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Naomi WolfBack to OpinionNaomi Wolf

Why is rape different?

NEW YORK – As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny. We know Assange by name. But his accusers – the two Swedish women who have brought the complaints against him – are consistently identified only as “Miss A” and “Miss W,” and their images are blurred.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds up a court document after being released on bail, outside the High Court in London on Dec. 16, 2010. Photo: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

News organizations argue that the policy is motivated by respect for the alleged victims. But the same organizations would never report charges of, say, fraud – or, indeed, non-sexual assault – against a suspect who has been named on the basis of anonymous accusations. In fact, despite its good intentions, providing anonymity in sex-crime cases is extremely harmful to women.

The convention of not naming rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian period, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified and reported in ways that prefigure our own era. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death,” rendering women – who were supposed to be virgins until marriage – “damaged goods.”

Virginia Woolf called the ideal of womanhood in this period “The Angel in the House”: a retiring, fragile creature who could not withstand the rigors of the public arena. Of course, this ideal was a double-edged sword: their ostensible fragility – and their assigned role as icons of sexual purity and ignorance – was used to exclude women from influencing outcomes that affected their own destinies. For example, women could not fully participate under their own names in legal proceedings.

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  • Guest 5

    Dear Naomi,
    Its simple the alleged criminal is always named has to be otherwise an arrest warrant or Exrradition order cannot be effective.
    Rape and child sex crimes always do not identify the offended.
    What is your indignation all about when it is something almost internationally common in these types of cases.
    Assange is not being treated differently, but the same
    as any unfamous alleged rapist!!
    Guest 5

  • Africanbutterfly

    I don’t have a problem with the women not being named…let me rephrase: I usually don’t have a problem with it. In this case I think it’s convenient he is now being charged with rape. To be clear, I think he is guilty of treason. However, it concerns me that this may be a slick willy move in order to silence this man because of a possibly unrelated crime. As serious as treason is, I think it abhorrent that he could possibly be railroaded by an allegation of rape, which I agree is most likely a fate worse than or at least very near death for the victim. I hope the truth comes out about this and the only way is to hear from these women directly.

  • Kyra Morris

    What makes you think anything has changed so much? These days, women who aren’t “damaged goods” after rape are the ones who were “asking for it.” Yes, even in the courtroom.

    Even if the stigma and sexism were removed, being seen as a victim can just as debilitating and maddening and frustrating as it ever was. With people who think of themselves as powerful, there a presumption that in order to ask for help or demand justice, one must be inherently deficient in some way, and deficient in a way that they refuse to recognize is possible in themselves. Victims, especially victims of violence, are still looked down upon in this society.