Naomi Wolf slams feminists’ response to the Assange rape prosecution

By Megan Carpentier
Thursday, November 17, 2011 16:44 EDT
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Naomi Wolf, Irin Carmon, Jessica Coen and Edith Zimmerman, as photographed by Noah Fowler.
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Author and activist Naomi Wolf, whose sarcastic and prescriptive criticisms of the rape allegations against and prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange caused quite a stir in the feminist community in the last year, continued to vociferously defend her statements about rape, consensual sex and the need to reform rape law in a confrontation with Salon reporter Irin Carmon Wednesday and in an exclusive interview with Raw Story Thursday afternoon.

Wolf and Carmon were at a party hosted by Gawker Media founder Nick Denton when, according to several sources, Denton asked them, Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen and Hairpin editor Edith Zimmerman to pose for the picture above. During a conversation after the photograph was taken, Carmon recounted, “I told her, politely, that I was disturbed to see a self-described feminist mocking the accusers and calling the inquiry ‘dating police’ before we even knew what the substance of the allegations were.” Though several sources called the resulting conversation unusually heated for a media party, Wolf disputed those categorizations in her interview, saying “not if you hang out with Jews in New York City at loud cocktail parties.”

Wolf told Raw Story, “The very first Huffington Post piece was very satirical, and in my view, Irin misunderstood the focus of my satire.” Wolf compared her piece to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that she never thought that people wouldn’t understand that she was satirizing the rush to prosecution rather than the “very serious” allegations against Assange.

Carmon said that Wolf stood by her earlier assertions during the party: “she believes the whole thing trivialized rape because the women didn’t say no and they spent time with the accused afterwards, and that she’s worked with rape victims for twenty years and cases are never prosecuted to this extent.”

Wolf stood by those claims Thursday: “Never has there been a global manhunt for any rapist” the way there was for Assange. Wolf said she referred to her piece, 8 Big Problems With The Case Against Assange, which she said outlined the “anomalies” in the prosecution of the Assange case, and that she had asked if Carmon had done a similar investigative piece, which Carmon had not. “Any good reporter would have done an investigation,” Wolf told Raw Story.

Carmon said that she told Wolf, “I said I thought it was pretty commonplace for rape victims to be in denial immediately afterwards, and that I didn’t understand why two things couldn’t be true at the same time: That aspects of the investigation could be politically motivated and that Assange could have broken the law.” Wolf told Raw Story, “I have no way to access the validity of the accusers,” adding, “My issue has always been with the aberrations in the prosecution” — and the fact that “A couple of feminist bloggers just won’t look at those aberrations.”

Wolf added, “If only the women that I counseled had their rapists wanted by the most powerful government in the world,” they might have gotten some measure of justice.

During her interview, Wolf proceeded to take issue with the account, as outlined in court documents, of the second woman the Swedish government charged Assange with raping. Wolf recounted to Raw Story that the woman had consensual, yet reportedly rough sex (“he tore her clothes off”) the night before, but woke up to him penetrating her without a condom, and act to which she had not consented. While she agreed that failing to use a condom with a woman who only consented to protected sex was “rape,” Wolf said “You need to distinguish between a woman’s right to say yes, and the right to say no.” Feminists, according to Wolf, “have not been [publicly] honest that women and men do things in private that they would not wish to admit to in public,” including rough sex and unprotected sex.

Carmon said their discussion followed a similar trajectory Wednesday evening: “I also said that even if the women hadn’t said no, in at least one of the instances there was a violation of prior ground rules and use of force. She said some women like rough sex and that feminists refuse to acknowledge that. I told her there has been at least twenty years of feminists writing [on] just that.”

Wolf asserted that the second woman Assange is accused of raping “never said no to this guy or indicated no,” and that her testimony indicates that “she continued having sex with him” after ascertaining that he wasn’t using a condom without attempting to push him off or say no vociferously. She said that it was incumbent on feminists and the legal system to “respect that she chose to have sex with him without a condom” and that “it infantilizes women not to acknowledge” their right to say “yes.”

“Men and women have an obligation to say no, to express no, to indicate that in some way,” Wolf explained. “And I believe that is a feminist position.” She added, “Otherwise, you’re eliding over women’s sexual agency.”

Wolf asserted that the all-or-nothing feminist position on consent is part of what undermines effective rape prosecutions. “Because feminists haven’t been out there saying ‘yes’ happens some times before [women] say no,” the legal system reflects that philosophy. “The police say if there’s ever been a ‘yes,’ then they can’t prosecute,” she told Raw Story. “It is feminists’ responsibility to own the sexual yes as well as the sexual no. And men, too. Men get raped, too,” she said.

Wolf concluded, “I don’t think that it helps for the feminist establishment to not recognize that there is nuance in this situation. And that doesn’t mean that ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no,’ but that we need to evolve a legal concept where ‘yes’ is acknowledged, too.” Though, she added, “The ‘yes’ shouldn’t dilute the ‘no.’”

[Image by Noah Fowler, courtesy of Nick Denton]

[Ed. note: Irin Carmon and the author of this piece were both previously employed by Jezebel.com, though not at the same time.]

Megan Carpentier
Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.
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