One night last week two well-known women in the political sphere had a row about who was the bigger Julian Assange hater. One claimed not to be casting aspersions while being simultaneously lambasted by the other for flagrant Assangism. No one was listening, fewer were following, and Kirsty Wark was making token interjections to little end.
So far, so Newsnight. What they were actually discussing, following Naomi Wolf’s recent article in The Guardian, was whether victims in sexual offences cases should be named. Wolf’s references to the Assange case were merely a topical way in to what is a much wider issue. That Newsnight felt the need to make this the lynchpin of the debate was both frustrating and misleading.
In a nutshell, then: Wolf claims that granting (largely) female accusers in rape cases automatic anonymity is condescending, unequal, and leads to many incidents being swept under the rug. Tory MP Louise Bagshawe countered that fear of identification would stop victims of sex offences reporting their attackers. Touted as a “Conservative MP and feminist” as though feminism is somehow restricted to the liberals (this is 2011, people), she did manage to produce some vague crime stats but her view can be summed up as follows: Anonymity works, end of story.
To simply refuse to discuss the issue is spectacularly narrow-minded and makes you wonder what she was doing on Newsnight in the first place… oh yes, banging on about Assange. In any case, she made an unconvincing poster girl for the pro-anonymity campaign.
There’s no doubt that fear prevents many victims from coming forward and for that reason alone, it is vital that some form of protection is available. However, more often than not the fear is of humiliation and derision, neither of which are legitimate justifications for anonymity in other cases. And both of which are the result not of the crime but of the prejudices surrounding it.
If rape were to be treated like any other crime then all charges would be publicly brought. To bring charges anonymously goes against the principle of open justice which is the backbone of equality in our legal system. Of course, argue its proponents, anonymity is there not to demean victims but to protect them. However, this protection is also problematic. Why do rape victims need protecting? The notion stems from one of two myths: a) women are too fragile to suffer the ignominy of having been the victim of such a crime; or b) women are in some way culpable for this crime and as such must be hidden from public view.
When you look at it like this, there’s no doubt the system is unequal. But then it’s worth pointing out that the crime of rape itself is unequal. Male rape – which wasn’t even properly recognised until 1994 – does occur but cases are so few or so rarely reported that conclusive numbers are hard to come by. The vast majority of victims are female and it’s hard to blame the legal system for this disparity. But we can blame it for being backwards. Regardless of who it applies to now, the anonymity rule was designed specifically for the protection of women in a time when only women were perceived as susceptible to sex crimes. That alone ought to be enough to tell us it’s outdated.
Of course, a subject such as this needs to be handled sensitively. I don’t wish to to dispute the trauma suffered by rape victims and the success of automatic anonymity in helping them to come forward. But the subject has been raised and I think it deserves some air time. If we can avoid references to Julien Assange, then so much the better, but rather than rattle off crime stats a la con-fem Bagshawe, isn’t it at least worth talking about?