(Content Note: sexual violence)
Talking about rape is something that’s strongly emphasized in feminist circles – and for a good reason.
That said, I’ve encountered many situations where people discuss rape in a harmful way.
I’m not simply talking about rape jokes or sexually violent language (although those issues need to be discussed). I’m talking about “outing” another person’s rapist without their permission.
Sometimes, people openly name other people’s rapists in an attempt to further abuse the victim or survivor. Outing someone’s rapist can be done to deliberately make the victim or survivor uncomfortable, to sex-shame them, or even to provoke a violent response from the rapist.
This said, you might want to name someone’s rapist with the best of intentions.
Sometimes, we name other people’s rapists in a misguided effort to show our support or protect others from abuse. I understand this logic. We want to hold rapists accountable when they harm our loved ones, and we want to ensure everyone avoids them so that they don’t get to hurt anyone else.
Even so, it can be incredibly harmful to out another person’s rapist without their permission. Here are a few reasons why.
1. It Can Be Dangerous
Rape is an abuse of power. In many cases, our rapists still hold power over us.
If they’re named as rapists, they might use that power to abuse us further.
This means that many of us are afraid to name our rapists. We’re scared that they might hurt us again, that our families and communities won’t believe us, that we’ll be harmed for accusing someone of a crime they actually did commit.
Speaking out about rape has real consequences. Because of how rape culture works, the person who usually faces a lot of re-traumatization is the victim or survivor, not the rapist.
I’m not simply talking about a rapist seeking revenge on someone who named them. I’m talking about entire communities ostracizing and harming someone who spoke out against rape. I’m talking about survivors and victims being targeted and harassed online.
Even when our rapists aren’t named publicly, it can be dangerous.
Naming your rapist is dangerous. It might be worth it for many of us – for those of us who feel a need to speak the truth in order to heal. But that difficult decision is ours and ours alone.
If you claim to care for us, don’t put us in additional danger by making that choice for us.
2. It Can Disrupt the Healing Process
Earlier this year, someone publicly named my rapist without my permission. While I strongly believe that holding rapists accountable is essential to fighting rape culture, I didn’t want to publicly name him. This betrayal led to a disruption of my healing process.
Due to circumstances around the rape – circumstances only I, as the victim, understood – I didn’t want this particular rapist to be outed. I knew it wouldn’t have done much to hold him accountable.
But also, I was struggling to understand my rape in the context of my relationship with my rapist. The rape was complicated, and I didn’t know how to feel about him. After the assault, I continued to sleep with him as a form of denial and self-harm – and for this reason, I felt very guilty.
Because my rape was out in the open, I felt that I had to talk about it. As someone who did a lot of anti-rape activism, I felt that talking about it was my duty.
But I wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.
Healing isn’t linear, and it differs for everyone. It’s a complicated and painful journey, so you need to heal at your own pace. When I felt forced into discussing my rape, it set me back.
Forcing people to discuss something they’re not ready to tackle – which is what often happens when you name people’s rapists – can disrupt their healing process. This isn’t just true for me. It’s true for everyone.
And if we truly want to help the victim or survivor, letting them heal at their own pace without any unwanted intervention is important.
3. It Shows Disregard for Consent
Respecting someone’s autonomy and emphasizing consent are two ways we can tackle rape culture. After all, rape is a disregard for autonomy and consent. We can’t fight rape by disregarding those same values.
Outing someone’s rapist without their permission is a huge violation of their autonomy – and possibly their trust, if they entrusted you with the identity of their assailant.
When we disregard the importance of consent and transgress someone’s personal boundaries, we actually mimic the actions of their rapist – someone who also disregarded their autonomy.
That’s not healing – for the individual, or for society.
Some people name their rapists immediately after their assault.
Some people take a while.
Some people never name their rapists.
Some people might only tell a few people; others might name them on a public platform.
Everyone deals with their rape differently according to their personal circumstances. People might not always deal with it well, but it’s not another person’s job to intervene in their healing, nor can we make decisions about other people’s personal experiences.
Sian Ferguson is a Contriburing Writer for Everyday Feminism based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network, and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma, and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Read her articles here.
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