Why Rape Victims Are Giving Up Their Right to Privacy

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With its abysmal rates of arrest and prosecution for rape, the American criminal-justice system can really only promise sexual-assault survivors one thing: privacy. Confidentiality is believed to be essential to getting victims to report sex crimes, and their cases are a rare instance where law enforcement and news media cooperate to conceal the identity of the claimant. But a vocal generation of young women, including Daisy Coleman, the 16-year-old at the center of a recent Maryville, Missouri, rape case, are choosing to forgo privacy and tell their stories publicly under their real names. 

Coleman not only came forward against her popular, well-connected alleged rapist, but when the charges against him were dropped, she handed her name and sealed records over to local news reporters. Countering allegations that the case fell apart because she and her mother, Melinda, were uncooperative, they showed how amenable they could be on Inside Edition and CNN’s OutFront. Daisy penned a personal essay about her alleged assault for xoJane over the warnings of her editor. In each appearance, she looked composed but unstudied, recounting her trauma as guilelessly as if she were describing the plot of a movie she’d just seen.

Coleman is rare in her candor, but far from alone. Elizabeth Smart emerged from her kidnapping ordeal (to say nothing of her conservative Mormon upbringing) a frank critic of the purity culture that devalues women who have sex, even nonconsensually. She told The New Yorker her life’s work will be to make “talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.” At colleges like Occidental, Amherst, and the University of North Carolina, sexual-assault survivors are publishing their names in op-eds in their school papers (and national ones), confronting administrators over the mishandling of their cases, and sometimes using the same social-media tactics as their victim-blaming opponents. An online network, Know Your IX, has been created to raise awareness about Title IX’s protections against sexual violence, and explains how to file a complaint against a university.

The debate over privacy versus publicity is an old one: Almost as soon as second-wave feminists won rape-shield laws in the seventies, critics argued that the accompanying practice of withholding victims’ names only reinforced rape’s stigma. Traditionally, news media has been a publicity tool for frustrated claimants, to put pressure on otherwise-immune prosecutors and cops. “I call it the court of last resort,” said Robin Sax, a legal analyst specializing in sex crimes and former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney. “You do it once you’ve exhausted everything else.” The Kansas City Star seemed like the last resort for the Colemans, whose relationship with the Nodaway County sheriff and Maryville residents disintegrated after the most serious charges were dropped, amid accusations that the Colemans refused to testify. 

But some victims go public in the service of a mission bigger than winning an individual case. For Dana Bolger, a Know Your IX founder who created It Happens Here, a website about sexual violence at Amherst, the final straw came in the dining hall one morning at breakfast. An administrator had advised her to take time off from school until her alleged rapist graduated, and she had recently learned that he had allegedly raped another woman. Looking around the room, she identified a half-dozen men whom she believed had raped friends of hers and gotten away with it. “They were all eating their cereal and laughing with their friends and enjoying life as usual, while their victims' lives were falling apart,” she recalled. “How could I in good conscience go on with my life knowing that others would experience the very same abuses?”

Friends of Bolger’s rapist told her she’d made it up and ruined his life; her classmates told her that by criticizing Amherst's handling of sexual violence she made all of their degrees worthless. But she just stopped caring. “It's difficult and embarrassing and even humiliating to walk around campus sometimes as ‘the rape girl,’ ” she told the Cut in an e-mail. “But at the same time, I know that me coming forward, and other survivors coming forward, shedding that shame and humiliation and refusing to abide by their terms — it's the only way this will ever change.” Any policy change in recent years has been a result of survivor activism, she says. Plus, talking about it can have therapeutic benefits. Bolger called her rape the loneliest experience of her life, a sentiment Coleman echoed in xoJane. (“I couldn't go out in public, let alone school. I sat alone in my room, most days, pondering the worth of my life.”) For Bolger, speaking up was a way of “disposing of this as my secret, of severing my connection to him, the rapist, of getting rid of that shared experience.”

Then there’s the reality that, in the social media, privacy may not be an option. From the Fordham blog-sharing snaps of dance floor makeouts to the circumstantial evidence furnished by Steubenville bystanders’ Instagrams and tweets, sex, like all socialization, increasingly has a public, online component. “This act that is ostensibly the most private doesn’t seem to be that way at all for people in contemporary culture, because of the proliferation of the camera devices,” said Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “It’s a new norm.” What’s having your name in the paper to a girl who’s had her blacked-out, vulnerable, naked likeness passed around school in cell-phone video form?

Coleman's case, however, illustrates how going public can carry risks far beyond stigma. On Monday, Melinda Coleman released a statement defending her family against accusations it had torn the town of Maryville apart. “We would have stayed if there was a fair investigation and I had felt my children would be safe,” she wrote. “I left for fear for our safety from the family that thinks it’s a little mafia ... their threats were very violent.” In this context, Coughlin suggests a comparison between the protections afforded rape victims and those given to witnesses who risk their personal safety when they testify against violent defendants or organized criminals. The prospect that people will find her and make her the target of relentless harassment and retaliation, that they will find her and burn her family's house down,” she says, means privacy protections are still a necessary option.