December 11, 2014

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The Rolling Stone’s indefensible University of Virginia gang-rape story felt like a punch in the gut to anyone feeling hopeful about progress against sexual assault. But hopeful I remain. This fight is (finally) too vigorous to be stopped by flawed journalism.

News and social-media coverage over recent weeks, from the serial rape allegations against Bill Cosby to reports of sexual assault in the military and on campuses across the nation, would indicate that rape is at last being recognized — as an unacceptable reality that we have accepted for far too long. A lot of people seem to have decided no longer to acquiesce in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of folks poised to seize on any sign that a rape claim might be false. Rolling Stone gave these folks a huge assist: A spectacular gang-rape story, almost entirely free of attribution, quickly collapsing under its own weight.

Yet this problematic journalistic practice is nothing new; anonymity has been central to rape coverage for decades. (I first wrote about this in 1989. ) The common editorial practice of shielding rape victims by not naming them – unlike the journalistic commitment to naming names in all other crimes involving adults – is a particular slice of silence that I believe has consistently undermined society’s attempts to deal effectively with rape.

How do you size up a problem that’s largely hidden? There is plenty of talk about rape, but little of it is anchored by fact. As Vice President Biden said last January, in releasing the White House Report on sexual assault on campus, “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it.”

We know (vaguely) that the problem is huge. Looking at campuses only, the most widely agreed upon figure is that one in five U.S. college women will be raped during her college years. It’s hard to be sure because, as criminal justice experts agree, sexual assault is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes. The most reliable estimates indicate that some 15 percent of college students who have been raped report the crime. See more information here.

Without data and transparency, the issue has had a hard time gaining footing against administrators’ desire to keep rape statistics quiet. (The Center for Public Integrity has done powerful work on this topic. ) When the crime is not reported, and no one is named, how do you get the data?

One of many reasons that rape victims (or more accurately those who bring charges of rape) do not report it is that those who do are often subjected not only to disbelief, but also to humiliation, shame, and worse. This is abundantly clear in the military’s abysmal record on sexual assault. A recent Pentagon study said that nearly two-thirds of those who did report encountered retaliation of some sort. As a recent New York Times editorial noted, “That is the same as the previous year, despite a new law making retaliation a punishable offense.”

No surprise then, that for so many years, newspaper editors have agreed to “protect” rape victims by refusing to name them. So why hasn’t this helped correct the underreporting and reduce the retaliation? Maybe because the anonymity, rather than being part of an effective solution to an unacceptable reality, contributes to its prolongation. In other words, it does more harm than good.

You don’t have to believe that there are many women bringing false charges of rape (I don’t) to understand that a fundamental unfairness lies waiting to be exploited when one person is named and another is not, particularly in a crime as inevitably private as rape.

And exploited, it regularly is, as we see again and again — vividly in the case of those bringing allegations against Cosby, and in the appalling New York Times magazine story on sexual assault in the military People react angrily to the woman who “takes down” a beloved old comedian, a talented airman, a great football player – or just a cool frat guy.

If anonymity’s silencing keeps the crime’s dimensions hidden, and its unfairness feeds the fires of those disinclined to hear victims’ truths, anonymity has yet another worrisome trait: It prevents the public from fully engaging with the problem. As journalists well know (but choose distressingly often to ignore) nothing affects public opinion like real stories with real faces and names attached. Attribution brings accountability, a climate within which both empathy and credibility flourish.

Young women today seem to understand all this better than journalists do. Harvard alumna Rory Gerberg is a founder of a coalition of students to address the university’s sexual assault policy. Her view is emblematic: “Our task is to give voice to the daily forms of violence we too often accept as inevitable. This is precisely why student activism is so important. Since I’ve become a campus advocate numerous students have approached me with their stories.”

When real people are credibly seen as having experienced something that we’d rather not acknowledge: That is when we believe at last in a problem’s existence. Thus it was with Anita Hill and sexual harassment. Thus it may well be with Janay Rice and domestic violence (whatever her disinclination to embrace the issue, there is surely no anonymity in that video.)

So, is this that sort of moment for sexual assault? You might say that the past weeks’ stories are as likely to be just another turn of the news cycle as they are to be a tipping point. But I’d say that legacy media are no longer the primary determinant of whether the issue moves forward. Women are now making their voices heard in a way they haven’t been able to before, from Cosby’s alleged victims to college women speaking out on campuses across the country.

Latoya Peterson, in a recent New York Times book review, quoted feminist scholar Donna Haraway regarding “the power to survive… on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.” Many women are experiencing that power. While the use of social media has its downsides, for sure, this seems unlikely to stop them. For one thing, social media are aiding them not only by giving them a platform, but also by winning them wide support. This includes support from men who have previously acquiesced in the silence, a huge factor in the Cosby story, which David Carr sums up here.

Sen. Claire McCaskill may have a misplaced confidence in the military’s ability to deal with sexual assault, but this she gets exactly right: “What you’re seeing with Cosby and college campuses and the military is that victims are gaining strength by seeing the courage of other victims,” she said. “I have seen this incredible increase in the number of people who have come out and are saying, ‘I want people to know that this happened to me.’ ”

The longstanding nudge (by journalists and others) toward anonymity that women who have been raped have been experiencing has no doubt comforted some, at least for a period. But, increasingly, the underside of this approach even for the individual is acknowledged. Painful as the truth can be, absorbing the notion that you can’t tell it can be worse. As Times columnist Charles Blow wrote of having buried his own experience as a child with sexual assault: “I had done what the world signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh.” What he discovered, he said, was that “concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.”

Journalists are avidly tearing apart the Rolling Stone for its appalling dereliction of duty, and rightfully so. But all who have shared in this idea of anonymity as a protection of rape victims have played a role in bringing us to this moment. We have been participants in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand. It’s a notion outmoded at last, and those who pursue it become more and more irrelevant.

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