Why is Rape Different?

As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny: the anonymity afforded his accusers. This is true of no other crime, and the convention of anonymity actually impedes prosecutions.

NEW YORK – 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.”

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