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The power of anonymity in stories of consent

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Last month, The Daily Princetonian published an investigation regarding classics professor Joshua Katz’s alleged inappropriate conduct with three female students. Following this report, Katz acknowledged that he engaged in a relationship with a student that violated University rules, resulting in a yearlong, unpaid suspension.

The publication of this story has already led to substantial ramifications, with the classics department chair, Michael Flower, calling for an urgent review of department culture and creating additional class offerings for students enrolled in Katz’s courses to ensure they would not have to learn in an environment that might make them uncomfortable. While further work needs to be done, the impact of this investigation has been significant, thanks not only to the reporters themselves but also to the three women who came forward and bravely shared their stories.

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While reading the three women’s statements, I was struck by the power of anonymity in situations of consent and storytelling. It seems unlikely that any of the women who were involved in the Katz investigation would have shared their stories had it not been for the blanket of security provided to them in the form of anonymity. 

Similarly, this necessity for anonymity in investigative journalism regarding sexual assault and consent became clear to me this week as a story broke in my hometown of Sydney, Australia. What started as one woman sharing her experience of sexual assault with her friends, only to have them relate similar stories, soon turned into a petition urging high schools like mine to provide earlier education to high school students on consent. Accompanying this petition was a document 70 pages long, filled with personal stories of high school girls, some in my class at my school, who had experienced sexual harassment and assault in some form.

For the women who contributed to the 70-page petition, I imagine they feel the same as those who came forward in the Katz investigation. In many cases, were it not for the option to keep identities confidential, many of these stories would have never broken in the first place.

Anonymity has always been a contentious topic in journalism, and it is not often associated with the gold standard for front-page journalism. Most journalists cannot publish information from anonymous sources, and often, investigations that do publish from such sources require confirmation of the source’s identity and proof through multiple other sources. Many publications maintain that secrecy can lead to skepticism and mistrust in the truthfulness of the story.

The rise in anonymity on the internet has similarly been controversial. Some believe that the protection of secrecy enables social media users to say things about others they would never think of repeating in a face-to-face conversation, creating a toxic online culture of hatred. Another argument is that anonymity also allows individuals to perpetuate false information without consequence, spurring the rise in “fake news.”

Such reasoning does not apply to cases of anonymous storytelling and consent. Some still question the “credibility” of these allegations (an issue that also exists for women who step forward and identify themselves, as well as those who maintain a veil of secrecy). The question remains, why would these women fabricate these kinds of lies? What do they have to gain?

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The answer often is nothing, besides bringing perpetrators gone unchecked to justice or initiating much-needed systemic change. The sad reality is that women often need the protection of anonymity. As the women who bravely came forward to speak about Katz explained, they did so in light of the professional ramifications that can follow women who defy systems still deeply rooted in patriarchy. Similarly, numerous women who spoke out in the 70-page petition did so anonymously, with a significant portion of them unfortunately still belonging to the same social circles as those who had harassed or assaulted them. 

It is the necessity of anonymity that reveals how problematic our society remains and uncovers the consequences that still persist in chastising women who speak out about traumatic experiences, which are deeply upsetting and often triggering to relive.

Anonymity can act as a powerful tool in stories of consent. In being able to keep their identity a secret, collective anonymity can enable women to feel safe enough to share their experiences. This makes it more likely that even more women will speak up — creating a movement large enough to bring important issues to the forefront and initiate real change.

Claudia Frykberg is a junior from Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at frykberg@princeton.edu. 

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