Privacy and "postfeminist" rape culture

An anonymous correspondent wrote in last week:

I had an experience the other day which I’m still puzzling over.  I serve on a major university committee, and I have known for some time that a colleague’s daughter is not at home, but in residential care in Big City more than a hundred miles away, and has been in and out of hospital.   The other day I asked how her daughter was doing, and she started talking.  It turns out her daughter’s problems (and a suicide attempt) are related to two rapes in school, which the young woman didn’t tell anyone about until recently.  Suddenly my colleague stopped, and said  “I’ve just told you more than I’ve told anyone else, and more than I should have.”  It turns out they have been told that because of their daughter’s privacy rights they can’t talk about what is happening to her, so that (for instance) if I meet my colleague’s daughter some time down the road, I don’t look at her and say, “Oh, you’re the girl who was raped”.   From other things my colleague said, it sounds as if her town HS has a culture of athletic impunity – ie. The athletes can do whatever they want. 

This exchange has troubled me as a feminist on multiple levels:  the fact of the rape of the high school-aged daughter concerns me deeply.  But it also bothers me the way, it seems to me, the mother is herself victimized by the privacy concerns, which appear to be motivated by the belief that it would be terrible for people to know a person was raped.  How can someone get any kind of support if people don’t know what’s happening?  And what are the consequences of still protecting the identities of victims of sexual assault?   Does that actually continue to suggest that they are responsible?   That it’s something to be ashamed of? 

 Anyway, I could go on, but that’s the story.  As a feminist, I believe that it can be helpful to talk about our experiences–including rape–with other people, so this made me kind of nuts.  There’s a kind of enforced isolation for the parents, brought on by privacy concerns.

This concern with “privacy” seems to be part of the effort to make rape disappear, like the use of the term “sexual assault” instead of rape, and the fact that most rape victims are now labeled “accusers” instead of “victims.”  (If someone breaks into your home and steals stuff, would you be called a “theft accuser,” and the perpetrator an “accused thief?”  Whatever happened to that nice term, “alleged,” which suggested that it was Johnny Law doing the alleging, not an “accuser?”)  In this brave, new “postfeminist” era, rape is always a woman’s responsibility/fault, and that after a rape, it’s her responsibility to keep her mouth shut.  (For her own privacy, of course!)  There are no victims in “postfeminism.” 

Rapists are so thoroughly protected by the language we use now, which implies that rape victims are in fact the criminals by calling them “accusers.”  This implies that the accusation of rape is the real act of aggression, instead of the rape itself.  NPR has been running a series on rape and college women that is sympathetic with the victims of rape, but in their reporting they too use the odious noun “accuser.”  See last night’s story for a good example–although the web headline uses the term “victim,” the story itself refers to a campus investigation of “the accused and the accuser,” and refers to the perp in this case as “the accused man” and “The man Margaux accuses,” and at one point says that “Margaux expected the man she accused to be expelled.”  The man she accused?  Not the man who raped her, which was the conclusion of the university investigation?   The only time the word “victim” is used is when it’s used by the mother of the victim in this story.  My students are shocked to hear that I think it’s become more difficult in the past twenty years to prosecute rape cases–but that’s the effect of talking about rape as though the accusation of rape is worse than rape. 

Rape and its consequences for the young woman described above are similarly “disappeared” by this concern for the victim’s privacy–whether it’s her medical privacy or legal privacy, I’m not sure.  (In any case–if the victim herself gives her parents permission to talk about her rapes, then that erases any possibility that they might violate her privacy, right?)  This concern for the victim’s privacy rights in fact functions to conceal the crimes and the criminals–it’s the perpetrators’ privacy that is protected.  And whose interests does that really serve?  (I’ll be very interested to hear from readers who have expertise in the law and medicine here–how do privacy concerns dictate how you can and cannot deal with rape victims?)

