We are in the midst of a war on rape. From American campuses to British courthouses, from newspaper op-ed pages to the weird world of online petitions, ‘zero tolerance’ of rape has been declared. And who could possibly be against it? No one is ‘pro-rape’. So surely everyone will cheer a war on rape. Not so fast. Wars on rape have been declared before, and often for deeply reactionary reasons, having the effect of harming society rather than helping women. Consider the ‘war on rape’ declared in America’s Deep South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the KKK and other racists likewise declared zero tolerance of rape – rape committed by black men, that is – and signalled their determination to wipe out this ‘ultimate transgression’. There was little positive in that crusade. And here are five ways in which today’s non-racist feministic ‘war on rape’ echoes the lynch-mob logic of yesteryear’s racist ‘war on rape’.
1) Always believe the accuser
The rallying cry of today’s apparently liberal crusaders against rape is: ‘Believe.’ They always believe the accuser. To doubt the accuser is to risk being branded a rape apologist. Campaign groups with names like We Believe You and I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault speak to the readiness of campaigners to accept every accusation of rape as good coin. Even in the wake of the Rolling Stone scandal, where an allegation of gang rape at the University of Virginia has been exposed as a tissue of lies, a writer for the Washington Post insisted we must ‘automatically believe rape allegations’, because ‘incredulity hurts victims’. From Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen to various women’s accusations against Bill Cosby, the cry ‘I believe!’ has rung out, as activists have rushed to declare, without the benefit of a court case, that these women were raped.
Automatic belief of rape accusations was a central principle of the KKK’s war on rape, too. This was one of the things that most shocked Ida B Wells, the early twentieth-century African-American journalist and civil-rights activist. ‘The word of the accuser is held to be true’, she said, which means that ‘the rule of law [is] reversed, and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the [accused] must prove himself innocent’. Wells and others were startled by the level of belief in the accusers of black men, and by the damning of anyone who dared to question such accusations, which was taken as an attack on the accuser’s ‘virtue’. The great nineteenth-century African-American reformer Frederick Douglass was disturbed by the mob’s instant acceptance of accusations of rape against black men, where ‘the charge once fairly stated, no matter by whom or in what manner, whether well or ill-founded’, was automatically believed. Wells said she was praying that ‘the time may speedily come when no human being shall be condemned without due process of law’. No, rape suspects aren’t lynched today. But, as we can see in everything from the destruction of Bill Cosby’s career to the demand to banish from campus students accused of but not charged with rape, they are often condemned on ‘the word of the accuser’ and ‘without due process of law’. Now, as then, ‘I believe’ is the rallying cry of crusaders against rape, and now, as then, such ‘automatic belief’ reverses the rule of law.
2) Saving women from cross-examination
One of the key claims of today’s non-racist crusaders against rape is that the cross-examination of rape claimants is too tough and we need softer, less combative ways to establish the guilt of rape suspects. The Guardian says rape claimants who are subjected to a rigorous trial process feel like they have been ‘raped all over again’; cross-examination is ‘humiliating and needlessly gruelling’. The UK Labour Party says ‘cross-examination is too harsh for rape victims’ and has promised to change the law to restrict cross-examination in such cases. There are already special measures in place to protect rape claimants. In the UK, rape claimants enjoy anonymity, and a recent Court of Appeal ruling said courts must rethink how they question ‘vulnerable’ people. On campuses in the US, special academic courts with a single investigator rule on allegations of student rape: the aim of such extrajudicial, unfair courts is to avoid the ‘adversarial, evidence-gathering criminal-justice model’ and ‘spare complainants from cross-examination’.
The KKK was likewise obsessed with sparing women from cross-examination. It also justified its extrajudicial activities — in its case, mob-delivered capital punishment of suspected black rapists — as a way of saving rape claimants from being publicly questioned. As Crystal Nicole Feimster says in her book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, lynchings of rape suspects were justified as a way of ‘spar[ing] the female victim the humiliation of having to appear in court to testify before her alleged assailant, an all-male jury, and an audience of courthouse rowdies’. Deep South racists depicted women as too fragile to cope with cross-examination in court. In 1899, a racist correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution said he was repelled by ‘the very thought of a delicate woman being forced to go into the publicity of a court and there detail her awful wrongs in the presence of the brute who had inflicted [them]’, arguing that lynching was a better form of justice for the woman. Also in the 1890s, a Southern newspaper singled out rape as a special crime that should not be tested in court in the same way as all other crimes. It is wrong, it said, to force a ‘delicate woman’ to ‘[testify against] her ravisher’. ’Let every other crime be dealt with by law’, it went on, ‘but do you see now why lynchings are the only way to deal with this [crime]?’. A Southern editor said it was wicked to make a rape claimant ‘face a staring public’.