When Should the Media Identify Rape Victims?

Advocates, victims, and the press grapple with how to tell stories of sexual assault.

Rehtaeh Parsons. (Photo: Facebook)

Nov 26, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

The story of a teenage girl who was raped and who later committed suicide has raised serious questions about when and how to identify victims of sexual assault in the media.

On Tuesday, a Canadian newspaper published an editorial saying it would print the name of Rehtaeh Parsons, whose alleged 2011 sexual assault was photographed, in violation of a law prohibiting the media from identifying victims of child pornography. But this isn’t a simple case of the press reveling in a salacious story. Parsons’ father, Glen Canning, has commended the decision, calling it “brave.”

“They know it’s not in the public interest and certainly not in Rehtaeh’s interest to silence her,” he wrote on Facebook.

Canning said the authorities who claim they’re protecting Parsons just want the story to go away.

Parsons was 15 years old when two teenage boys in Nova Scotia allegedly sexually assaulted her while she was drunk. She said she couldn’t remember what happened but knew that she didn’t consent to sex, and that she threw up. Later, a photo of the incident spread on Facebook, and Parsons was the target of merciless cyberbullying and threats.

At the time, police said they couldn’t prove the allegations in court and never pressed charges. Parsons transferred schools, but the story and the photo followed her. In April 2013, she committed suicide.

When Parsons died, articles about the assault and the suicide identified her by name. But after two boys were charged with child pornography for taking and distributing the photograph from that night, Parsons became a child pornography victim, and according to Canadian law, the media are no longer allowed to print her name in stories about the case.

However, Canning, who has become a fierce advocate for the rights of survivors of sexual assault, has said that at least in the case of his daughter, the ban on printing her name does more harm than good.

Canning is also furious that the boys were never charged with sexual assault. “When she was alive you didn’t do anything. Now that she’s dead, all the sudden you’re going to enforce the law?” he said to On the Media earlier this month. “Everyone knows what’s going on. To me it seems like the justice system wants to shut the story down.”

The hashtag #YouKnowHerName trended on Twitter during the boys’ case, and on Tuesday, the Chronicle-Herald of Halifax became the first local media outlet to defy the ban and use Parsons’ name in stories about the case. “We believe it’s in the public interest in this unique case,” the editors wrote.

“The Canadian public is saying ‘no’ ” to the ban, Canning said.

Still, privacy protection is essential for those victims of sexual assault or child pornography who don’t want their names made public. Even when victims make the choice to come forward, being in the public eye can have major consequences.

In the town of Maryville, outside Kansas City, 14-year-old Daisy Coleman alleged that a high school senior from a prominent family sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated. The boy later pleaded guilty to charges of child endangerment. In an investigative article on the case, the Kansas City Star wrote that “normally, The Star does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, but this case is widely known in Maryville, and [Daisy’s mother] allowed her daughter’s name to be used in The Star, as well as an earlier KCUR broadcast, to bring attention to the case.”

But there was significant fallout for the Coleman family, and Daisy attempted suicide after being harassed on Twitter.

It’s very difficult for a lone victim to fight for her rights publicly. But what if her friends or her entire school rallied around her?

That’s what happened this week in Norman, Okla. Hundreds of students at Norman High School walked out of class on Monday to protest the administration’s handling of rape allegations against a student. The students say victims were bullied by classmates and punished for coming forward with their stories—three girls claim to have been sexually assaulted by the same student.

The victims’ names aren’t public, but their story was told thanks to support from their classmates. A representative for the protest said in a statement, “We hope that our efforts shine a spotlight on bullying and that Norman High takes steps to ensure that victims can go to school safely.”