Naming the Victims of Rape

After all the loud debate about "public good" and "right to know," it is time to say the words that are best said quietly. The most important reason to refrain from publishing the names of women (and children and men) who report the crime of rape is a simple one: it hurts.

After all the loud debate about "public good" and "right to know," it is time to say the words that are best said quietly. The most important reason to refrain from publishing the names of women (and children and men) who report the crime of rape is a simple one: it hurts.

First, it hurts victims. After I was raped 15 years ago, my immediate need was for compassion and protection, not scrutiny and exposure. The aftershock — the numb fear, the nightmares and flashbacks — lasted for months. What I did not have to deal with additionally, thank god, was the publication of my name and all the invasion that represents. Instead, I could choose who to tell and who not to tell. And each time I made this decision, small as it may seem, I reclaimed a little bit of what the rapist had taken from me: a sense of control.

Publishing the victim's name at the time of a trial is equally hurtful, even if the trial occurs long after the assault itself. Under the best of circumstances (steady support, respectful police and prosecutors — which I was lucky to have) a trial is a second assault that disrupts any healing that has taken place and reawakens the initial trauma. The risk of an acquittal or plea-bargain is high, as is the fear that the rapist will retaliate. What is to be gained that is worth adding to our already considerable burden?

Second, it hurts the community. The 1992 Rape in America study found that women stated they would be “far more likely to report” if their names were made public. Given the long-range impact of rape on society, what’s seen by some journalists as a cop-out should instead be viewed as necessary to making the community safer from sexual violence.

I agree that speaking out can help erase the stigma of rape. But bear in mind that the stigma is not borne directly by the media or the general public, but by those of us who have been sexually assaulted. We are the ones who hear the responses that hurt, however inadvertently; responses that blame ("Why didn't you scream?") or minimize our trauma ("I read about a woman who was raped by two guys!") or even punish ("You're never going out alone again!"). The choice to speak out--if, when and how--belongs most rightfully to us.

Nevertheless, I am heartened by the willingness of the press to pay serious attention to the crime of rape, and its desire to change the way it is perceived. But before exposing and inevitably hurting victims, it should consider and act on the following suggestions:

Educate reporters. In a profession where information is the product, it is critical that journalists learn about rape. Rape is NOT "just another crime" and must not be covered as such. It is intensely personal, its violence inescapably intimate. By forcefully penetrating my body, the rapist robbed me of myself. Reporters should understand this.

In Seattle, police, prosecutors, hospital emergency room personnel and victim advocates receive specialized training for dealing with rape victims. They learn how to approach without confronting, how to phrase questions without blaming, and how to strengthen rather than victimize. The press wouldn't think of sending an uninformed reporter to cover a major league football game. Does it make sense to do so covering a rape story, where the potential for harm is so great?

Educate the Public. Covering an occasional high-profile case is not enough. The public needs help breaking down its own misinformation about this crime. For example, for every stranger rape story, three acquaintance rapes should also be covered in order to reflect reality and destroy stereotypes. Topics for in-depth reporting are endless: How many rapes occur each month, and where? Why are most rapes not reported to police? Why are most of these not prosecuted? Why are conviction rates low? What is being done to reduce the incidence of rape, and what positions do public officials take on this issue? What strategies have women used to survive a sexual assault or escape altogether?

Agencies that work with victims can be supported by covering their fund-raising events and interviewing their directors and advocates. Feature articles are needed that explain how to respond when a friend or loved one is raped. What will help her through a trial, if there is one? Trials themselves should be covered in a manner that does not blame the victim or make excuses for the accused. The press in this country does an outstanding job with AIDS coverage. It can do the same with rape.

Empower the victims of rape. More of us will speak out if we believe we will be treated with respect by the press. Our trust must be earned by respecting our privacy and describing us and our ordeals sensitively. We deserve support; community safety often depends on women who, against all odds and without guarantee of prosecution or conviction, willingly endure the painful processes of the criminal justice system.

And the press can stop worrying about protecting the accused. He is already protected by the Constitution, assured of due process. It should never be forgotten that his victim is not represented by counsel (the prosecutor represents the state), is not warned that anything she says when and after she reports the crime may be used against her at trial (which it is), and, when the rapist is an acquaintance, she is often not even presumed innocent.

The media has the power to dispel the myths about rape, heighten awareness, and mobilize men and women to take action. A comprehensive approach, though slower and certainly less sensational, can do much good without re-traumatizing victims.