Rape truly is a crime so terrible that we make sure that it never, ever happens.  Women get raped every day–but we work so hard to ignore it or call it something else–we blame the victim, call her an “accuser,” suggest that the act of making an accusation of rape is worse than rape itself, and then we bully victims into silence by telling them that it’s for their own good, that they need to protect their privacy rights.  When of course, the real crime we fear is a false accusation of rape–and that fear permits us to ignore the majority of rapes in the U.S.  If any of you can stand to be any more disabused of your Whiggish notions of progress over time, go read Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006).  Every time I assign the book, my women’s history students are fascinated (and utterly horrified) to see scenes from the eighteenth century play out almost identically to the way rape and rape investigations work today.  Once again, that old devil, patriarchal equilibrium, rides again–something a lot of our women students understand all too well, even if they never read Block’s book.

Thanks to my anonymous correspondent for writing in, and my thoughts and best wishes are with the young woman.

0 thoughts on “Privacy and "postfeminist" rape culture

  1. A horrifying opinion piece from the Princeton student paper is making the rounds on this very issue. The author puts herself through amazing logical contortions to try to make rape be something else. The worst line is her conclusion that “accusations should be made with the utmost consideration” for the perpetrators.
    (Sorry, don’t know how to insert a link)


  2. Well, a lot of folks with experience of sexual assault prefer the term “survivor” to “victim” – the language victimization totalizes a loss of selfhood and agency that can be just as bad as assault itself. And “sexual assault” can cover a lot more ground (legally and otherwise) than “rape” can, so sometimes it’s a useful term.

    That said, I’m totally on board with the rest of your argument about the pernicious political grammar of accusation.


  3. Ellie–my goodness. I could just link to that story and slap my headline on it. It’s a perfect illustration of the fantasy of how postfeminism erases rape:

    We live in times when sexual discrimination has, more or less, disappeared from our society. Yet it still prevails when talking about a ubiquitous thing like sex. If both people were drunk and if the girl has the right to make the accusation of rape, then why shouldn’t the boy enjoy the same privileges? If a culprit is required, then both of them should be guilty or there should be no culprit at all.

    I understand that matters like this can be painful and even tragic for those involved. The consequences can be severe for both parties. For the girl, it might mean an unexpected pregnancy, while the guy could be charged with rape. Since so much is at stake, it seems that the last thing we want to do is to accuse people of things for which they are not entirely to blame. In circumstances like these, accusations should be made with the utmost consideration.



  4. Moira: I take your point about “survivor” versus “victim.” However, we don’t call ourselves “survivors” of other crimes (unless literal survivor was at stake–as in survivor of an attempted murder.) People who are survivors/victims of rape are entitled to use whatever language they prefer, but in some ways it seems to me that “survivor” feeds into the “postfeminist” ideal that women are all-powerful and that there is no more sex discrimination/patriarchal equilibrium.


  5. Wow-I had no idea that “sexual discrimination had disappeared from our society.” How in the world did I miss that memo?

    Or maybe “our society” just refers to Princeton, where they can convince themselves, at least temporarily, that the playing field is level. Must be some airtight bubble they occupy…


  6. The privacy rules under HIPAA for hospitals and health professionals are very tight, unreasonably so in my opinion. If the daughter is an adult, it’s my impression (based on a somewhat parallel situation in my own life) that the daughter controls whether or not the hospital, or her therapist, can inform anyone, even the parents, of her admission or anything related to her care. But the rules seem to be complex enough that misinterpretation is quite likely.


  7. An excellent post, Historiann. In reading the story at NPR, I saw that the most of the commenters were climbing all over themselves to say that not enough pressure, in the form of cross-examination, had been brought to bear on the “accuser” (not “victim” except in her mother’s words, as you mentioned). If the crime were robbery or a mugging, we would say that waiting in the hallway for someone to attack–er, an “accuser”–showed forethought and an intention to commit a crime. In rape, apparently, it’s just a “teachable moment” for the rapist’s–er, the “accused’s”–“breakthrough moment.”


