An open letter to Wendy Kaminer, author of “What to Make of the Rape Accusations at Amherst College”

Dear Ms. Kaminer,

I read your article, What to Make of the Rape Accusations at Amherst College, today, and I feel it necessary to express how disappointed I am. If there’s a subcategory in rape culture that angers me most, it’s victim blaming. The harm that comes from blaming a survivor of sexual assault is so substantial, that it often is as traumatic as the assault itself. The blatant mocking of Epifano that occurs throughout your article is simply unacceptable:

“Put aside questions about the accuracy of Epifano’s recollections and the soundness or gross insensitivity of the counselor’s advice. Never mind the absence of discussion about reporting the alleged attack to law enforcement; rape is, after all, a felony, which courts are better equipped to address than colleges. Focus instead on Epifano’s reaction to the prospect of a disciplinary hearing:

Hours locked in a room with him and being called a liar about being raped? No, thank you. I could barely handle seeing him from the opposite end of campus; I knew I couldn’t handle that level of negativity.”

You see, Ms. Kaminer, Epifano denied even the thought of going through a trial in order to protect herself. Maybe that seems ridiculous to you, but sometimes after going through a terrible trauma, one cannot possibly bear the thought of recounting that trauma over and over. Also, Epifano may or may not have known this, but out of every 100 rapes, 46 get reported to the police, 12 lead to an arrest, 9 are prosecuted, 5 lead to a felony conviction, and 3 rapists will spend a single day in prison*. The long and frustrating battle to hope that your rapist is not one of the 97% who walk takes a toll on survivors that Epifano didn’t want to subject herself to.

And that’s okay. What you need to realize is that it’s okay for Epifano to put herself first. If she didn’t feel like she could handle an entire trial, then let’s applaud her honesty and willingness to listen to her own needs, instead of criticizing her because you or someone else would’ve “done differently.” In reality no one knows, not even another survivor, of what she’s endured.

You then go on to question the trauma she felt from her rape:

“Is rape necessarily this traumatic? Are all rapes equal in the damage they inflict? Yes, according to some popular feminist wisdom. No, according to the diverse experiences of rape victims I’ve known — including women who’ve been raped while hitchhiking and by strangers who broke in to their apartments, as well as women raped by dates or acquaintances…

I’m not criticizing or judging Epifano for being acutely frightened and depressed. I’m not presuming to tell women how they should or shouldn’t react to being raped. Quite the opposite. I’m simply suggesting that different women react differently, according to their different circumstances, strengths and vulnerabilities. I’m not denying the horrors of rape and the outrage, shame, or fear it can engender, but I am questioning the assumption that it naturally and inevitably breaks women down. I’m wondering if that assumption isn’t sometimes self-fulfilling.”

First, I’d be willing to bet that the source you have for that “popular feminist wisdom” is incorrect. The feminist approach to rape crisis intervention is letting the survivor know their options and empowering them to make those decisions themselves, in order to put control back in their lives. Secondly, every person reacts entirely differently from any other person who’s been raped. You say you understand this, just to go ahead and question the assumption that rape “naturally and inevitably breaks women down.” For some, yes, it breaks them down. For others, they can go on with their daily lives as if a rape never happened. One can never assume any reaction from any survivor.

Epifano, no matter her decisions or reactions from her rape, did what she could in order to survive. Maybe you don’t agree with how she went about it, but she knows herself better than you do, so stop judging her. She is strong and brave and an inspiration. Angie Epifano is a survivor.

Sincerely,

Chelcie Laggis, founder of endrapeculture.com

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4 Comments

  1. Posted November 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    And thirdly, if you feel the need to end your article with a paragraph of “Now, I’m not saying this and I’m not saying that!” there’s a very good chance you were saying all of those things throughout

  2. Posted November 27, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    What hurts the most is that Kaminer admits to being a victim herself – although one in denial.

    “Years ago I slept with a guy who made a veiled threat to kill me if I didn’t. The sex was perfunctory and not at all memorable; what I remember most clearly is the threat.”

