A WOLF in sheep’s clothing: Maya and Lori take on Naomi’s latest misguided speakout

sheepskin draped over head of naomi wolf

In an article entitled “A tale of two rape charges” Naomi Wolf, most famously known as the author of “The Beauty Myth” and more recently known as the feminist defender of Julian Assange, says that the way the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been treated so far are “worrisome” to her. What precisely is so worrisome? Well, in large part the simple fact that the charges have been treated fairly seriously with not as much of the usual apathy and victim-blaming seen in, well, every other rape case ever. Maya and Lori report.

Maya: Lori, I am so happy we are taking this on together. After we closely followed Wolf’s first foray into what is apparently now her official role as “Feminist” Defender of Powerful Men Accused of Rape, I just couldn’t do it it again alone.

Lori: I’m happy we’re taking this on together, too! Wolf’s points really needs to be critiqued. She is using her feminist street cred for evil! This requires some Prescient Feminist Analysis STAT before we are set back a long, long while by her shameful anti-feminist pandering. Her basic thesis is that the new and increasing (but selective) seriousness with which sex crimes are being investigated is more indicative of a hyper-politicized desire to manipulate policy outcomes by shaming high profile perpetrators than of a drive to achieve justice, and is thus eroding the integrity of the world’s legal systems. A pretty elaborate conspiracy theory to explain a bit of relatively straightforward crime investigation.

Maya: Right. So in this piece, Wolf compares the DSK case to another rape case that’s happening in NYC right now. This one, which represents the “old” traditional way of dealing with rape charges in contrast to the “new” DSK way, is against two police officers who allegedly raped a drunk, partially unconscious woman after they escorted her home. The victim-blaming that’s gone on as the case, which is still ongoing, has unfolded has been unsurprisingly but especially horrendous. (I mean, this is trial in which the defense lawyer compared the survivor’s vagina to a Venus Flytrap. I kid you not.) Wolf writes (emphasis mine):

“The alleged rape of a citizen by a police officer — and the alleged collusion of another officer — is surely a serious matter. But the charges and trial have followed an often-seen pattern: the men’s supporters have vociferously defended their innocence (the presumption of which has been scrupulously upheld in the press); the victim’s pink bra has been the subject of salacious speculation, and her intoxication has been used to undermine her credibility. As the wheels of justice grind unglamorously forward, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made no public statement supporting the victim’s side.”

See all those things listed under the “often-seen pattern”? Those would be all the trappings of the rape culture that feminists traditionally tend to 1) believe exists and 2) think is a bad thing that helps create a world in which rape is allowed to continue and regularly undermines the quest for justice for many thousands of survivors who are silenced, disbelieved, or never even bother to report their rapes because, oh my god, who wants to deal with this shit?

I assume that after “23 years of experience covering sex crimes,” (!) Wolf must agree with #1. But I’m honestly not so sure about #2. Perhaps, in her view, the victim-blaming that survivors are subjected is just the price they pay for pressing charges; an inevitable part of the “unglamorous wheels of justice.”

Lori: Exactly. This is honestly the saddest part of Wolf’s analysis, to me. It’s like she has become so jaded and disappointed with the legal system that the absence of victim-blaming means something has gone wrong, or someone has a furtive political agenda. Wolf seems to be saying that, to fulfill her warped version of justice, the proper and standard investigation of an alleged perpetrator should be only as thorough as the investigation of their accuser, or at least of the accuser’s potential political motives. But that’s not how legal systems work. The burden of proof for guilt or innocence applies only to the accused. Which is really as it should be.

Maya: Yeah, and it’s not like we haven’t seen any of the usual victim-blaming in the DSK case either. Even though the authorities and most of the media seem to be doing their job, you’ve still got folks like Ben Stein and Bernard-Henri Levy engaging in some good old-fashioned rape apology. (See a great take-down of that nonsense by Jon Stewart here and a thoughtful analysis by Jill Filipovic here.)

Wolf writes later:

“If Strauss-Kahn turns out, after a fair trial, to be a violent sex criminal, may his sentence be harsh indeed. But the way in which this case is being processed is profoundly worrisome. In 23 years of covering sex crime — and in a city where domestic workers are raped by the score every month, often by powerful men — I have never seen the New York Police Department snap into action like this on any victim’s behalf.”

Look, as I said the last time, I do understand what Wolf is trying to get at here. I believe that she cares about the many domestic workers–and many other women of all walks of life–who are raped all the time by powerful men. But no, it is not “worrisome” that this one case is being treated with the seriousness that all rape charges should be treated. And no, it is not evidence that DSK must be the victim of “an age of geopolitics by blackmail” in which sex-crimes are exploited or manipulated. And no, it is not even particularly surprising that a case that involves a high-profile, internationally-known man would be handled with unusual swiftness and vigor–especially compared to one that involves two NYPD cops.

As for the presumption of innocence, which Wolf fears has already been destroyed, of course that’s an important legal standard–and I sincerely hope it is upheld to the fullest extent as the case proceeds–but she cannot honestly be shocked that with an American media and public that loves a political scandal more than anything, DSK’s career “was effectively over–before any legal process had even begun.”