  8. Bill–thanks for weighing in. The rules are tight for health care providers, but I doubt that they apply to family members and the victim herself.

    Undine: the NPR story just totally make me puke. I can’t even bear to look at the comments. By virtue of possessing a female body, young women are a provocation in and of themselves, and it’s up to them (still!) to prove that they really resisted, that they really didn’t want sex, etc. Again–look at Block’s book. It’s all back to the future.

    ej: funnily enough, Princeton is where Katie Roiphe was studying when she wrote The Morning After, a signal title in “postfeminist” rape culture! So, it’s a double awesome!!! for Princeton.


  9. feMOMhist: I don’t know if Princeton is special or not. It strikes me that the kind of person who’s able to win admission to the ivies and other top-tier schools is unaccustomed to thinking of herself as vulnerable. Ergo, when one of them is attacked or raped, it’s much easier to blame the victim (“she must have done something wrong, which of course I’ll never do!“), because that protects women from the reality that the condition of being female will mean that they won’t have equal access and equal opportunities. There’s a whole rape culture that eagerly embraces young, female collaborators.


  10. The thing that also really disturbed me about the NPR story was their coverage of the fact that many rapes — as with many crimes on campus, period — get dealt with through the campus judicial system, sometimes (this part wasn’t in the NPR story) because the university encourages the victims to go through their system instead of involving the police in what are clearly CRIMINAL matters. Cover-ups, in some sense, to preserve the good name of the school. While Margaux did try to get the DA in Bloomington to prosecute — and they declined — many times victims don’t get that far because they’re discouraged from seeking out the very people who are supposed to prosecute crimes. So far as I’m concerned the campus judicial boards can be used IN ADDITION to law enforcement (to expel students, for instance), not instead of it. Crime is crime, even if the “accused” is a young male college student “with his whole life ahead of him,” blah blah blah.


  11. Another thing about “survivor” versus “victim:” Not only does “survivor” play into the whole postfeminist Girl Power!/we-can-do-it attitude (which implies that sex bias/rape/patriarchal equilibrium something that women have to solve on their own), it also is a big burden to put on someone who’s suffered a rape. Not only does she have to figure out life after rape and put herself back together, she has to be all heroic and strong and reassuring to the rest of us, too.

    What about the women who feel righteously broken by rape, and by the larger culture’s erasure of the crime? What about women who don’t feel heroic and strong, or like they can fake it? Isn’t that a big imposition to put on a crime victim–to expet them to be “survivors” so that the rest of us feel better?


  12. I heard the NPR story yesterday also, and was horrified, HORRIFIED that the woman who was raped had to sit through a University official telling her how bad he felt about her rapist. Seriously, W.T.F. If I remember correctly, the woman was encouraged by a prof, either directly or indirectly as a result of a class discussion, to report the rape. The result was that she got to be re-victimized by the administration. It must be a horrendous betrayal, to be convinced that reporting is one way to not be completely victimized, that the law and officials will (after being unable to protect you from -getting- raped in the first place) at least implement justice and protect you, and then for all of that to be a lie.

    If I was paranoid, I might start to think the patriarchy actually wants women to report rape so that they can be pilloried, shamed, and re-victimized in public….


  13. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, Princeton is known among those educated further up or down I-95 for having the least progressive, most stubbornly racist and patriarchal culture of all the Ivies (except maybe Dartmouth). My own limited experience, and stories from friends, don’t do much to dispel the caricature. This may be because alumni have more direct influence on campus culture than elsewhere. For instance, they have reunions every year, instead of every 5 years, and the (weekly!) alumni magazine regularly prints letters from old-boy alums explicitly condemning the admission of women and depictions of smiling non-white students on the magazine’s cover.


  14. Over at Scienceblogs, Dr. Isis shares a heartbreaking story of her own sexual assault when she was younger. It happens to so many of us. So many and yet most such attacks aren’t reported either because we’re afraid, ashamed or just can’t face the hell that is other people making excuses for the attacker.

