Should we know the Hofstra rape accuser's name?

Bloggers debate whether the victim who (probably) wasn't deserves anonymity

Published September 23, 2009 9:24PM (EDT)

Journalistic ethics dictate that we grant anonymity to alleged rape victims -- and for good reason, in a world of slut shaming and victim blaming. But what happens when an accuser rescinds her accusations? Should we still refrain from printing her name?

That is the question Glenn Reynolds raised in an Instapundit post Tuesday, written in response to Emily Bazelon's thought-provoking Double X piece "The Hofstra Date Rape That Wasn't." Instead of responding to Bazelon's argument, Reynolds wonders, "Why doesn’t she publish the accuser’s name, now that the rape is admittedly fake?" He goes on to make a pretty hefty accusation of his own: "You’re not protecting a victim now, Emily, you’re protecting a perpetrator." Then, Reynolds remedies what he sees as a grave injustice by printing the woman's name and linking to a story about the charges she may face. He also includes a link, provided by a reader, to a blog post that cites a number of studies claiming that false rape accusations have reached epidemic proportions. (I'll get to those later.)

Back at Double X's blog, Bazelon responds to Reynolds, writing, "I'm not naming the student out of some mix of pity and sisterhood." She admits that she is making excuses for the accuser, "because while what happened to her in the bathroom wasn't rape, she must deeply regret it, and she probably was drunk or otherwise not thinking straight when it happened. Plus, she's only 18. So not naming her seems like a small -- if fairly meaningless -- shred of compassion to offer." Bazelon also expresses sympathy for the men who were falsely accused, noting that she did not publish their names, either.

I respect Bazelon's integrity and honesty. But I also wonder: Isn't there another important reason not to print the name?

Although the accuser appears to have fabricated the charges, millions of women really do get raped, and this case will send a message to them, too: Why bother reporting your rape when you risk having your name dragged through mud as soon as anyone suspects you might be lying? (And come on: How many high-profile rape cases haven't involved these kinds of suspicions?) At a time when, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60 percent of rapes go unreported, it seems important that we do all we can to help victims seek justice. (In fact, when RAINN uses National Center for Policy Analysis statistics to do some more math, the organization finds that only 6 percent of rapists ever serve jail time.)

And as for the piles of false rape allegations Reynolds references, I'm going to have to call bullshit. As Broadsheet's Kate Harding pointed out to me, the blog post Reynolds cites seems to have gleaned most of its evidence from this article in the Forensic Examiner. The only problem? When we actually read that piece, we learn that:

it is extremely difficult to determine what percentage of rape reports is intentionally false. This is due to many factors, including jurisdictional variation in definition, criteria, and reporting practices, as well as the fact that not all rapes are reported. Although the FBI had set 8% as the average rate of false (actually, unfounded) accusations during the late 1990s, there is remarkable variation in the estimates of false allegations of rape found in the literature (Kanin, 1994; Epstein, 2005). A review of those studies on false rape accusations conducted between 1968 and 2005 showed a percentage range from 1-90% (Rumney, 2006).

Uh, 1 to 90? Call me crazy, but I have to assume that means just about none of this research has been at all conclusive. 

The Forensic Examiner article also provides more information about one of the studies trumpeted by Billoblog (the site Reynolds linked to): "One study looked at the 109 cases of forcible rape that were disposed of in one small midwestern town between 1978 and 1987 (Kanin, 1994)." Billoblog crows that "over 40% of these claims were shown to be false," but he doesn't address the study's minuscule sample size, or the fact that all research took place in "one small midwestern town" that is highly unlikely to be representative of the U.S. population as a whole. Another study Billoblog cites took place 25 years ago on U.S. Air Force bases -- so those results don't seem particularly relevant to mainstream America in 2009, either. 

Don't get me wrong: I take false rape accusations very seriously, and feminists have to take a stand against them. At best, they make things harder on real victims; at worst, they send innocent people to jail and ruin their good names. But when I compare RAINN's statistics (reported within the past 10 years by highly reputable sources) and Billoblog's, it seems clear that under-reporting is a far bigger problem. I don't want to further deter real rape victims from bringing their rapist to justice. And that's why I won't be printing the Hofstra accuser's name.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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