Ban the Naming of Rape Victims?
Ticker, Bruce S., Editor & Publisher
"DON'T USE MY name!"
She was an old friend. I simply mentioned that I was finishing an article describing her experience with sexual violence.
I told her once before that I wouldn't identify her, but she reiterated the above-mentioned plea.
Her fears are understandable. She underwent a very personal, horrifying experience linked to a very public and significant issue.
She isn't alone. Eighty-six percent of more than 4,000 women told interviewers for a crime-victim advocacy group that "victims would be less likely to report rapes if they felt their names would be disclosed by the news media."
This view was expressed in a study, sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based National Victim Center, of women over 18.
The study -- entitled "Rape in America" -- goes further. It urges a legal ban on publishing names and addresses of women who report being raped.
Journalists would automatically reject the prospect as censorship. Besides, most news organizations take pains to protect the identities of those who say they were raped. Details that might identify them, such as addresses or names of alleged assailants who are relatives, are usually omitted from news reports.
My response as a reporter was once automatic opposition. Now I believe there are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue. Reaching a conclusion now is a very hard call.
Perhaps the concept of such a ban deserves to be explored by all involved parties, mainly journalists, victims, rights advocates, law-enforcement authorities and lawmakers. They might at least sit down together and hash out their fears and concerns about the idea.
Rape has affected me by virtue of being acquainted with many victims of sexual violence. I have seen the emotional toll it exacts on victims. I knew a dozen women who suffered moderate to severe emotional problems after being sexually assaulted.
Any publication ban reflects a clash between the right of free expression and what amounts to the public's welfare and privacy needs.
First, let's explain how this measure might help rape victims.
Conventional wisdom among victims-rights advocates is that sexual violence is way out of control and must be reduced. There is no single solution, but aggressive prosecution is crucial to deter rape.
For authorities to prosecute, the victim must report the crime and follow through with court proceedings.
Rape victims have all kinds of reasons for refusing to report these cases to police, fear of being identified publicly among them. Rape victims can be repeatedly told that they probably won't be revealed, but in many instances "probably" isn't good enough. Victims of sexual violence are distrustful, and aren't likely to trust the presumably powerful media.
Censorship or not, a legal ban on naming victims might remove an obstacle to reducing sexual violence. The availability of victim's names for disclosure encourages the persistence of rape.
In its 1992 rape study, the National Victim Center offers this argument: "Unreported rapes are a threat to public safety in America. Rapists cannot be apprehended, indicted, prosecuted and incarcerated if the criminal justice system does not know that a rape has occurred.
"Such undetected rapists remain invisible to the criminal justice system. If rape victims are reluctant to report, then rapists will remain free to continue raping America's women, men and children.
"The dire need for public safety dictates what America's public policy should be: to do everything possible to encourage reporting of all alleged rapes to police.
"Several high-profile rape cases received vast publicity, with several respected news agencies straying from their wise policies of not disclosing rape victims' names."
The report adds that half of the rape victims surveyed would be "a lot more likely to report rapes to police if there was a law prohibiting the news media from getting and disclosing their names and addresses. …