    Whether it’s circa 1800 or 2010, most people still want to explain rape and sexual assault away as the victim’s fault. It can’t happen to good women, they like to say, because then either their female relatives or they, themselves, are sure to be safe.

    In reviewing some recent data on the subject that came across my desk during preps for a course I teach on crime in history, I was saddened to learn that while sexual assault rates remain stable, reports to police are down. Fewer than one in ten victims report their assaults to police, citing privacy issues or beliefs that the attacks “aren’t important enough.” Read the StatsCan report on sexual assaults in Canada, 2004 & 2007.

    It also scared the bejeesus out of me that most victims were women in school, 15-24. These are our high school students, our university and college students. These are our students, damnit!

    Yet, for some reason, people like those facilitators at IU or the apologist columnist at Princeton still want to privilege the problems of the assaulting males over the safety and security of the women that they attack. Even the report I was reading seemed to suggest that spending many evenings out in “activities” was the problem for many victims with the silent suggestion that if they’d just lock themselves up at home to stay safe, that’d be better. Gah!


  15. This post reminds me of your other posts about how male domestic violence is erased from media reports. If “women and children found dead” replaces “man shoots wife and children,” than no one has to focus on the gendered nature of the crime. We can all pretend domestic violence doesn’t exist and women aren’t shot and raped by men.

    Anonymous’ comment stuck a particular chord in me today because my 16 year-old sister was recently told by my parents that discussing with them an incident of domestic violence in her best friend’s family was “gossip.” WTF? Her friend disappeared to a safe house for an entire week. How likely are young women to report violence and rape if they are told it is “gossip” and forced to shit through inquisitions?


  16. If she were robbed, her parents could say she was robbed without intruding on her privacy. But, unfortunately, she was not robbed. She was raped.

    While she should not be made to feel as if she is any less a crime victim than someone who has been stolen from, the fact is that she WILL be.

    When she was raped, she had sex forced upon her.

    When people hear that she was raped, they will not necessarily or always continue past the thought that she had sex. That is their error, not the girl’s and not her parents’.

    But it is why her parents ought to have some basic and decent sensitivity. The fact that she is a minor does not make all of her information their property to share as they see fit. And since her parents apparently don’t know enough not to tell perfect strangers about her rapes without her consent, apparently they have to have some kind of counselor tell them they “can’t talk” about it.

    It IS sad that her mom is silenced and victimized too. It is often the case that crimes negatively impact entire families and communities. Nevertheless, she shouldn’t tell things her daughter doesn’t want told; if she needs to discuss it, she should find a therapist. If she needs to make excuses at work, she should say there has been a serious family trauma and leave it at that.

    The fact that it’s helpful to other people’s understanding of the crime for women to speak out about rape does not mean that they have to, or that their own information about being so personally violated should be made public, particularly if their injury hasn’t even been granted the dignity of prosecution before a jury.


  17. anonymous–you write about “the fact that [the victim] is a minor. . . ” I don’t know that’s a fact at all–she may or may not be. The story as I received it doesn’t state her age. And of course, I agree that there’s no obligation to talk if a victim doesn’t want to. My point is that the obligation of enforced silence is problematic.

    Janice, thanks so much for linking to Isis! I missed that post this week. This part really struck me:

    Some of you, however, were disappointed that I did not immediately transition to ninja mode. Some of you were disappointed that I did not call him out immediately in order to defend women in science everywhere, thus making me personally responsible for any inappropriate touching this guy may do in the future.

    Sorry, dudes. I’m not a super hero.

    I’m just a woman who happens to be a scientist and a mother, that writes a blog that a couple of folks happen to read, and that is also shaped by the types of things she has experienced.

    This is “postfeminist” rape culture: the expectation that the attacked woman is supposed to fix everything and make us all feel better. Mary’s comment too about domestic violence being “gossip”–that too is “postfeminist” rape culture. (I hope your sister’s friend and the rest of her family members in hiding are doing better and feel safe where they are.) You’re exactly right, Mary, in making the connection between my posts last spring and this one–I didn’t see it until you pointed it out. In both cases, the male perps are erased/hidden.


