WASHINGTON — After weeks of professed certainty, New York City prosecutors have recently admitted significant doubts about the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the influential French banker accused of raping a hotel maid in May. In many ways, the controversy swirling about the case is no different from countless others in which the court of public opinion has rendered a verdict with which a jury might disagree. (Has anyone ever heard of Casey Anthony?)
But there is one profound difference between this case and many others that briefly consume public attention in the cable news age: The alleged victim has not been named by major U.S. news media organizations. We have read and heard much about her, including the country of her birth, her immigrant journey and her current associates. Still, her name and photograph, while readily found online, have not been routinely used in news stories.
Because of common mores and lingering misunderstandings about human sexuality, sexual assault occupies a peculiar place in the criminal justice system. It is that rare criminal dispute which casts harsh shadows not only on the accused but upon the accuser, as well.
For that reason, most reputable news organizations don’t reveal the names of rape victims unless they give explicit permission. And some refuse to name the victim even with her consent, believing that using her name will add to her trauma.
But that longstanding practice may only serve to perpetuate the notion that rape is a crime apart, deserving of some secrecy. If news organizations name those who claim to have been robbed, defrauded or beaten bloody in a back alley, shouldn’t we consider treating sexual assaults in the same way?
I’ve argued over the years that shielding alleged victims of rape only adds to the sense of stigma — fueling the notion that they have somehow been tarnished. In 2005, I tried to persuade an Atlanta woman who had been raped by her ex-boyfriend to allow me to interview her and use her name.
She was the ex-girlfriend of Brian Nichols, who became a household name after his jailbreak was accompanied by a killing spree. He was on trial a second time for the rape when he overwhelmed a guard and broke free.
His victim didn’t agree to the interview, but I admired the courage she showed in enduring a second trial. (Nichols got a mistrial the first time.) Did we protect her by withholding her name? I doubt it. Instead, we simply perpetuated a set of wrong-headed cultural assumptions.
But the Strauss-Kahn case highlights another set of assumptions. The protective bubble around the hotel maid encourages a presumption that she is, indeed, a victim.
University of Southern California journalism professor Geneva Overholser, a former newspaper editor, has long argued that news media organizations should reconsider the practice of withholding the names of alleged victims of sexual assault. (We corresponded several months ago, before the Strauss-Kahn arrest.)
“We value name identification in journalism for all kinds of reasons — accuracy and verifiability prime among them— and we should not exempt only these adult victims of crime,” Overholser wrote me in an e-mail. “Second, we are not in a position to judge guilt or innocence, which we imply when we ‘protect’ one party . . but name the other. . .Third, it has become virtually meaningless in the digital era to offer this ‘protection’ since facts will out.”
How very true. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser has been identified by bloggers and online gossips. More to the point, she has recounted her version of events to colleagues and close friends, so those most important to her already know that she’s at the center of the story.
Here’s hoping Strauss-Kahn and his accuser have their day in court so a jury can render a verdict based on evidence. And let’s hope, as well, that major news outlets stop behaving as if there is some reason to shield her.