Why is Rape Different?

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.”

Virginia Woolf called the ideal of womanhood in this period “The Angel in the House”: a retiring, fragile creature who could not withstand the rigors of the public arena. Of course, this ideal was a double-edged sword: their ostensible fragility – and their assigned role as icons of sexual purity and ignorance – was used to exclude women from influencing outcomes that affected their own destinies. For example, women could not fully participate under their own names in legal proceedings.