Rape victims and anonymity

This week Nafissatou Diallo, the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case, broke her silence in a print interview with Newsweek and a televison interview with ABC News An alleged rape victim coming forward in such a public way is unprecedented. Rape shield laws have historically protected victims of sexual assault. Because rape is considered especially harmful compared to other crimes, extra measures are taken to ensure victims recover and heal without public criticism.

Even with rape shield laws, though, victims in high profile cases are routinely smeared and accused of lying. Their identities are frequently leaked to the media and the public is then able to pry into their private lives and sexual histories, often in an attempt to discredit them. Every misstatement, every inconsistency is fair game for the media, especially if the alleged rapist is a powerful or beloved public figure.

Diallo is very brave and her coming forward is really a new kind of press strategy, especially given the recent statement by prosecutors that her credibility – or lack thereof – would make her an unreliable witness. At this point, it doesn’t look as though prosecutors are going to pursue the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and he was already released from jail. Diallo cleared up in her interview with ABC any questions about the timeline of the attack and restated her position that any other inconsistencies in her statements to prosecutors about matters wholly unrelated to the attack are irrelevant.

This is one of the reasons that rape victims have historically been given special protections. Their credibility is questioned in a way that other victims simply do not have to put up with. Get mugged? Prosecutors want to catch your mugger and don’t care that you may have lied on your tax returns because that doesn’t have anything to do with the mugging. Get beaten up by the cops? The public outcry against police brutality isn’t mixed with questions about what you could have done to provoke the police. Victims in other crimes simply don’t have their entire lives questioned.

Another reason rape victims have traditionally been given this special shield is because so few rape victims actually come forward to report the crime at all. Even with the protection victims generally not only blame themselves but many times are blamed by the public and even those closest to them. Giving them added protection may serve to encourage them to report their attacks.

Critics of rape shield laws argue that this further stigmatizes rape victims and perhaps even sets back the gender equality movement. It’s possible that in special circumstances, like civil suits that result from rapes, victims may lose the privilege of hiding their identities. It’s also possible that formal removal of this protection wouldn’t make a difference because especially in high profile cases the identity of the victim and every single skeleton in their closet is published anyway despite the law. While the New York Times may not have disclosed the name of the victim in the NYPD rape cops, past cases have proven different. In Kobe Bryant’s rape case, the victim’s name, face, and sexual history was plastered all over the internet, rape shield laws be damned.

There is speculation that Diallo will sue Dominique Strauss-Kahn in civil court (where you are seeking monetary damages and the victim is the plaintiff as opposed to the state like in criminal cases) if her criminal case fails to go forward. The NYPD rape cops victim is also pursuing a civil case for $57 million in damages against the city of New York. The debate around rape shield laws has also suggested that perhaps victims should lose their anonymity if they choose to pursue civil charges. I’m not really sure it should matter. A victim has the right to pursue civil charges especially if a high profile case thrusts them into the spotlight against their will. If we allow the rape shield laws to have limited exceptions that will likely lead to them being meaningless, and even more victims names and sexual histories will become public fodder. After Diallo’s interviews, I believe her story even more than I did before and I think that her right to remain anonymous or not should be up to her in the end regardless of any future civil charges she may file.

Do you think we still need rape shield laws? Do you think we should make exceptions when a victim is pursuing civil charges?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted July 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    “Get beaten up by the cops? The public outcry against police brutality isn’t mixed with questions about what you could have done to provoke the police.”

    OH, WOW. Are you kidding me?

    People blame victims of police brutality all the time.

    • Posted July 27, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

      Yeah. This was a record-scratch kind of moment. If you really don’t think victims of police brutality get blamed for that behavior then you’re not really following the reactions that accompany police brutality. It doesn’t get any more wrong than that.

    • Posted July 27, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I too was completely baffled by this comment! A friend of mine was hit by a semi truck while she was crossing the street – in a crosswalk – a few years ago. She suffered mild brain damage (if something like that can even be considered “mild”), lost her sense of smell and taste, became depressed, and was scared to leave her home. Seems pretty cut and dry, right? If you are in a crosswalk you have the right of way. Just a few days ago they held a deposition where she was absolutely ripped apart. They questioned her personal life, her mental stability… all for her just crossing the street. We live in a culture of victim blame, period.