  18. The other part of the victim-blaming equation is the myth that offenders are strangers and boogey-men lurking in dark corners. They can’t possibly be the men in our classes, our friends, people we go on dates with. I think those two myths (victims “ask” for it somehow, and offenders are strangers, Others, and clearly identifiable monsters) are broader than rape cases (i.e., the same myths are there surrounding other types of offenses), but they are heightened in rape cases.

    The victim-survivor discussion is interesting, and I think is very closely tied to the victim-blaming issue. Being labeled a victim shouldn’t be a bad or a disempowering thing, and yet I can see how it can be.

    In defense of Princeton, I read the letter and several pages of comments. It seemed that most of the commenters condemned the letter and the author (though some did not).


  19. Okay, history question here tied to this issue. I teach high school students. I have it in my head that with the rise of separate spheres ideology, women (particularly white northern women) were able to band together for mutual protection by invoking separate spheres ideology to get their husbands to censure “men behaving badly.” The examples I use in class tend to focus on domestic violence of the wife beating sort as opposed to rape but it’s all part of a violence continuum. But how true was this? As a counterpoint, we talk about sexual violence and rape of slaves in the South during the same time period. And when we get to Reconstruction I introduce the myth of the black rapist. By the time we get to the Gilded Age, I’m into Relations of Rescue territory. Am I doing this remotely right?


  20. Oops. I apologize for my profanity, historiann. I didn’t catch my typo above. That should say sit. Freudian slip, maybe?

    And I believe everyone is in a much happier/healthier place.


  21. Mary–no problem. I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out yourself!

    Western Dave: I think you’re right that rape was on a continuum with other violence against free women, as it was with enslaved women. I think if you’re raising this issue at all, that qualifies as doing something right. But outside of Block’s book and Diane Sommerville’s book on rape (which focuses on the 19th C South), I don’t know what other literature is out there on 19th C rape. (And Block’s book ends in 1820 or 1830.)

    One of the purposes that harrassing rape victims is to suppress the reporting of the crime, so this problem is understandably very difficult to research even today (as Janice’s comment above illustrates), let alone historically.


  22. Thank you all for your comments, which are helpful to me in picking apart all the ways I have been troubled intellectually — as well as distressed — by this case.

    I would say in response to Anonymous 12:18 that my colleague has bent over backwards not to tell anyone, and she cracked: she is human. She and her husband are following a punishing schedule to support their child. My colleague is an awesome woman, and has been doing amazing work as a faculty leader under extraordinary stress. I suspect she told me because I too had family issues that had an impact on my ability to work. This is one of those cases of clashing imperatives that is complicated, and to pretend otherwise is, I think, silly. And on some level I think the more the mother has support, the easier it will be for her to support her daughter.

    What concerns me most about the enforced silence is the way it plays in to the idea that academics should handle everything on their own. (I wonder if academics are more prone to this than others?) It’s part of post-feminist culture that we handle things ourselves. But some things are very hard, and it reinforces the nuclear family, and our old friend patriarchal equilibrium, to say “you can’t tell”.


  23. @life-of-a-fool – yes, I think the persistence in needing to think of rapists as strangers and boogey-men is powerful, and feeds into our culture’s messed up reaction to rape and domestic violence. We need crimes to be stranger crimes, done by violent, deranged “others” (racial minorities preferred) who can be stigmatized and dehumanized. (Please do not read this as a plea for a sympathetic reading of rapists – only as an attempt to contextualize acts of violence with nuance, to get behind the “evil-doer” model of crime.) This is especially true of rape. I remember vividly how many justifications of rape/violence I heard as a teenager/college student – “But he’s such a nice guy!” You don’t think the guy you have a beer with or flirted with in chem class is capable of a brutal crime. We see the same collective reactions when reading about mass atrocities in which clearly “normal” people were involved because of the scale (ie the Holocaust, Rwanda, etc); there’s still a general refusal to accept the banality of evil and how it acquires the neighbor’s face. But all of this seems to come together in rape cases to make people more resistant to believing victims’ accounts, and more hostile to the victim for “accusing” someone everyone knows and likes. While I think some of these reactions are normal human reactions to atrocity and brutality (if there is such a thing), I think it’s exacerbated greatly in this country by our collective refusal to understand the underlying structures that create cultures of violence (in this case, patriarchy and misogyny).


