Politics & Policy

We Should Name Rape Accusers

Protesters at the University of Virginia in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article.
It is time to lift the veil of anonymity.

We tend to know infamous criminals by three names: John Wilkes Booth, John Wayne Gacy, Lee Harvey Oswald. This has led to some fun conspiracy-theory speculation — “Why do serial killers usually have only two names while ‘lone gunmen’ have three?” — but it is mostly the result of newspaper convention, e.g. “Police arrested Charles Francis Xavier of the 1400 block of Graymalkin Lane in North Salem, N.Y., on charges of operating an unlicensed daycare.” Sometimes the middle name doesn’t seem necessary — Leon Czolgosz doesn’t usually get the “Frank,” and Sirhan Sirhan is still just Sirhan Sirhan — but there are a lot of guys named “John Booth” out there, and police blotters traditionally have used full names and addresses to cut down on mistaken identity. One has to sympathize with people who have common names (I imagine the poor fellow who writes Stalker gets tired of people on Twitter wondering why he’s such a right-wing monster) but it’s worse for people with uncommon names: A Texas newspaper once identified a man with an unusual foreign name as a convicted sex criminal, noting that his job brought him into a girls’ dormitory at the college that employed him — both of those things were true, but the sex criminal with the unusual name and the college worker with the same unusual name were not the same man.

Never mind the large check that probably was written by the newspaper’s publisher — imagine being the man wrongly identified as a convicted sex offender, seeing that in the newspaper as you’re eating your morning Froot Loops. Imagine what that felt like. Imagine going into work that morning, and the looks you’d get.

Naming names is a serious business, so I do not write this lightly: We should publicly name the accusers in rape cases.

Put another way: We should treat rape and sexual-assault cases like every other crime. Criminal complaints are public records, and their contents are matters of public interest. That generally includes the names of crime victims, though there are exceptions, e.g. when information is withheld to maintain the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation. Those exceptions are generally temporary and organized to a particular end. But in two cases, there are common blanket exceptions: The first is in the case of minors, and the second is in the case of rape victims.

In cases of rape, some states have statutory exceptions to the usual practice of releasing complainants’ names; and, even where that is not the case, it is the usual practice of media organizations to suppress those names. That is largely a formality in contemporary practice, inasmuch as it is practically impossible to suppress names in the modern social-media environment. If you’d like to know, for instance, the full name of the University of Virginia student generally believed to be the “Jackie” at the center of the fake Rolling Stone article, Twitter is just a click away.

Suppressing the names of rape victims — to say nothing of protecting the identities of those who make false accusations of this horrible crime — is intended to liberate victims from the stigma associated with such victimization, but it also contributes to it. By insisting on anonymity, we cultivate the false belief that rape victims have something of which to be ashamed in a way that victims of other crimes do not. This goes beyond mere embarrassment: Men who have been mugged may very well feel ashamed of their inability to protect themselves and their property, and may feel that their victimization reveals them as being somehow unmanly, inadequately virile. (That this is a less intense and less intimate violation than rape should go without saying.) The victims of Bernard Madoff, many of whom considered themselves financial sophisticates, may very well have felt ashamed of having been victimized. But we do not suppress the names of people who make accusations of fraud or file armed-robbery complaints. Nor is there a political faction in the United States insisting that we “always believe the victim” in securities-fraud cases.

#page#And, for good reason, we do not offer anonymity to those accused of rape and other crimes. In the case of rape, this and other deviations from normal legal process creates a poisonous asymmetry and a powerful temptation: One can ruin a life while remaining comfortably cocooned in anonymity. Consider the case of Oliver Jovanovic, who was wrongly convicted of rape, and whose prosecution was enabled in part by so-called shield laws that excluded from evidence e-mails between the accused and his accuser in which she expressed her consent to, and her enjoyment of, the sexual acts that transpired between the two. In that case the accuser, a 20-year-old college student, was described by her grandmother as having a long history of having made similar false accusations. Jovanovic served two years of a 15-year prison term before his conviction was overturned.

Fortunately, Rolling Stone is not the last word in these cases.

The distasteful but undeniable fact is that organized feminism is not very much interested in rape as a crime; organized feminism is interested in rape as a metaphor, which is why the concrete problem of rape has been displaced in our public discourse by the metaphysical proposition of “rape culture.” If feminists were interested in actually preventing real cases of sexual assault, they would not abominate those who prescribe commonsense measures to avoid victimization, and they would not dismiss the teaching of self-defense as an accommodation to “rape culture.” If you want to help someone prevent rape in fact rather than tilt at abstractions, then the three-letter organization beginning with “N” that you want isn’t NOW — it’s the NRA.

For feminists, rape is not as much a discrete crime as it is a dramatic instantiation of what they believe to be the larger and more insidious project of men’s domination of women in all spheres — sexual, economic, social, political, etc. The reality of rape — and it is a horrific reality — is for them a political tool: If you refuse to prostrate yourself in front of the designated totem of the day, then you are an apologist for rape. It is not coincidental that false accusations relating to rape are used as political tools by the Left, or that the targets of these false accusations are either explicitly conservative groups and individuals or such traditional bugaboos of the campus Left as fraternities, the military, and sports teams.

During the clerical sex-abuse scandals, the Catholic Church was roundly — and rightly — criticized for its repeated failures to bring these cases to the proper criminal-justice authorities so that they could be prosecuted and for instead trying to handle the cases in-house according to its own rules. If we take the feminists at their word (we shouldn’t) then in terms of sheer numbers of victims the purported college rape epidemic dwarfs that scandal, and yet feminists are curiously resistant to the argument that these cases should be handled by police and prosecutors rather than by deans of students and campus kangaroo courts. If your interest is in preventing and punishing rape, then things like teaching self-defense and insisting on prosecution are the first items on your to-do list. If your interest is in using rape allegations as a political cudgel, then you ignore rape and focus on “rape culture,” an evocative phrase that can mean anything you need it to mean at the moment.

Rape is a vicious crime. So is murder. It is time that we began demystifying the former by treating it more like the latter. Lifting the veil of anonymity is the first step.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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