The Crime of Silence
Should Twitter Suspend LGBT Engineer Accused Of Raping Her Wife?
When NFL player Ray Rice beats his wife, the media is outraged and demands action. When a Twitter engineer beats her wife, the media shrugs.
“I want you to know how difficult this was to report. I didn’t think anyone would believe me, as is often the case with rape victims.... I never anticipated that hitting your bottom would hurt me or my family.”
This disheartening court statement from an alleged rape victim is, to be blunt, unsurprising: the many logistical challenges and emotional turmoil of reporting a rape, especially when a loved one is the attacker, is unfortunately common. Getting rape prosecuted has long provided its own set of deeply frustrating difficulties, from belligerent questioning of accusers to blatant refusal to investigate claims.
It is also not particularly surprising—but still extremely upsetting–that the alleged rapist in this case has insinuated the accuser made her claim for monetary gains. Nor is it surprising that the employer of the accused has neither fired the alleged perpetrator nor denounced the trial.
What is surprising is that the alleged rapist is a well-regarded feminist and LGBT advocate, Dana McCallum, a transgender woman who was named by Business Insider as the fifth-most important LGBT person in the tech world. She is a senior engineer for Twitter, which stated "We don't comment on employees’ personal matters” when McCallum was charged with five felonies earlier this years: three counts of spousal rape, one count of false imprisonment and one count of domestic violence.
UPDATE: When Twitter was contacted by The Daily Beast about McCallum’s current status at the company, Twitter responded: “We don’t comment on individual employment matters.” Instead, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser sent a link to McCallum’s LinkedIn profile. When The Daily Beast pressed for clarification because McCallum’s profile is restricted, Presser responded with a screenshot of the LinkedIn profile rather than directly commenting. According to that screenshot, McCallum stopped working for Twitter in September after four years and seven months of employment.
McCallum ultimately pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two misdemeanors: one count of domestic violence with corporal injury to the spouse and one count of false imprisonment. The District Attorney's office insisted on a guilty plea when she attempted to enter no contest. From a legal standpoint, the case is resolved, but the aftershocks in the way we think about rape and assault will reverberate for a long time.
Or at least they should. Unfortunately, the relative silence around McCallum’s trial, let alone the issue of woman-on-woman rape and sexual assault, is deafening and disturbing. In researching for this article, I posted queries in multiple forums for female journalists for resources or recommended experts for female-on-female rape. I received only one response. I've seen only a handful of articles reporting on the McCallum case and they are generally absent of any criticism.
Her lawyer's response alone should have set off a parade of outrage, or at least one angry blog post. "No one heard 'rape' or fighting or anything," McCallum's lawyer, John Runfola, told the San Francisco Examiner about the alleged incident. Really, how often would someone yell “rape,” especially when her children are in the house? Since when is a loud noise the only sign of resistance and lack of consent? Runfola, by the way, admits there actually was a noise that night that indicated the alleged victim's refusal: “There are no witnesses for the prosecution, except one teenager who allegedly heard 'no' through a door.”
That’s rather infuriating exception to the claim of ‘no witnesses’. Runfola's defense is nothing short of galling–and her lawyer should be called out for it.
Twitter shouldn't be spared from censure, either. Perhaps taking its cue from pre-Ray Rice NFL, Twitter declined to suspend its employee (at the very least, for several months after she was charged). It also did not speak out against domestic violence. When one of the biggest companies in the tech world declines to take a stand on these clear affronts to women, shouldn't other women speak out? The lack of discussion and attention are a major disservice to women. This is an emotionally thorny case that challenges mainstreams notions of victims, attackers, and advocates. We all should be grappling with it—but the silence suggests we'd rather let this story fade away or don't think it's worth discussing for more than a few fleeting moments.
I actually fear it's the latter. Female-on-female sexual assault is rarely talked about and there are relatively very few resources on it. That is likely because the incidence of female-on-female assault, or, for that matter, women as sexual or physical aggressors in general, isn't remotely comparable in size or scope to the problems of men as abusers. The CDC's latest report on National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey that “across all types of violence against women, the majority of female victims reported that their perpetrators were male.”
No one is arguing against the fact that men perpetuate violent physical and sexual abuse against women far more often, but it is also worth acknowledging that violence by women, especially in intimate relationships among LGBT couples, is not nearly as well-researched or understood. Janice Ristock, a professor at University of Manitoba, specializes in studying violence in LGBT relationships. In a 2005 paper co-authored with Norma Timbang of the University of Roehampton, she discussed the difficulties studying partner violence in these relationships, including both fear of “betraying the lgbtq community and :homophobic and/or transphobic responses” from authorities. The paper citied a 2000 study that found sexual abuse rates among lesbian relationships was lower than, but still comparable to, rates among heterosexual relationships: 11 and 25 percent, respectively.
However, “the lower rates of violence by women should not be used to justify inattention from the legal and social services communities. Whatever the rates, people are being harmed and need help,” write Ristock and Timbang. If nothing else, a public trial, as in McCallum’s case, should be an opportunity to educate people about the physical and emotional differences in types of assault.
But there's a reticence to discuss or consider such acts of violence committed by women as legitimate. When the media turned its attention to U.S. soccer star Hope Solo, who is awaiting trial for domestic violence charges against her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew, the calls for her to be benched emerged from feminist writers, but so did pushback for even discussing it.
Amanda Hess at Slate criticized attempts at comparing Solo and Rice and the responses of their two different sports leagues. Her argument stood on two main—and very true–points: men are the vast majority of perpetrator of violence and football, with its history of mishandling abuse, is a far more popular sport than women's soccer. “Isn’t it more likely that the lack of public pressure in Solo’s case simply represents the relative lack of attention that women’s soccer receives as compared with pro football?,” writes Hess. Ok, but that still doesn't excuse U.S. Soccer for elevating Solo to captain, despite the pending charges—and it doesn't mean we should try to stifle the questions around the issue.
The fact that there is pushback against discussing female-perpetuated assault, especially by women whom we hold up as progressive role models, is disturbing. Hess' column reflected a fear that if Solo were to be discussed in the same breath as Rice, the massive problem of male violence against women would be eclipsed. “Whether or not it’s the right call to suspend Hope Solo, how necessary is it for an institution like U.S. women’s soccer to send a message to young girls that it’s not OK to violently attack their family members?” writes Hess, who thinks that it’s more important for Solo to remain a role model, showing that “girls can be strong, active, healthy, competitive, assertive, career-focused.”
This type of argument is based on fear—fear that when we admit that famous or powerful women can be aggressors, it will disempower other women, namely female victims of male domestic violence. But discussing cases like Solo’s or McCallum’s should not be seen as some victory for the Men's Rights Movement or any other group that falsely claims most women fabricate rape allegations or sweep their own crimes under the rug. In fact, being silent and failing to denounce wrongdoing when we see it does far more to de-legitimize those of us who care about social, sexual, and professional rights and protection for all women.