A Woman Is Not Dishonored

It is a tough dilemma: confidentiality encourages women to complain, and abolishing it might lead to significant hesitation to file a complaint. Nevertheless, it is possible that the damage that confidentiality does outweighs the good.

The law in Israel, as the case of former President Moshe Katsav demonstrated, allows for the identity of complainants in an alleged sexual offense to be kept secret. Publishing their names, or any information that might identify them, is a criminal offense that carries jail time. The only exceptions are situations in which the victims of the crime consent to having their names made public, or the court authorizes publication for special reasons. Most victims of sexual offenses opt for the confidentiality that the law provides. Only a minority waive it, as was the case with Linor Abargil and Dr. Orly Ines.

There are good reasons for confidentiality. In the existing social and cultural climate, anyone who complains about a sex-based offense - be it sexual harassment or rape - can expect to pay a heavy price. She can expect serious infringement of her privacy. The media, which is well-aware of the high ratings drawn by sex-related reports, will swoop down on her and those around her. She will be exposed to pestering, and possibly harassment, by those close to the accused.

But the greater damage, which occurs only in cases of complaints about sexual offenses, will be to her honor: If her name gets out, she will feel degraded and humiliated, and be ashamed to show her face in public.

This is important to emphasize: Naturally, sexual harassment or assault is harmful to honor, and its injury is very severe. But the injury to honor, which derives not from the offense itself but from the public's knowledge of what has occurred, is an additional injury. This additional injury ought to be combated until it is eliminated. It stems from an ancient and very problematic mind-set, which views someone who has been raped or hurt in a sexual context as someone who has been debased and violated, as someone who necessarily has less honor than she did before she was sexually attacked.

Even if the accused has been convicted and the complainant remains anonymous, she cannot escape the severe damage this mind-set inflicts: The confidentiality, which remains in place for the rest of her life, reminds her of the clear-cut ideology behind it: publicly naming her as a victim of a sexual offense, even if this happens years after the fact, will lead to mortification and humiliation.

A woman who was the victim of a sexual offense has experienced a serious criminal incident, which must be dealt with to the full severity of the law. But it is vital to distinguish between recognition of the injury and suffering that the sexual offense caused, and the woman's honor, which remains intact and untouched. The sexual offense does not make the victim dishonorable nor leave her violated.

Paradoxically, and even tragically, granting the right to confidentiality is precisely what bolsters the injury to the victim's honor. Confidentiality provides constant confirmation of the worldview that holds it is prohibited to reveal the name of a woman who was the victim of a sexual offense, because such exposure would diminish her honor.

It is a tough dilemma. Confidentiality encourages women to complain, and abolishing it might lead to significant hesitation to file a complaint. Nevertheless, it is possible that the damage that confidentiality does outweighs the good. It reinforces the despicable perception that a woman who has been sexually violated is left with less honor, and allows the additional injury to continue to exist.

In view of this, it is worth reconsidering the issue of confidentiality, and precisely so as to lessen the damage that is done to women who have been victims of a sexual offense. It may be that if the default option (exceptions would be allowed only in certain cases ) were publication of their names, just as the names of victims are published in cases of assault, battery, and other crimes, it would strengthen the message that the victim's honor has remained intact as before.

The writer is a professor of law at the University of Haifa.

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