Why don’t we name victims of rape?

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.

70 comments Add your comment

John Wayne Bobbitt

July 13th, 2011
5:46 pm

Nobody withheld MY name.

Lil' Barry Bailout

July 13th, 2011
7:05 pm

Libtard news organizations are also slow to name those who falsely accuse men of rape, like that scumbag who falsely accused the innocent Duke students of rape. In that case, of course, the libtards were totally embarrassed after cheerleading for wanting to convict and execute the students without trial.


July 13th, 2011
7:45 pm

In the day of social media, wikipedia, google, google earth, twitter, tabloids and the powerful internet search engines, sometimes there is too much information given from events that may or may not have occurred in the media. You must be brain dead or sadistic to want to ad to the individuals involved misery before judgement day. You can take an individuals name and just about drill down to the results of their last gynecological exam using the aforementioned sources of information. Please just report the incident and leave the names vacant. No need to violate that person more than once.

stranger in a strange land

July 13th, 2011
8:40 pm

CT – I actually missed your blogs (further evidence of my brain damage)
For now, not sufficient motivation to pile on.
I’m sure you’ll toss more chum in the water soon.


July 13th, 2011
9:28 pm

Why does the media feel it needs to name the victim of any crime? If the victim doesn’t mind being named, go for it. But if they do mind, why make them a victim all over again?


July 13th, 2011
10:13 pm

Why does the media feel it needs to name the victim of any crime?

The four w’s and one h of journalism


It’s not personal.


July 14th, 2011
2:23 am

Rape of male and femal is usually a taboo. Money usually wins over the truth. 15 years counseling ande working with the system. Rape victims fare very bad. it is a sat fact. Rape is accepted more often than not.
3 in out of 5 woman. 2 out of 5 men raped every day. Many of both were in my practice. Nothing has changed. Read the mass rapes, dismembered bodies of other parts of the world in present day Africa and other countries. Rape is here to stay and go on and on. Rape is the penetration of a body part. Even babies are the object of rape! Sadistic. yes it is. Happens more than you might want to acknowledge.


July 14th, 2011
7:35 am

We need a false rape accuser registry! And a serial false rape accusers registry (for women or men who have lied about rape more than once)!
Such a registry could be checked every time a woman (or man) makes a rape accusation. Since, as women’s rights groups claim, there are so few women who lie about rape, this will be a short list (unless of course rape liars are more common that women’s groups are willing to admit).


July 14th, 2011
7:37 am

Notice how men’s rights groups have been totally ignored in the rush to judge the man (DSK, etc)guillty long before his trial before.
Women’s rights and advocacy groups are interviewed and quoted in almost every article regarding this case, but men’s groups are ignored by every newspaper and journalist in the land.


July 14th, 2011
7:40 am

“Violence against women” is the credo of scoundrels who seek to ignore women’s violence (against other women, children, elders and men).
VIOLENCE is NOT a gender issue (even women who are violent deserve to be punished)! Those who claim violence is a gender issue seek to exonerate women for their violent tendencies (and to cover up women who rape and women who are violent in sexual & nonsexual ways).


July 14th, 2011
7:44 am

Men can bve raped in two out of three ways that women can be raped, but the misandric (man hating or merely contemtptuous of men) media pretend that rape is a woman’s issue (that is how they make sure women who rape get away with it, in large measure so they can continue the sexist stereotypes of men that we are the only ones who commit swxual violence).
Back in the days of the 17th century witch trials, it was one gender that was singled out in most cases for accusation (and punishment). Today, we have a similar situation in that gender is targeted as the deviant sexuality (MEN) and the groups that claim to just want equal treatment for all (hypocritical feminists) fight tooth and nail every time men’s rights groups suggest that men are treated unfairly when accused of rape.


July 14th, 2011
7:47 am

Women of quality dont mind treating men with equality (few feminists are women or men of quality because they fight tooth and nail to make sure men are NOT treated with equality.
Find me one domestic violence shelter in this entire nation that will provide EQUAL services as women get (not a hotel voucher and a boot out the door)…….


July 14th, 2011
8:00 am

The media isn’t capable of ‘just’ naming the reported victim. They will view this as an open invitation to do what they did in the Casey Anthony case, which was try this themselves then be outraged at the outcome.


July 14th, 2011
8:51 am

Isn’t being a sexual assault victim ENOUGH humiliation already?

Oh man...

July 14th, 2011
9:12 am

Ok Cynthia, go get raped and let’s see you plaster your name across the headlines. You’re a moron, and how you got your own column is beyond me. I only read this one because I couldn’t believe you would even suggest it.


July 14th, 2011
10:08 am

Great question. On the surface, seems the stigma associated with public knowledge of alleged rape victims should be up the the victim to decide. This does encourage false allegations. Perhaps consideration should be given to implementation of penalties for false accusations. Jail time, court costs and public apologies?

When the media became news, the news became much less credible and bias in order to fill 24/7 programing and competition. Do we really care who brought the story first? What happened to fact checking prior to broadcast. It’s difficult to separate real news with opinion and speculations….

Tychus Findlay

July 14th, 2011
10:43 am

@B Cosby

Crystal Mangum is currently a suspect in a homicide charge.


July 14th, 2011
11:12 am

If it was a family member, Tucker wouldn’t want it publicized.


July 14th, 2011
11:48 am

If the accused is named before being found guilty, the accuser should also be named. Rape is a crime of violence, not a sex crime. There should be no stigma heaped upon the victim.


July 14th, 2011
2:12 pm

Why don’t we name juveniles who committ crimes?