  2. Posted July 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    This is a side issue to the main topic, but:

    Get beaten up by the cops? The public outcry against police brutality isn’t mixed with questions about what you could have done to provoke the police.

    Sadly, I think you must read very different sources about these stories than I do.

  3. Posted July 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why, Zerlina, you used the term “victim” instead of “survivor”. This might seem like a small deal (and it is indeed peripheral to your article), but language is so important when it comes to empowering people who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted. There is a journey from Victim to Survivor and while not everyone who has been assaulted identifies as a survivor, it is important for those around her/him/zie to use empowering language to support that individual on hir journey. I understand why “victim” is much more common in larger media outlets – it is a legal term in the way “survivor” is not – but to read it here, on a feminist blog that claims to be a safe space, is surprising. To see that one of the most widely read feminist blogs considers me to be a victim and not a survivor is disheartening, to say the least.

    • Posted July 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      (I’m not that good with words, so sorry if this comes out sounding offensive to anyone):

      This article refers to women coming forward and speaking about rape, which would happen while the woman still considers herself a ‘victim’. As you said, there is a journey from victim to survivor, and if we refer to women who have recently been raped as survivors, it seems to imply that because they have ‘survived’ rape, then what are they complaining about? They should be happy they ‘survived’. For the women this article refers to, I think the term ‘victim’ is appropriate.

      • Posted July 26, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

        This article refers to women coming forward and speaking about rape, which would happen while the woman still considers herself a ‘victim’.

        That is untrue. Survivors can share their stories at any point on the journey from victim to survivor. I’m not sure why you think that one must consider hirself a victim in order to share hir story, but that is just false. There are a ton of resources if you’re interested in learning more about what factors (timing, social support, internal well being, etc.) make it possible for survivors to share their experiences with others. The feminist blog Shakesville is an invaluable resource for learning more about rape culture and honoring survivorship.

    • Posted July 26, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      I chose victim because the case is ongoing and literally the case is in the middle of either getting thrown out or moving forward. I’m not saying there is a bright line moment when you are one or the other but I think instead of calling her “alleged” anything like all other mainstream outlets are doing I called her a victim who is speaking out. I think you should also check out my first post on Feministing here as I am a survivor of sexual assault myself. In my own case, I think there was a moment when I went from being a victim to being a survivor. It’s not a science. It’s not meant to be hurtful. It was a personal choice in this particular post and I stand by it.

      http://feministing.com/2011/06/28/bristol-palin-and-the-challenge-of-calling-rape-rape/

      • Posted July 26, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

        Zerlina, Thank you for responding personally to my comment. I am so sorry for what happened to you; I know that you didn’t deserve it. Having said that, I would exercise extreme caution in making the argument that because you are a survivor of assault, the language that you use to describe other survivors is immune to critical analysis. You still have a responsibility, as a Feminist blogger (and as a human), to empower survivors of violence, and language matters. Your choice to stand by your language is just that — your choice, but there is no way to deny that the term you are using is much less empowering than the commonly used alternative.

  4. Posted July 26, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I think your post conflates several things: rape shield laws, media confidentiality policies, and court confidentiality orders.

    Judges can order certain information sealed and keep the lawyers and parties from disclosing them. This isn’t particular to sexual assault, and often covers sensitive personal or business information in litigation. In the Bryant case, the judge had ordered that the survivor’s identity be sealed, and court employees kept filing documents that contained it openly anyway.

    Media policies that bar the use of rape survivors’ names are usually not laws or orders, just internal policies. There are some papers and websites that don’t honor this convention, though most mainstream and even tabloid media do. Since it’s not a law or order, when the survivor okays identifying her, they don’t have to get anyone else’s permission to use the name.

    Rape shield laws prevent the jury from hearing information about a survivor’s sexual history, sometimes with exceptions. In New York, that’s all the rape shield law does and it has no impact on media. I’m not sure there are states that actually bar the media from reporting on the names of rape survivors, which would raise serious First Amendment concerns.

    Rape shield laws, those that bar the jury from hearing certain information, are absolutely still necessary, as the “slut defense” still works and will until society as a whole gets serious about believing that women have a right not to be raped (even when they don’t follow patriarchal rules, which every woman violates in some way, in someone’s eyes, virtually all the time, because they’re deliberately a catch-22).

    Likewise, media policies to protect rape survivors are necessary because being publicly identified as the accuser of a powerful man consistently causes the survivors to be villified, taunted and often threatened.

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