I’m seeing a lot of conversations stir up around victim advocacy and feminism in policy and reporting regarding the recent Rolling Stone story about campus sexual assault. A lot of it is the appropriate review of journalistic standards after a story that, at this point, has definitely not gone well for anyone. Some of it is veering into a critique on whether sensitivity to victims should play a role in reporting at all, or responding to a situation in which such sensitivity was misapplied to launch a campaign against victims.
For anyone who’s still confused or anxious about the need for feminist perspectives, allow me to put it this way.
One of society’s challenges addressing sexual assault is that dealing with a real story will almost automatically entail some cognitive dissonance. When you are speaking to and about victims who talk about sexual assault, your presumption (based on overwhelming statistical likelihood) should be that they are being truthful and potentially traumatized — yet when you are speaking to and about offenders, all who are implicated in a crime are presumed innocent until found guilty. Both of these are in some ways “liberal” principles and both are necessary to prevent irreparable harm to people. Yet they are cognitively dissonant. It can be confusing to understand how you can empathize totally with victims and at the same time remain fair on matters of due process.
This is why society needs a mindful and sophisticated system for dealing with sexual assault. That includes victims advocates (who are in a separate role from judge and jury, incorporating some elements of the role of a mental health professional and some elements of the role of a personal attorney) and why the public and media should strive for a similarly mindful and sophisticated attitude towards it.
What else should be part of that sophisticated system? Part of it addresses the bullshit, shaming and contradictory expectations we pile on women regarding their sexuality.
Rape is wrong because it violates a person’s bodily integrity, privacy, and trust in others — it does so in principle, but also with likelihood to do psychological damage. (You’ll notice that this is completely neutral towards a victim’s gender.) In the eyes of traditional society, however, rape is wrong because it tarnishes a woman’s sexual purity and innocence (which is a gendered interpretation). Therefore, society tends to asses harm done to women by sexual assault by evaluating a victim’s state of purity and innocence prior to being sexually assaulted, and continues to question their purity and innocence afterward by evaluating whether they display too much or too little trauma to be trustworthy. Society also tends to be distrustful and patronizing toward women’s memories and interpretations — this can include police, investigators and prosecutors, who are usually men. That’s utterly immoral and damaging to put a victim through.
Identifying these gender-based double standards, and shifting towards gender equity, is feminism. I don’t think society’s approach to sexual assault can be considered sophisticated, or even competent, without universal understanding of feminist perspectives.
Campaigns to change attitudes towards sexual assault are often challenged by skeptics speaking as if there are “two sides” to the issue. Granted, on any topic, every individual has her or his own experience and so there is an unlimited number of “sides.” But I think it’s very ironic when one cause, seeking to improve general understanding of what sexual assault is and the harm it does to victims so that the incidents don’t happen in the first place, are asked to consider the other “side” — the experience of the accused. Mind you, the main goal of anti-rape activists, who are painfully aware that many offenders are said to “seem like nice guys” who for whatever reason fail to register the humanity of a person they victimize, is to change the culture to prevent there from being victims or offenders in the first place.
We are universally educated about due process — yes even feminists are — so we don’t need to lecture women, feminists or victims advocates about due process. They all know what it is. But feminist perspectives, though diverse, still face misunderstanding and resistance. So, yes, you need to learn about feminism to speak competently about sexual assault, because in the absence of that knowledge there is bias. There’s room for different viewpoints when you get there, but you have to have that basic groundwork of knowledge to play a positive role.