  24. PS I just wanted to add how very sad I feel for the mother in question. While the rape and subsequent mental health problems are her daughter’s (and her daughter should not feel responsible for making anyone feel better about how godawful she feels), I also know keenly how devastating suicide and suicide attempts can be on family and friends of the loved one in question. Like any kind of life-threatening illness, it doesn’t just happen to the victim, it can blow apart the lives of everyone around her. Which is why we need support and community. . . And I just want to say as a sidebar while I understand that the mother shouldn’t go around blabbing about her daughter’s private business, especially if she knows her daughter doesn’t feel comfortable with this, we all know (as others have mentioned), the mother would never be guilted into silence if her daughter had had a car accident, or been robbed and beaten. We keep rape and mental illness a secret because we are ashamed, and society makes us ashamed by stigmatized us, and everyone’s refusal to talk about it continues the cycle.


  25. Important story and great post.

    I note that when I was being stalked everyone but the police wanted me to be classified as an “accuser.” The police kept emphasizing, “We do not want to disempower you by pointing this out, but you must realize that this is not a ‘communication problem’–it is a crime scene and in it, YOU are the VICTIM. We do not consider it useful to exaggerate the danger of the situation, but we emphasize that if you want to remain safe you should not ignore or minimize it; you must defend yourself.”

    (Rape culture. It seems, based on recent observations, that more men than I would have thought seem to equate sex and rape, want sex to seem like rape or border on it, be it. I hope it’s a minority, but I’m slightly amazed that it involved anyone ‘normal’ at all.)


  26. It is indeed human to err. I certainly wouldn’t hold anything against mom – I just don’t think it’s okay to pretend that she actually DIDN’T err (assuming her daughter doesn’t want her talking about it), or worse, to pretend that telling you was good feminist politics. It’s also ridiculous to imply that some mean counselor (not her daughter) is in charge of telling mom what she can and “can’t” say, or that it’s an academic department’s embarrassment about rape culture that is really to blame for her near-silence, rather than her daughter’s feelings.

    These other things may all be swirling around, of course. But only one thing matters and deserves to be taken seriously. Either mom abides by her daughter’s wishes, or she doesn’t; while everything else about the entire situation is 100% extremely difficult, figuring out the right thing to do on this front is quite simple.

    If your daughter doesn’t want people to be told that two jocks in her high school raped her, you shouldn’t tell people that they did.

    It’s healthy and quite feminist to end the stigma and silence about STDs and abortion, too. Probably shouldn’t need a professional to remind you not to share your kid’s information without her consent there, either.


  27. It is inappropriate to attack the actions of a worried and desperate mother. Anonymous, can the hostility. You don’t know any more about this situation than is related above, so drop it.

    The point of this post was to question the mother’s worries about privacy, not to state definitively that she had violated her daughter’s privacy. HIPAA and other privacy laws only cover what heath care providers can say and what information they can share–not what parents or friends can or can’t say.


  28. I find it strange that anonymous 8:21 feels so comfortable telling this woman how to handle such a devastating circumstance. Perhaps anonymous 8:21 has never had any experience keeping devastating secrets but I know from first hand experience that doing so can ruin your life; ten years later, I am still paying the price. I’m incredibly suspicious of the idea that people have to shut up about certain things. In my experience, the call to “shut up” isn’t because of real concern over the parties involved; it’s because the listener doesn’t want to have to deal with whatever horror those who have lived through the situation (and therefore cannot escape it) have to share.


