Rape victims and anonymity

This week Nafissatou Diallo, the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case, broke her silence in a print interview with Newsweek and a televison interview with ABC News An alleged rape victim coming forward in such a public way is unprecedented. Rape shield laws have historically protected victims of sexual assault. Because rape is considered especially harmful compared to other crimes, extra measures are taken to ensure victims recover and heal without public criticism.

Even with rape shield laws, though, victims in high profile cases are routinely smeared and accused of lying. Their identities are frequently leaked to the media and the public is then able to pry into their private lives and sexual histories, often in an attempt to discredit them. Every misstatement, every inconsistency is fair game for the media, especially if the alleged rapist is a powerful or beloved public figure.

Diallo is very brave and her coming forward is really a new kind of press strategy, especially given the recent statement by prosecutors that her credibility – or lack thereof – would make her an unreliable witness. At this point, it doesn’t look as though prosecutors are going to pursue the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and he was already released from jail. Diallo cleared up in her interview with ABC any questions about the timeline of the attack and restated her position that any other inconsistencies in her statements to prosecutors about matters wholly unrelated to the attack are irrelevant.

This is one of the reasons that rape victims have historically been given special protections. Their credibility is questioned in a way that other victims simply do not have to put up with. Get mugged? Prosecutors want to catch your mugger and don’t care that you may have lied on your tax returns because that doesn’t have anything to do with the mugging. Get beaten up by the cops? The public outcry against police brutality isn’t mixed with questions about what you could have done to provoke the police. Victims in other crimes simply don’t have their entire lives questioned.

Another reason rape victims have traditionally been given this special shield is because so few rape victims actually come forward to report the crime at all. Even with the protection victims generally not only blame themselves but many times are blamed by the public and even those closest to them. Giving them added protection may serve to encourage them to report their attacks.

Critics of rape shield laws argue that this further stigmatizes rape victims and perhaps even sets back the gender equality movement. It’s possible that in special circumstances, like civil suits that result from rapes, victims may lose the privilege of hiding their identities. It’s also possible that formal removal of this protection wouldn’t make a difference because especially in high profile cases the identity of the victim and every single skeleton in their closet is published anyway despite the law. While the New York Times may not have disclosed the name of the victim in the NYPD rape cops, past cases have proven different. In Kobe Bryant’s rape case, the victim’s name, face, and sexual history was plastered all over the internet, rape shield laws be damned.

There is speculation that Diallo will sue Dominique Strauss-Kahn in civil court (where you are seeking monetary damages and the victim is the plaintiff as opposed to the state like in criminal cases) if her criminal case fails to go forward. The NYPD rape cops victim is also pursuing a civil case for $57 million in damages against the city of New York. The debate around rape shield laws has also suggested that perhaps victims should lose their anonymity if they choose to pursue civil charges. I’m not really sure it should matter. A victim has the right to pursue civil charges especially if a high profile case thrusts them into the spotlight against their will. If we allow the rape shield laws to have limited exceptions that will likely lead to them being meaningless, and even more victims names and sexual histories will become public fodder. After Diallo’s interviews, I believe her story even more than I did before and I think that her right to remain anonymous or not should be up to her in the end regardless of any future civil charges she may file.

Do you think we still need rape shield laws? Do you think we should make exceptions when a victim is pursuing civil charges?

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