Amanda Marcotte Got It Wrong

There has been an uproar recently on Twitter over an article by friend of the Skepchicks, Amanda Marcotte. Amanda is a lovely person who write many lovely things, but in this particular article she appears to be defending a decision to arrest a woman who was a victim of assault in order to ensure that the woman showed up to testify.

There are a lot of things about Amanda’s article that are true. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to get rape and domestic violence victims to go through with their testimonies. Yes, recanting is common. Yes, there is a serious problem with rapists receiving little or no jail time.Yes, we do need to find some way to overhaul our current system of dealing with rape if we want to take more rapists off the streets and lower the rates of rape.

Amanda’s final statement reveals the false dichotomy she wants to set up through the article: “The sad, unavoidable truth is that we have to decide what’s more important to us: putting abusive men in jail or letting their victims opt out of cooperating with the prosecution as they see fit”. I’d like to situate the issue differently: when we prosecute abusive men, what are we aiming to do?

I believe that most feminists would argue that we are seeking to stop or minimize harm. There are two elements to this: we want to minimize the harm that has come to the victim and we want to prevent the attacker from harming again (particularly by attacking in the same way as that is what’s relevant to the situation). Some people might suggest that punishment or justice is really important here, but it seems to me that the real emotions and hurt of the victims and potential future victims should come before our righteous fury.

I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption that if someone is avoiding their court date and meetings, it’s because they believe that they will suffer in those circumstances. They believe it will be traumatic or painful in some way, whether that be because it involves rehashing and reliving the experience, because it means defending themselves against slander (victim blaming), because it means coming face to face with their attacker…whatever the cause may be, there is likely to be some sort of harm inflicted on a victim who is forced to testify against their will.

One incredibly important element to consider is the fact that a victim of rape has just had their bodily autonomy violated. Rape is a really good way to tell someone that they have no control, that they’re an object, or that they don’t deserve consideration. Reiterating those messages to a rape victim is extremely damaging. Arresting someone is also a pretty good way to illustrate to them that they don’t have bodily autonomy. Arresting someone when they’ve done nothing wrong is a good way to tell someone that they don’t get to act as a subject in their own life and that their actions and wants don’t deserve consideration.

So it seems as if there is a very, very high possibility if not a certainty that forcing a rape victim to testify will be harmful and that the harm to the individual will be pretty severe (trauma from rape can last for a long time and be hard to shake, leading to difficulties with new relationships, anxiety, PTSD, and depression). There really isn’t much of any way for an unwilling individual to testify and avoid any of these repercussions, although there are ways to alleviate them in the future.

There’s also a problem here in terms of human rights. Do we really want it to be ok to detain innocent people simply because they were victims or they might be able to help us prevent future crimes? Most people would have a problem if posed with the following situation: we have a terrorist that we’re trying to get prosecuted. If you can jail one completely innocent person for a couple of nights in order to put this terrorist away, would you do it? Some people might say yes for very utilitarian reasons, but many people have a problem with taking away basic rights even if it’s for a good cause and there are good reasons to be wary of that. This is a similar situation and we should be aware of the fact that we’re opening up the the possibility to weigh basic rights against outcomes.

On the other hand, we do have some other options beyond a victim testifying to get us to our aim of putting the attacker behind bars. There is good evidence that many rapists are serial offenders, but it doesn’t seem as likely that we know they would rape again as it does that the victim would be hurt by testifying.So we have an almost certain harm against a likely harm. There is only one way to avoid the certain harm (not testifying) and a number of possible ways to avoid the likely harm (other witnesses, restraining orders, rehabilitation etc). In addition, the certain harm also means violating some basic human rights, prioritizing the fate of the attacker over the needs and choices of the victim, and continuing to make reporting hellish for victims. That could never backfire.

This also seems to play right back into the idea that victims are responsible for improving the situation that led to their rape. This is what we might call victim blaming. Of course it is really great if a woman chooses to testify and manages to get her attacker off the street. However she doesn’t have an obligation to do so. It isn’t her fault that there’s a horrible person out there enacting horrible things on others and there is no reason to guilt or force her into acting as if she must protect the rest of the world. That’s why we have things like lawyers and a criminal justice system.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t actively be pursuing ways to put more rapists and abusers behind bars or that we shouldn’t work to make it possible for more victims to report and testify. But it seems to me that there’s a lot of ways to do that that might be more effective and that don’t involve violating human rights. These might include more outreach to victims, more education to officers about what actually causes rape (hint: not sexy clothing), a push for better treatment of victims, no requirement or expectation that the victim faces her attacker, better protection for victims whose attackers are friends or family members, protections for victims against having their past sexual actions or their clothing or their BAC or any other irrelevant victim blaming nonsense used against them…all of these actions seem far more in line with decreasing the pain for women who have been raped or assaulted and making it easier for more women to report, thus putting more rapists in jail.

Or maybe we should just put victims in jail before we even get to the rapists.

systematic changes need to be made on the level of making things more comfortable and less abusive for victims


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. February 26, 2014 at 3:29 pm —


  2. February 26, 2014 at 3:41 pm —

    Sorry Olivia, but I think you are wrong here and Amanda is right. The victim is a material witness to a crime and her testimony is essential to prosecution. What if instead of being the victim she had simply witnessed the criminal act would your opinion change?

    Should the victim be given all kinds of support as a victim? Absolutely! Should she be given a lot of leeway and understanding? Definitely! Should she protected for being a witness? Yes!

    But in the end she needs to testify or the case needs to be dropped.

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