How Heidi Heitkamp’s New Ad Put Survivors At Risk

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp came under fire this week after her campaign included the names of survivors of domestic and sexual violence in a newspaper ad without their permission.

The ad, in the style of an open letter, was addressed to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is challenging the North Dakota Democrat. During the confirmation battle of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Cramer callously defended him against the sexual assault allegations and dismissed their gravity. He also said that the women in his family are “prairie tough” believe the #MeToo movement was a “movement toward victimization.”

The remarks were offensive to Heitkamp, who prosecuted sexual assault cases as North Dakota’s attorney general and whose mother was a survivor of sexual violence. Per the senator, Cramer also ignored that the state has a large Indigenous peoples population, and Indigenous women are two-and-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other groups.

The ad, which included the names and locations of 127 women, was meant to counter the narrative that sexual violence survivors are weak, as Cramer implied. But the campaign made the damaging mistake of including survivors’ names without their permission or misidentifying women as survivors when they aren’t. It was not immediately clear how many names had been erroneously added to the ad.

Amy Barasch, executive director of the New York-based legal nonprofit organization Her Justice, told Refinery29 that survivors’ confidentiality is of the utmost importance. “When you work with someone who’s been victimized, you want to be really careful with their information because they should have control over their own destiny and control over how the world perceives them,” she said. “With intimate partner violence there can be specific risks, whether it’s sexual violence or domestic violence. One risk might be that the partner might see this information and wouldn’t be happy about it, so [the survivor] would be in actual physical danger because there might be some form of retaliation.”

Barasch added that it poses a risk for friends and acquaintances to see that someone has been outed as a survivor, because they might have a relationship with the abuser or in the case of sexual violence, be the assailants themselves. “Most victims of sexual violence have been attacked by either their partner or acquaintances. It’s very common that they know the person who attacked them,” she said. “They might be in a safe place now and they might have decided they don’t want their [assailant] to be outed … maybe they don’t have interest in going after the person who hurt them or might feel they’ll be at risk if that person is revealed.”

Making someone relive their trauma by outing them could be another damaging outcome, Barasch added. In the case of mothers, she said these women might want to protect their children from knowing they were victims of intimate partner violence.

“There are all sorts of risks. When a victim is deciding whether or not they want their name to go public, these are things they would think through before making that decision,” she said. “If you release their name without their permission, you haven’t given them [that] opportunity … I can’t imagine how startling it might be to see your name in a newspaper ad for which you haven’t given permission.”

Heitkamp, whose re-election race is seen as critical for who gets to have control of the Senate, apologized to the women affected in a statement.

“Our campaign worked with victim advocates to identify women who would be willing to sign the letter or share their story. We recently discovered that several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse,” she said. “I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.”

A campaign staffer resigned following the error.

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