  29. thefrogprincess and Z–good to hear from both of you again. thefrogprincess–I’m sorry to hear that you have relevant experience in being told to shut up.

    I am uncomfortable with the hectoring tone anonymous took, which strikes me as extremely uncompassionate either for the mother or the correspondent, who was an innocent (and bewildered) bystander in all of this. What’s the point, except to try to jack this thread and turn it into a referendum on the mother? (So that we can blame rape yet again on the bad decision a woman made?) WTF?

    Once again: this post and thread are about the pressures to silence rape victims (and their friends/family/allies) in the name of “privacy” for the victims. This case–about which we have very incomplete information–is meant to provide a launching pad for a broader discussion of how rape is distorted and disappeared with these injunctions to silence, and with the language we use today to talk about these issues.


  30. Oh, and by the way–“anonymous” was clearly using fake IP addresses. (Hey–next time, make sure you find some that are geographically contingent! They’re harder for me to figure out that way.)

    Let’s think about this: what kind of a tool goes into a thread about rape and tries to jack it to blame the victim’s mother? And does this by hiding in an unmanly fashion behind fake IP addresses? Man, I hope you don’t try to kiss your mother or daughter with that mouth.

    Awesomely bad taste, dude. Asshattery never goes out of fashion for some, I guess.


  31. I just want to add that I didn’t mean to suggest in my PS that I thought the mother HAD been “blabbing” her daughter’s “secret.” Being so grossed out by anon. made me re-read my post and then I worried it sounded like I was in the same vein. I think I was thinking about the chasm of difference between confiding a family trauma in trusted friends and colleagues and going around telling the lady we buy coffee from when considering if the mother had violated her daughter’s privacy in the first place. But I completely agree with H. that THIS question is not the point of the post, or our discussion of it. I just couldn’t distract my mind away from the immense compassion I feel for that mother going through such an awful time and being forced into silence on top of it, since as I’ve said, I’ve had experience with the effects of like events on family.


  32. “One of the purposes that harrassing rape victims is to suppress the reporting of the crime, so this problem is understandably very difficult to research even today (as Janice’s comment above illustrates), let alone historically.”

    Which is why I make the effort to teach it. I have had some students who came up to me afterward and asked that we never talk about rape in class again or if they could at least have a heads-up so they could be someplace else. To close to home for them (usually literally). Most seem to know full well that reporting will only lead to “worse” outcomes for them (especially if a family member is the rapist/abuser). It’s so sad and breaks my heart but I do what I can to keep the issue on the table and visible so that these girls can feel isolated and alone.


  33. Another way rape is “disappeared” is through the overemphasis on and disproportionate publicity of false accusations. To my knowledge, the rates of false accusations in rape cases are no higher than false accusations in other crimes and yet the possibility/probability of a false accusation hang over every woman who presses charges. Also troubling is how up in arms people get when white men are falsely accused, which, though horrible, happens to black (and probably hispanic) men all the time without any concern.

    The only significant experience I’ve had with rape is when a friend falsely claimed to have been attacked and almost raped. We didn’t find out for a few years that she’d made false claims; it was devastating to find out and it’s lucky for everyone involved that nobody had ever been arrested or jailed for the “crime.” But despite that being my only significant experience, I will believe a woman until given solid evidence otherwise. Rape is perhaps the only crime where the evidence of that crime can so easily be explained away, especially since it usually is not committed by a stranger in the bushes. So somebody has to take it seriously.

    [Also about anonymous, Historiann, you have more data than I do but it is possible that said person was using legitimate proxy servers/VPNs.]


  34. Historian, you make really important, sound points about the way “privacy” is used to make rape disappear. I’ve spent a little time reading HIPAA law and I concur that there’s nothing in it that’s applicable to what parents tell their friends. The mother’s guide there should be the feelings of her daughter, and any counselor who suggests she’s breaking the law is full of it.

