. Just after the school year began, I read your book, The Beauty Myth. The Beauty Myth examined – no, eviscerated – the pressure on women to spend vast amounts of time, energy and money on remaining thin and young-looking. This fixation, you argued, distracts women from the political, economic and cultural inequities that still exist in our society, and prevents us from achieving full equality with men. The Beauty Myth, as I would have said at fifteen, blew my mind. It dramatically changed the way I looked at the world, at myself, at other women, and at men. After I read The Beauty Myth, the hatred and disgust I now felt when I looked in the mirror made a new kind of sense. I started questioning beauty standards – the ones our culture imposed on all women, and the ones I imposed on myself. I started calling myself a feminist. I will always be indebted to you for writing the book that powered my feminist “click moment.”
Eight years after that “click,” twenty years after The Beauty Myth, you’re blowing my mind again – but this time, not in a good way.
When allegations came to light that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had sexually assaulted two women in Sweden, you sprang to Assange’s defense, making light of the allegations by comparing sexual assault to a boyfriend’s failure to notice his girlfriend’s new haircut. When feminists objected to this comparison and insisted that you take the allegations seriously, you didn’t listen to us. You dug in. You appeared on Democracy Now!, where you stated that penetrating a sleeping person wasn’t rape, and wasn’t anything to get upset about. Most recently, you objected to the practice of keeping the alleged victims’ names anonymous, arguing that if people who are raped want to report and seek justice for that crime, they must make themselves vulnerable to the kind of public shaming and trial-by-media that has become so commonplace, and in which you yourself are currently participating.
My friend and colleague Lori wrote a few weeks ago about respectfully disagreeing with you when it comes to the allegations against Assange. Well, with all due respect, Ms. Wolf, I feel betrayed.
In 2004, you claimed that you had been the victim of an unwanted sexual advance. You came forward and told your story, and spoke about how it felt to be violated and then silenced. You no doubt gave a lot of other women the courage to come forward as well, courage they might not otherwise have found. You told us that our experiences mattered. The groping, the street harassment, the date rape, you told us it all mattered. You told us we had the right to speak up if we wanted to, and that we deserved to be taken seriously when we did.
Now, it seems, you’ve changed your mind. Now, it seems, you don’t think that women deserve to be taken seriously when they come forward. You joked about allegations of sexual violence and waved away claims of unwanted penetration. You told the world that these women don’t deserve to be taken seriously. You have engaged in the time-old practice of dividing women who experience sexual violence into two camps – those who count as “real” victims, and those who are ignored and silenced. It’s a practice you used to abhor, but now, you’ve taken it upon yourself to decide who gets to be a “real” sexual violence victim. To those of us who were emboldened by the stance you once held on sexual violence, your belief that any form of sexual violation is unacceptable, it’s a stinging slap in the face.
A few weeks ago, my editor Jessica observed that you don’t seem to be aware of how much feminist activity is happening online, and particularly of the huge amount of commentary on Assange that is happening on feminist blogs all over the world. I’m not sure why that should be the case, since just a few months ago, you sat on a panel with several of my young feminist colleagues to talk about the role of blogging and online organizing in the feminist movement. If you’d been online lately, you might have noticed the groundswell of dissent and outcry and confusion at your position on Assange. You might have noticed that several young feminists have started selling t-shirts and tote bags bearing the message “Naomi Wolf doesn’t speak for me,” with all proceeds going to a sexual assault survivors’ legal defense fund.
You don’t speak for me. You don’t speak for so many of us, and yet, you continue to speak without listening. You continue to be labeled a leader of the feminist movement, even as you betray so many of the values you once inspired us young feminists to embrace. Luckily, other leaders have emerged. Jaclyn Friedman and Sady Doyle have been fighting the good fight, insisting that it’s possible to acknowledge that the pursuit of the allegations against Assange at this moment is politically motivated while also taking those allegations seriously. That’s what we expect from our feminist leaders – that they will take sexual assault allegations seriously, every time. That’s what we expected from you.
I hope I haven’t been disrespectful, and I hope that you get a chance to read this letter, even though it is written on the internet. And if you choose to respond, I hope your response will be the kind that those of us who admired you so hoped to hear, right from the moment the Assange allegations came to light. Because to be honest, Naomi, eight years ago, you inspired my feminist “click moment.” But in the last few weeks, you have broken my feminist heart.