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Why is Rape Different?

As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny. We know Assange by name. But his accusers – the two Swedish women who have brought the complaints against him – are consistently identified only as “Miss A” and “Miss W,” and their images are blurred.

News organizations argue that the policy is motivated by respect for the alleged victims. But the same organizations would never report charges of, say, fraud – or, indeed, non-sexual assault – against a suspect who has been named on the basis on anonymous accusations. In fact, despite its good intentions, providing anonymity in sex-crime cases is extremely harmful to women.

The convention of not naming rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian period, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified and reported in ways that prefigure our own era. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death,” rendering women – who were supposed to be virgins until marriage – “damaged goods.”

Virginia Woolf called the ideal of womanhood in this period “The Angel in the House”: a retiring, fragile creature who could not withstand the rigors of the public arena. Of course, this ideal was a double-edged sword: their ostensible fragility – and their assigned role as icons of sexual purity and ignorance – was used to exclude women from influencing outcomes that affected their own destinies. For example, women could not fully participate under their own names in legal proceedings.

Indeed, one of the rights for which suffragists fought was the right to be convicted of one’s own crimes. Nonetheless, even after women gained legal rights – and even as other assumptions about women have gone the way of smelling salts and whalebone stays – the condescending Victorian convention of not identifying women who make sex-crime charges remains with us.

That convention not only is an insult to women, but also makes rape prosecutions far more difficult. Overwhelmingly, anonymity serves institutions that do not want to prosecute rapists or sexual harassers.

The United States military, for instance, hides rape accusers’ identities, and the prevalence of rape in the US armed forces today is off the charts. Maintaining anonymous charges enables the military authorities to avoid keeping comprehensive records, which in turn allows officials to evade responsibility for transparent reporting of assaults and of prosecutions – and thus not to prosecute sex crime in any serious, systematic way.

The same is true with universities. My alma mater, Yale, used anonymity in reporting of sex harassment and rape to sweep sex-crime incidents and repeat offenders’ records under the rug for two decades, thereby protecting its own interest in preventing systematic investigation. Because of the prevalence of universities’ anonymity policy, at least two alleged serial rapists – whose assaults were reported to their employers separately by more than one victim – are teaching at new universities, with no charges ever brought against them.

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The lesson is clear: when charges are made anonymously, no one takes them as seriously as charges brought in public, resulting in institutionalized impunity for sexual predators.

Indeed, only when victims have stood up and stated their names – granted, a difficult and often painful thing to do – have institutional change and successful prosecutions been possible. Anita Hill’s decision in 1991 not to make anonymous accusations against Clarence Thomas, now a US Supreme Court justice, spurred a wave of enforcement of equal-employment-opportunity law. Hill knew that her motives would be questioned. But, as a lawyer, she understood how unethical anonymous allegations are – and how unlikely they are to bring about real consequences.

In fact, the convention of anonymity merely allows rape myths to flourish. When victims are not kept hidden, it becomes much clearer that rape can happen to anyone – grandmothers and students, homemakers and prostitutes. Instead, we have stereotypes about how “real” rape victims must look and act in order to be taken seriously. And we have the myth of higher false reporting of rape relative to other crimes (in the US, the rate is no different: 2-4%).

Feminists have long argued that rape must be treated like any other crime. But in no other crime are accusers kept behind a wall of anonymity. Treating rape so differently serves only to maintain its mischaracterization as a “different” kind of crime, loaded with cultural baggage and projections.

Finally, there is a profound moral issue at stake. Though children’s identities should, of course, be shielded in sex-crime allegations, women are not children. If one makes a serious criminal accusation, one must wish to be treated – and one must treat oneself – as a moral adult.

That is why justice systems – at least in democracies – typically demand that the accused be able to face his or her accuser. Why, for example, in a case that is so dependent on public opinion – and on which so much depends – must Assange face allegations that may have grave consequences for him, while his accusers remain hidden?

So-called “rape shield” laws should be used to protect alleged victims. It is no one’s business whom a victim has slept with previously, or what she was wearing when she was attacked. But preventing an accuser’s sexual history from entering into an investigation or prosecution is not the same as providing anonymity.

Nor should it be. After all, motive and context are legitimate questions in any serious criminal allegation. Hill, for example, knew that she would have to explain why she waited years to accuse Thomas, her former employer. Likewise, adult accusers of Church-protected sex criminals knew that they would have to answer fundamental questions (notably, many of them have identified themselves, which has helped get real prosecutions).

It is wrong – and sexist – to treat female sex-crime accusers as if they were children, and it is wrong to try anyone, male or female, in the court of public opinion on the basis of anonymous accusations. Anonymity for rape accusers is long overdue for retirement.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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