The Kobe Bryant (search) case is fueling a rather vicious debate over rape shield laws (search) and mainstream media policies that conceal the identities of rape victims.

The main argument being made by opponents: If his name can be dragged through the mud before his guilt or innocent has been proven, why shouldn’t his accuser's be?

One of the more curious arguments being made on behalf of outing the victim is that concealing her identity is preventing Kobe from defending himself. In the interests of fairness and justice, the talking heads have argued, "we" should be able to evaluate her credibility and subject her to the same scrutiny as Kobe.

But exactly how does "our" right to know promote fair justice for Kobe? Kobe Bryant and his lawyers (as well as everyone else legitimately involved in the case) know the identity of his accuser, who he will face openly in court. The information being kept from the public is not being kept from the defense team, who can and will investigate her, interview her friends, question her credibility, mental state, drug history and whatever else.    

Opponents of rape shield laws also argue that victims of other crimes are publicly identified, and that all crime victims make a choice to endure the always painful and difficult experience of the legal process when reporting the crime. Advocates argue that other crimes don’t carry the stigma of rape, and that identifying these victims would stop many women from reporting rapes (search) and sexual assaults.

Rape is different from other crimes. Though society as a whole has made tremendous progress in understanding the crime of rape, the pathology of rapists and the unique trauma of rape victims, many people still cling to ignorant notions about rape, and many victims are still forced to suffer enormous shame and blame. Rape is still the only crime where the victim is often considered to bear some responsibility in the crime committed against her.

When a convenience store is the target of a stick-up, the robber doesn’t get a pass because the store is open in the middle of the night, located in a bad neighborhood, is known to have a certain amount of cash on hand, or is tempting thieves by having its goods displayed in the window.

When a home is burglarized, the owner’s history of leaving his doors unlocked, or failure to have an alarm, or choice to live in an expensive neighborhood that flaunts the wealth inside, does not figure into the defense.

When a tourist is mugged, the defense doesn’t usually argue that the victim asked for it by visiting a city he was unfamiliar with, or carrying her pocketbook in plain sight, or getting off the subway at the wrong stop.

The above scenarios seem absurd, and if ever attempted, would invite outrage. In fact, last summer, when the defense team for kidnapper and pedophile David Westerfield (search) — who sexually abused and murdered young Danielle Van Damm (search) after snatching her out of her bedroom in her San Diego home — tried to blame her parents’ sexually open lifestyle for the crime, the backlash was swift and severe.

Rape victims, particularly those accusing someone of date or acquaintance rape, face a very different situation. Just look at what has happened to Bryant’s accuser since her name was publicized on the Internet, some radio shows and tabloid newspapers. The “outers” couldn’t even get her identity right, instead posting the picture of an innocent young woman with no involvement in the case.

Both this woman, and the actual accuser, have been vulgarly reviled in chat rooms and web sites all over the Internet. The address and the phone number of the real accuser has been made public, subjecting her to harassment, even death threats, forcing her to flee her home and imprisoning her indoors. This does not happen to people whose names are in the paper because their houses have been robbed or their cars stolen.

Even in a town as small as Eagleton, Colo., (search) — just 3,500 residents — where everyone supposedly already knew who the victim was anyway—they got it wrong.  The Kobe Bryant case is actually making the case for rape shield laws—exhibiting in full ugly reality what happens when the identity of a rape victim is not protected.

This case has raised this particular issue because we want Kobe Bryant to be innocent. We need him to be innocent. I know I do. I was at a press conference several years ago when a then-17-year-old Kobe signed an early endorsement deal with Adidas (search) (he’s now with Nike) and was answering questions about whether he would be taking teen singing star Brandi (search) to the prom.

There was much discussion about how Kobe, years from his 21st birthday and unable to participate in his teammates’ on-the-road nightlife, would be spending many lonely hours alone in his hotel room during the basketball season. How would he handle the isolation, let alone the money, the fans, the pressure, the lifestyle? It was going to take incredible resources of maturity and discipline, his handlers admitted, but Kobe was an incredible young man.

I’ve been rooting for Kobe ever since, and every time I read an article criticizing him for being a loner or keeping to himself or being “too into his wife” (whatever that means), I’m reminded of that press conference when he was publicly advised to do exactly that.

So, I’ve been relieved by the reports that his accuser is mentally unstable and may be simply suffering from buyer’s remorse, so to speak. I was shocked and disappointed when Kobe admitted that any sex at all had taken place, and I’ve been clinging to every morsel of information casting doubt on his accuser’s story. But I don’t think I should know who she is. 

If he’s found guilty, Kobe Bryant will hardly be the first American hero with a sterling reputation to be revealed to not be the great guy we thought he was, but because we love him and can’t bear the disillusionment of his downfall are not reasons enough to reverse the hard-won progress our legal system and culture has made in recognizing the rights of rape victims (search). 

Being accused of rape attaches a horrible stigma to the accused as well as the accuser, and there’s no question that women have made such claims falsely. As a celebrity in the media glare, Kobe Bryant, innocent or guilty, will never be able to completely erase the stain of these charges. But outing female accusers — and subjecting them to the vilification this victim is being subjected to — does not protect men, whether they are wrongfully or rightfully accused. It just drags both names through the proverbial mud.

Maybe we’re looking at the issue entirely backwards. Here’s a radical thought: Maybe in “he said, she said” cases of date rape, we need to protect the identity of the accused as well as the accuser until the case has been resolved.