Lori: The most “worrisome” part of Wolf’s stance is that it invokes what I find to be an insidious form of tokenism. Wolf may believe that she is in a unique position to make these points because she has feminist street credibility and feels herself to be untouchably aligned with rape and sexual assault victims because of it. But no feminist in the world has enough street cred to espouse anti-feminist ideals without hurting women. She may believe herself to be leveraging her platform to shine a light on the politicization of the justice system, but at what– and whose– cost is this mostly theoretical point coming? By dressing up an abstract point about selective prosecution and parading it around as a feminist argument, Naomi is revealing herself to be nothing more than a Wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    This is a wonderful analysis. I guess I don’t understand Wolf’s willful desires to totally destroy the credibility of her earlier work. Why would she contradict herself in this regard? Is it a change of heart or a stunt?

  • http://feministing.com/members/vanessasarah/ vanessa

    Is it bad that I feel MORE disdain for Naomi Wolf than I do for (insert your least favorite rape apologist who DOESN’T identify as a feminist here)?
    It reminds me of–I just read Rebecca Traisters book on the ’08 election and it reminds me of all the fauxgressive men (CHRIS MATHEWS ANYONE?) who were just complete assholes about Hillary. Much more disappointing than, say, Karl Rove being an asshole about Hillary.

  • http://feministing.com/members/natalieb/ natalie


    I’m new to your website and must be honest in saying, it’s a shame this article is the first one that greets me.

    I was led here by Nineteenpercent’s youtube video which bemoans rightly the fact our society still has miles to go to reach the end goal of a truly equal society… and the misunderstanding (or disinterest) of many young females in the feminist cause or their position within society.

    I can’t help but think that the above article is an excellent example of one of the primary reasons for our current status quo: the Third Wave have made/made no inroads of anywhere NEAR the impact of the First and Second because the Third Wave got too distracted by infighting and positioning their philosophical battles against EACH OTHER, rather than those outside the movement who are those whose mindset needs altering.

    It is I think a criminal waste of energy to expend it on criticizing others who, in all the most important and fundamental ways possible, concur with your opinions and sit in the same corner as you (active and fellow feminists). There is a huge world out there with a huge populations whose viewpoints are shocking – time should be directed there, not at people like Woolf who have done well to bring the feminist cause back into the public eye and with whom you should be working together to agree actions (concentrating on those you can agree on) to do more of the same.

    Very possibly (and hopefully) I walked onto this website at the wrong time and this article isn’t demonstrative of the majority of this site’s focus. I do hope so.

    • http://feministing.com/members/vanessasarah/ vanessa

      Pointing out rape apologia is always a feminist act, no matter who is being the apologist.

    • http://feministing.com/members/maya/ Maya

      Hi Natalie,

      Glad to have you here. I agree with you that feminist in-fighting a real problem–and something that I think we at Feministing make a concerted effort to avoid. If you do stick around, I think you’ll find that most of our posts are taking on the worst of the anti-feminists, offering a feminist perspective on mainstream news, calling attention to overlooked news about marginalized communities, etc. Our focus on intra-feminist debates at all is minimal–and when we do jump into them, we do our best to kept the critique civil and productive.

      Our decision to take on Wolf’s article was based on a sincere belief that her view on this–demonstrated in this case and her multiple articles about the Assange case–is downright anti-feminist. I respect the good feminist work Wolf has done–and no doubt continues to do–but her position on this particular issue is, I believe, misguided. Furthermore, we felt that as such a prominent representative of “feminism” in the mainstream media, it is damaging if her views are taken to reflect those of the movement as a whole.

      Anyway, we really hope you’ll stick around!

  • http://feministing.com/members/godsflunky/ Paul

    I’m a little concerned about what Lori wrote: “The burden of proof for guilt or innocence applies only to the accused. Which is really as it should be.” The problem is, that’s not how the US legal system works at all — everyone who is accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Which is the legitimate problem with rape investigations, since they so often run into “he said/she said” situations.

    Thing is, there are mountains of illegitimate problems with rape investigations, from police intransigence to victim-blaming and everything in between. Yet Wolf seems to be suspicious here because the usual problems aren’t showing up… which is just downright sad.

  • http://feministing.com/members/iammay/ May

    It makes me sad to see this post on Feministing because I like the blog. But this post seems a little too simplistic and although I am not familiar with Naomi Wolf, her opinion piece seems more circumspect and respectable. I think your blog can do better than this.

    Wolf thinks the difference between the two rape cases is ‘worrisome’ not because
    the treatment has improved but exactly because that difference exists and it shouldn’t. I didn’t get the sense from reading the original article that Wolf is urging a more thorough investigation of the accuser at all.

    Feminism is complex and multidimensional, so is our identity. As a feminist, I want to root for the empowered victim in speaking out against the injustice done by a powerful man. As a democratic citizen, I think we should reserve room for a fair judgment for the accused in our legal system.

    Also, for your record, the burden of proof does not rest on the accused.

    Please feel free to come check out my blog: anediblewoman.wordpress.com.