A very major cultural change?

The following passage is from that liberal icon, The Nation. The idea is that now women reporting rape are automatically taken to be telling the truth, and the civil rights of the accused suffer as a result.

There is something about high profile cases, and perhaps she is trying to qualify her claim. If someone claimed Tom Cruise raped her, we’d all assume he did it? Maybe not so if he’s just your neighbor? (That doesn’t really make sense, I would have thought.)

If the Swedish claims against Assange had involved anything but sex, it’s unlikely that liberals, and even some self-described radicals, would be tiptoeing around this part of the story, either by asking “So I guess he’s a bad guy?” or by arguing “Of course he needs to answer for his crimes.” If it were anything but sex, we would insist on the presumption of innocence. We have instead gotten comfortable with presuming guilt and trusting in the dignified processes of law to guarantee fairness.

“Believe the victim” entered the lexicon decades ago for historically understandable reasons. Women had been denied their own due process, in a sense—their right to make a complaint and expect justice, not vilification or worse. They are still being denied and derided, as the idiot spewings of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin illustrate. The mutation of basic rights into an imperative for belief, and of full citizens into victims, has not made women any safer, but its cultural manipulation—particularly in high-profile cases—has struck at the foundations of civil liberty in a way that may not have been anticipated.

For what it’s worth, I doubt that everyone believes Assange did sexually assault the two women in question. In any case, arresting someone means simply that there is good evidence of a crime. It isn’t a formal judgment of guilt. And I have certainly assume that those not consume by rage against him see the Swedish actions as heavily political.

Or have I missed out on a huge cultural shift? Are women claiming they’ve been raped automatically believed?

7 thoughts on “A very major cultural change?

  1. “…has struck at the foundations of civil liberty in a way that may not have been anticipated.”

    Random question, does anyone think the writer actually read the UK government’s decision on this matter? (http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/jud-aut-sweden-v-assange-judgment.pdf) As far as I can tell Assange’s civil liberties have not been taken away but instead Assange has gone through the legal process and been found worthy of extradition. So, where does the author think his civil liberties have been taken away?

  2. I think the author is making quite a mistake in trying to mine the Assange case for broader social implications.

    I agree that plenty of people have concluded that Assange is guilty, but the reasons for that conclusion are probably more related to imperialism than to any general change in attitude toward people accused of rape. The UK government has gone to unusual (and probably unprecedented) lengths to extradite Assange and the United States has made it rather clear to its allies that Assange is a public enemy. The media in the United States, as usual, have toed the government line and vilified Assange at every opportunity. If a non-famous rapist were to have traced Assange’s path, the UK government would have probably just allowed him to go to Ecuador. The media would have ignored the case or reported it in a victim-blaming way. Social attitudes would probably have just followed the standard ugliness (vilification of the victims, questioning of whether they “deserved it,” all the standard ways that people vilify rape victims).

    There’s just no reason to look at the Assange case and draw out any conclusions about how accused rapists are viewed more generally. It’s a special case.

  3. No, you haven’t missed a huge cultural shift.

    Plenty of people are still running around talking about “legitimate” rape and “rape” rape. This need to explicitly qualify when something is actual rape reveals that there is a broader category of “things labeled as rape” which many people think should not be immediately taken to be rape. Hell, I’ve seen people still refuse to immediately believe a woman (or as they put it, “refuse to take sides”) when she ‘merely’ claimed to be assaulted by a drunk guy. Hell, I had difficulty figuring out how I could be epistemically justified in believing her / taking her accusation seriously.

    Some women do have the privilege of being automatically believed, based on their own social status and the status of the person they are accusing. But for many, many women, no they are not automatically believed. They are expected to present tangible evidence along with their testimony. And the public reputation of the person they are accusing can still count as a reason to “be on the fence” (slash, not take their claim seriously) if they have no further ‘proof.’ (Oh, I’m sorry, here are the photos of my vaginal tearing. And here is the transcript of my latest visit to the psychiatrist. Because you, friend/colleague/neighbor/extended family member, deserve to have access to all this information in order to decide whether you will take what I say seriously. You know, because on the other hand, you have the impression that so-and-so is overall a good guy.)

  4. I sure as fuck wasn’t believed by the police either time I was raped. Even though one of the times I had an email written by my rapist, the following day, in which he used the phrase “you cried and said you didn’t want it.” Even with this, the press weren’t even willing to press charges, let alone convict. (Although it wouldn’t be fair to say no one believed me: many of the people I turned to for help – such as family, friends, therapists, rape crisis centers – did.)

    I hate that it’s pretty much impossible to read a news story about rape without seeing comments from MRA types claiming that we need to worry about the damage false accusations can do. Do I agree that false accusations can ruin lives? Absolutely. But that’s true for every major crime, and I don’t hear a similar need to protect the perpetrator in those cases. What’s more, the percentage of rape claims made that are false is tiny (estimates I’ve heard typically place it in the 2% range, comparable to false claims for other crimes). I also hate when people say things like, “it’s not fo me to determine if he’s guilty. If he’s guilty, he will be found guilty in court.” Actually, no, odds are he won’t be found guilty in court — WHETHER OR NOT he is guilty.

  5. Sadly, I think Rebecca nailed it – as far as the courts are concerned, “believe the victim” certainly isn’t the order of the day. However, there are some communities where I’ve noticed a strange variation on the “believe the victim” notion. In many online forums, I’ve seen some heated rhetoric about Assange and others accused of rape, heated to the point that anyone even raising the idea that the accused have not been convicted of rape yet is accused of being an apologist for rape, an MRA, or something else equally heinous. It’s an understandable reaction, of course, but in these forums – some of them major feminist discussion forums – rape accusations seem to be treated as prima facie true. This is somewhat worrisome, I think, though, again, understandable, all things considered.

  6. i just want to support logoskairos’ point that certain kinds of women are more likely to be believed than other kinds. for instance, it is commonplace within critical race theory/intersectionality to remember that rape of white women by black men was always believed (by most), to serve the larger lynch law, whereas rape of black women by white men was kind of conceptually not possible (for most) (in the late 19th-mid20th centuries). so we maybe ought to specify who we are talking about when we are asking whether we “believe the victim”: is she a sex worker? an immigrant? a trans woman? and what do these variations of belief tell us more generally about who has the authority of knowledge, or what knowledge consists of?

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