    What she calls “sex” sounds a whole lot like “rape” – so perhaps Kaminer’s willingness to paint Epifano as a liar stems from her own repression of identifying rape as “perfunctory” sex.

  3. Posted November 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Rape has been a subject I have wrestled with for the past couple of years and continue to wrestle with even presently. Discussions with both ladies and gents, reading a range of personal accounts of rape survivors, reading from advocates for the end of rape culture, and dealing with my own reflections on a particular experience of my own.

    As a crime by itself, rape has increasingly struck me as being complex and unique compared to other violent crimes which show up in the criminal court system — a court system that, in theory, tries its hand at fairness by relying largely on objective evidence that can be measured by a third party. With rape, it seems — unless a rape kit is used, tested, and preserved (even then, it’s often not be enough) — it boils down to a very flawed ideas of ‘tests of truth and character’ when there is no more objective or outside evidence to rely upon. The crux is on consent — a verbal contract that leaves no signs.

    Working at a law firm, records and documents — all of which are used to reinforce and substantiate the argument or complaint — are king. Verbal contracts hold little to no water, if any at all. Consent or agreement are positively established, often in the form of a written and signed contract, agreement, written notice, etc. Absence of consent on a document is not equated with consent in a contract; this is why, in my thoughts at least, “Yes means Yes” makes so much sense as form of fighting rape culture. It’s logic in the same vein as a contract.

    Nevertheless, consent is a verbal contract which often leaves no trace (unless folks actually do sign contracts a la a Dave Chappelle’s Love Contract sketch). So how can a claim be verified by a court of law whose very goal is fairness and justice? How is a rape victim’s claim any more or less subject to scrutiny than another claim for a different position? When the policy is presumed ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as it is in the U.S. as opposed to ‘guilty until proven innocent’, it places the burden on the prosecution rather than the accused. It’s the intersection of a flawed court system with personal and very emotional trauma in many cases.

    I think it’s legitimate to question the validity of a claim, any claim. What is not legitimate is blaming the victim for what happened to them or shaming them e.g. that they brought the whole damned thing upon themselves and ‘asked’ for it, that they are mentally unsound or depressed or in want of attention. If skepticism itself is victim-blaming, it leaves me with a number of more questions.

    I can condone Ms. Kaminer’s skepticism as to the validity of the claim, but this paragraph:

    “If Epifano’s account of her state of mind is accurate and not an exercise in self-dramatization, then I have some sympathy for administrators who reportedly wanted to “monitor” her. I’d venture to describe her as deeply troubled and wonder if her troubles were exclusively attributable to the reported rape.”

    Struck me as simply speculating — victim-blaming rather than questioning whether a crime had occurred/how it could be evaluated, and drawing conclusions where she had little to no authority to draw them. She has taken the mantle of judge in her “court” — her article — and is testing Epifano’s character based on arbitrary standards and cherry-picked evidence. That, I think, is shitty journalism, but that’s what people do when they hear about a case and know only the bare bones of it. They speculate. E.g. Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony and any other high profile trials one can think of.

    In the end though, Kamier’s question still touches on that intersection of court (even campus court) practices and action:

    “I sympathize with Epifano’s feelings but still wonder: If she wasn’t willing or able to testify against her alleged attacker in an informal hearing, if she wasn’t capable of handling questions about her accusations, what did she expect administrators to do? Simply take her word that a rape had occurred a year earlier and punish her “rapist” (perhaps by expelling him) without giving him a chance to confront his accuser and present his side of the story?”

    Knowing how due process works and how it turns into tests of character, knowing that the burden of proof is on the prosecution with the undercurrent of a presumption of innocence, what *do* we expect the law to do if we can’t find the courage to fight, not simply survive?

    The reality of due process requires more than just survival, it would seem, but it does not negate the importance of shifting cultural ideas regarding consent or calling out victim-blaming when it occurs.

  4. Posted November 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this response, I feel like this perspective is one I hear a lot and it truly upsets me. The responsibility for getting rapists behind bars should not be placed on the victim, nor should the blame for not coming forward. Lets place the blame where it really lies, with the rapist.

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