    One point, though, on the use of “accuser” and “accused”: The media have to use this language, along with terms like “alleged assault,” until a crime has been proven in court. Otherwise they could be sued for libel. I did the same thing a while back on a post dealing with the humiliation of a rape victim in a local court – I referred to them as accuser or accused, even though I was quite certain that he was guilty. However, he’d been acquitted in court, and I didn’t want to be dragged into court myself.

    I get your point about how this totally plays into the discourse on women falsely crying rape. Legally, though, I don’t see any alternative for the media.

    This legal quandary, by the way, explains why Z found that only the police were able to refer to her – privately – as a victim. If they’d been speaking with the media, the police would’ve had to qualify that as “alleged victim.”


  35. @ Western Dave: I teach an article about a rape case in one of my classes. I’ve never had a student talk to me about it, except in a positive sense, but I always make sure to warn them that the article is “graphic” and may be “disturbing” to them (and I’m clear that it’s about rape, not just randomly sexually graphic). If someone heard me say that and came up to me before class, I would think of an alternative article for them to read and excuse them from the class. It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s why the disclaimer is there.


  36. One point, though, on the use of “accuser” and “accused”: The media have to use this language, along with terms like “alleged assault,” until a crime has been proven in court.

    Not exactly. The media can use “rape victim” or “crime victim” without worry. They can also say rape or assault without putting alleged in front of it. They shouldn’t, however, call someone a rapist, and will say “alleged rapist” or “accused rapist”, unless they don’t care if they’re sued for defamation. Because if you call someone a rapist and he’s later acquitted of the crime, he’ll probably sue you for defamation.

    Relatedly, the refusal to identify a rape victim is a media convention, and is not required by law.


  37. Fantastic post, great discussion in comments – thanks so much. I just wanted to add a couple of references to articles by Constance Backhouse on rape in 19th C Canada:

    “Nineteenth Century Judicial Attitudes Toward Child Custody, Rape and Prostitution” in Sheilah L. Martin and Kathleen E. Mahoney, eds., Equality and Judicial Neutrality (Toronto: Carswell, 1987) 271-281


    “Nineteenth-Century Canadian Rape Law 1800-1892” in David H. Flaherty, ed. Essays in the History of Canadian Law v.2, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983) 200-247

    No linkies, sorry. 😦


  38. Less isolated and alone. less isolated and alone. Dear God, I meant to say less isolated and alone. BTW, high school teacher on a small private high school. So the heads up option is only somewhat possible b/c everybody knows everybody’s business and opting out of a particular class would spread like wildfire.


  39. Dave–no problem. I understood what you meant, so I missed your typo, too!

    Emma, thanks for your comments about language. Sungold, I’m just disturbed by the erasure of the law that the term “accuser” implies. After all, Kobe Bryant was charged by the D.A. with sexual assault–it wasn’t a civil case with the victim making the “accusation” all alone. The D.A. had decided that a crime had been committed, and that Bryant was the perpetrator, therefore it was D.A. Mark Hurlbert and the people of the state of Colorado who were the “accusers.”


  40. “It turns out they have been told that because of their daughter’s privacy rights they can’t talk about what is happening to her,”

    Others are correct in noting that HIPAA would not apply as that law only applies to certain entities, mothers (and certainly the patient herself) not being one of them. I’m not an expert on every state’s laws, but I am not aware of any law that makes it illegal for a private individual who isn’t obligated under confidentiality rules (eg- attorney/client, doctor/patient, counselor/client) to disclose whether someone has been raped. For instance, in the case of HIV/AIDS, Illinois has a law that makes it illegal for even private individuals to disclose someone’s HIV+ status. I know of no law like that with respect to rape.

    I suspect that whoever told the mother that talking about her daughter’s rape would infringe the daughter’s “privacy rights” actually meant “it’s not illegal, but you should respect your daughter’s privacy.”


  41. Pingback: The line, a film by Nancy Schwartzman : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  42. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » linkspam: Why didn’t you call the police? Part One

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