In the days after the cry of rape turned the Kennedy compound into a media campground, we read a great deal about the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith.
We read that she is 29 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall and blond. We read that she has a 2-year-old daughter. That she is the only child of an Ohio auto maintenance worker and a secretary who got divorced.We read that her stepfather is a retired well-to-do industrialist who divorced his wife and married her mother.
There was one thing we didn't read: her name.
The woman's identity was "common knowledge" in Palm Beach. It was common knowledge to journalists, to neighbors and natives, even to the hot dog vendor who added her street to his daily route.
But the American media followed its own internal guidelines. Reporters told almost all and kept their technical virginity: They stopped short of her name.
On Monday, however, a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton broke ranks and maybe broke the state law. On Tuesday night, NBC broadcast both her name and picture and then on Wednesday, The New York Times followed suit with their editors saying that NBC "took the matter of her privacy out of their hands."
The lid is off, but should it be?
Since the 1970s, the media has held a consensus of sensitivity on the issue of naming alleged rape victims. This is something rare in the feisty First Amendment annals. Editors generally went along with those who argued that women wouldn't press charges if it cost them their privacy.
Gradually, big stories and social change have sorely tested this consensus. The press has often itched to print what it knows. Some lawyers have argued that it is unfair to use the name of the accused but not the accuser. Explain the double standard to William Smith, they say. Uncharged, he is nevertheless known nationally as "the alleged rapist."
Some feminists, too, who once lobbied for anonymity have revised their view. In the case of the Central Park jogger, lawyer Karen DeCrow asked, "Is it not blatant sexism to assume that being raped (and left, bleeding, to die) is still such a disgrace for a woman that the victim's name must be concealed?"
Is society ready for names? The question for me is not only a legal one, although this may be tested in Florida where there is a law against naming alleged rape victims. More important is how we wend our way through change.
If Americans better understand the difference between violence and sex today, it's because women have spoken out. If there is less shame, it's because of that openness.
Yet I am convinced that the willingness of women to speak out may actually and perversely depend on the protection of their privacy.
The Palm Beach story makes the best possible case for those who want to name names. But the notion that we can judge these cases one by one doesn't work. Would women be "safe" as long as they didn't accuse famous men? Who would decide when the public's right to know overwhelmed the right to privacy?
I agree that times are changing and the media need to reflect that.
The goal is a day when we can identify the names of women who cry rape as coolly as those who cry thief. But to do so now, against their will, would push rape back underground and chill the warming climate. In the middle of a fundamental change, privacy is the bridge we need to cross over to the time when rape is indeed treated by the public like any other assault.