Should rape shields hold?

Posted: Aug 01, 2003 12:00 AM
First, a confession: I don't know the name of the woman whom Kobe Bryant allegedly raped. How much longer I can keep my innocence, I also don't know.

The woman who is routinely described in the press as "Kobe Bryant's accuser" is now splashed all over the Internet. A major syndicated talk show host in Los Angeles publicly identified her. Editors at major newspapers are rethinking their policies against identifying victims of rape: "It's kind of a conceit that we in the mainstream media are the gatekeepers we used to be," Geneva Overholser, a former editor of The Des Moines Register and former Washington Post ombudsman, told The Boston Globe. "It's an untenable situation to name the accused and not the accuser ... I really believe it's a fairly paternalistic thing."

So far that quaint old idea of journalistic ethics seems to be holding. As of July 24, according to a Globe survey, there is still "widespread adherence to the guideline that keeps the accuser's name out of the news. Even given the highly charged Bryant case, which is certain to generate major coverage, spokesmen for CBS, MSNBC/NBC, ABC and CNN all said yesterday their policy was to avoid identifying the alleged victim without consent."

Should these rape shields hold?

My first thought is no. To charge a person with a crime is a public act. The right of the accused to face his or her accuser is fundamental. Women (or men) who seek to use the power of the state to incarcerate a fellow citizen have to be prepared to do so publicly. It is simple fairness.

Moreover, I do not believe it is true that rape victims are still deeply stigmatized. I don't think Americans would refuse to do business with, or become friends with, or honor with community leadership, or marry a woman who had been raped. To shield the name of rape victims is a "fairly paternalistic thing."

On the other hand, rape IS a crime unlike any other: a deeply painful invasion of a woman's sense of self, the meaning of her sexuality, that can leave long-lasting psychic scars. "That's like being raped again," Dr. Patricia Saunders, director of Graham Windham Manhattan Medical Center in New York City, told Reuters about the media onslaught. "It's an intrusion. It's an utter violation of her right to privacy. It's a sadistic thing to do."

And of course, she is right. Exposing a rape victim to the combined forces of CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, ABC, NBC, CBS and the rest of the media megalopoly is a fairly sadistic thing to do. Kobe Bryant will have every chance to face his accuser. He knows her name. She will appear in court before him. He has the wealth and power to turn up every piece of evidence that may exonerate him.

What is at stake in overturning media policies shielding rape victims is not justice, it is voyeurism. The court of media exposure is one where the scales of justice are not evenly balanced. Kobe Bryant has legions of fans. The woman who says he raped her is a 19-year-old small-town girl nobody knows. Kobe Bryant has the resources to spread his version of the facts around: squads of PR people, media advisers, high-powered lawyers. The woman who says Kobe Bryant raped her has a small-town prosecutor and family and friends. This is not a fair fight.

So I hope the rape shield holds. Because 1) it is heartening to see corporations act in defense of ethics, any ethical policy, amidst the temptation to make money. Something so rare should be encouraged. And 2) it IS a paternalistic thing to protect rape victims. And protectiveness by powerful men toward women in the sexual realm is also something increasingly rare (at least in public), and precious, and by no means to be discouraged.