The Ethical Spectacle

"The Pale, Darkhaired Victim": Rape, Privacy and Double Standards

In 1974, a woman in my freshman class at Columbia was raped by a gang of men when she inadvertently got off at a subway stop on the "wrong" side of Morningside Park. The Daily Spectator, the student-run paper, covered the story, omitting the victim's name but describing her as the "pale, darkhaired victim."

I wondered at the time what the woman's complexion or hair color had to do with the fact that she had been assaulted. Not long after, a roommate of mine told me that a woman who had been coming to visit him was the victim, who I will call Mary. I ran into Mary off and on for two years; later, she roomed with a girlfriend of mine one summer. Over the two years, Mary went from being sad and intense to more relaxed and friendly, and I imagined that she was recovering, at least somewhat, from the trauma.

In the early 1980's, a woman I was dating told me that she had been raped, some years before, by a serial rapist who prowled her city in Holland pretending to search for a lost dog. I was shocked and got very angry every time I thought about what had happened to her.

I became aware that there was a chasm in my mind--and probably in that of most men and possibly some women--between the "pale, darkhaired" but anonymous rape victim in a news story, and a woman whom one knows and who has been raped. The latter are real people, for whom one can feel compassion and sorrow, while the former are, by virtue of their anonymity, without identity.

A man who rapes a woman treats her as an object, and a newspaper, which may describe her physical attributes but assigns her no name, confirms her object status. The secrecy around rape--not only the anonymity of the victim, but the hesitation of women to report rapes, and the predilection (Columbia was notorious) of universities to cover them up--assigns it a special status inferior to that of an ordinary crime. Separating rape from mugging or other crimes of violence confirms a male tendency to think of rape as special, salacious, titillating. I will never forget how a friend, hearing that my Dutch friend had been raped, wanted to know exactly how it happened, with a leer on his face. If being beaten and robbed is nothing to be ashamed of--if society does not rule in general that you must hang your head, nor that the paper should hide your identity--what makes rape different?

Two areas of statistics seem to confirm that rape is viewed very differently in our society. Because rapes are under-reported, no-one seems to agree on how many occur, with some saying that the majority of women have been raped. Other studies are said to show that most men would commit a rape if they thought they could get away with it. My Dutch friend thought that most men were incipient rapists and argued that prostitution (legal in Holland) gave marginal men an outlet for energies they would otherwise discharge by committing rape.

This state of affairs is encouraged by our societal double standard that ensures that rape is regarded as a special, different, titillating crime. Because the victims do not have names or identities, because we never see them on television or in the papers and do not have the ability to see that they are real people, rape becomes almost a victimless crime in the public mind.

I am not arguing that woman who have been raped do not have a right to privacy. But I admire those who choose not to hide their identities, because they alone establish that rape is a crime that happens to real people.