Douchebag Decree: WTF, Naomi Wolf?
I don’t have to tell you that this week has been a total Wikileaks shitshow. But would anyone have guessed that the honoree for Douchebag Decree: Wikileaks Edition would be famed power feminist Naomi Wolf?
Me neither. After all, plenty of media have taken the low road in theorizing about the convenient timing of Interpol’s arrest warrant for Wikileaks head Julian Assange on two incidents of, as the official charges read, “rape, sexual molestation, and unlawful coercion.” From using facetious quotes around the word “rape” to referencing one accuser’s CIA connections to making creepy jokes about the Swedish rape dismissal/descriptor “sex by surprise,” it’s a veritable douche parade out there in blogland.
But Wolf’s supposedly humorous Huffington Post piece, “Julian Assange Captured By World’s Dating Police,” proved that, despite not knowing any more about the series of incidents that led to Assange’s Dec. 7 arrest by Interpol than the rest of us (and perhaps knowing significantly less, seeing as how the sole source she linked to in the piece was Britain’s Daily Mail), she was all ready to assert her feminist cred and use it to trivialize what could indeed be valid, actionable incidents of sexual misconduct. In her knee-slapping open letter to Interpol, she wrote “As a feminist, I am…pleased that the alleged victims are using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings. That's what our brave suffragette foremothers intended!” and went on to write:
There is an entire fraternity at the University of Texas you need to arrest immediately. I also have firsthand information that John Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, went to a stag party -- with strippers! -- that his girlfriend wanted him to skip, and that Mark Levinson in Corvallis, Oregon, did not notice that his girlfriend got a really cute new haircut -- even though it was THREE INCHES SHORTER.
Oh, Naomi, you’s a funny lady! Wait, did I say "funny lady"? That should have read, "total douchebag"!
In the few days since Wolf’s piece was published, there’s been a wealth of excellent, smart, feminist responses, both to her piece and to the larger dicussions about the political opportunism behind Interpol’s energetic pursuit of Assange. Feministe’s Jill Filipovic, Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte, and others have pointed out the obvious, but apparently too-high-concept-for-Wolf fact that, Duh, yes, the charges are politically motivated—but that doesn’t mean they’re baseless. It just means that they weren’t useful to Interpol until now. (Recall that news of the accusations against Assange broke over the summer.)
Filipovic also took on the framing of the alleged incidents themselves with an astute analysis of the way media regularly characterizes women in sexual assault cases as sour graping, buyer’s-remorsing sad sacks who can’t stop themselves from falsely accusing men. Salon’s Kate Harding responded to a media smear campaign alleging that not only are Assange’s accusers sad sacks, they’re apparently radical feminist sad sacks (the worst kind, dontcha know). And, widening the lens a bit, Laura Flanders wrote, at AlterNet:
It seems we only care about women’s bodies when there’s a political point to be proved. Feminist lawyers had to fight for years for the Criminal Court to take rape in Bosnia and Congo seriously. Feminist journalists wrote for years about the treatment of women under the Taliban, but it wasn’t until they needed to sell a war that US politicians cared–and invaded. Years later, Assange’s organization ever-so-inconveniently leaked thousands of Afghan war logs and diplomatic cables about that war, and women’s bodies are again the pretext for action.
But back to Naomi Wolf and her sniveling HuffPo piece. Some of you might recall that, back in 2004, Wolf wrote a long, detailed cover story for New York magazine about her experience as a Yale University undergrad 20 years before, recalling the night that literary critic Harold Bloom “sexually encroached” upon her. Wolf was doing an independent study with Bloom, and after she brushed off his “heavy, boneless hand” that was “hot on my thigh,” he refused to meet with her in an academic capacity for the rest of the year. The result? Wrote Wolf, the incident "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men." And she went on to describe the guilt over not reporting it: "Every year, I wonder about the young women who might have suffered because I was too scared to tell the truth to the people whose job it is to make sure the institution is clean."
Wolf emphasized that the article wasn’t meant to castigate Bloom himself, but rather to take Yale—and, by extension, other universities and colleges—to task for shoddy handling of sexual harrassment cases and for furthering a culture that prioritizes the reputation of academic luminaries over the safety and autonomy of students. But after the story made the rounds, she was, predictably, made the butt of a thousand snide comments, many by other women. The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum posited that Wolf’s article represented the last gasp of an outdated victim feminism; at Slate, Meghan O’Rourke tsk-tsked her for “set[ting] back the fight against sexual harrassment.” And fellow Yale alumna Camille Paglia, herself presumably unhanded by Bloom, stepped forward with a she-asked-for-it doozy, charging that Wolf, “for her entire life, has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs and made a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure.” In other words, as has happened so many times before, the issues of sexual harrassment, abuse, and “encroachment” actually existing and being crucial to address from an institutional standpoint was drowned out in arguments about individual attention-seeking, victim-blaming, and catfighting.
So if only because she herself was so completely pilloried for putting forth a story about how institutional failure to stand behind gendered abuses of power has lasting effects, you might think Wolf would think twice about pulling similar moves on the women at the center of the Assange charges. Maybe Wolf’s support of Assange, like that of many other self-proclaimed progressives, is so rock-solid that it’s made her change her tune about the importance of speaking up. Maybe she feels that her own story of upper-leg molestation is much more credible, in the scheme of things, than the testimonies of the women in the Assange case.
But plenty of reasonable folks have pointed out that, with everything we don’t know about this story, it’s important to recognize that binary thinking is counterproductive. We can believe that Julian Assange is doing crucial work with Wikileaks while also allowing that he may be capable of violating a sexual partner’s trust and consent. We can believe that political opportunism is at play in Interpol’s pursuit of Assange without assuming that it’s a total frame-up. And I hope we can agree—listen up, Naomi!—that victim-blaming, feminist-baiting, slut-shaming accusations in the service of a larger progressive agenda help no one in a culture where distrust of women in sexual harassment and assault cases is still deeply entrenched.
Awesome "Privilege-Denying Naomi Wolf" image from Bluebears.
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