May 2006

Anonymous accusations carry their own stigma

By David Grant Long

Cable news has been filled lately with idle speculation about whether or not members of the Duke University lacrosse team raped one of two exotic dancers who briefly performed for them at a drunken party. (Don't they mean “erotic” dancers, since there's nothing too rare about women stripping off their clothes to entertain male audiences?)

At any rate, a lot of the nearly nonstop talk is oddly if predictably divided between conservatives who lean toward believing the all-white team members’ strong assertions that absolutely nothing happened, and liberals who mostly defend the black accuser, despite her occupation and history of rather petty criminal offenses. (One of the liberals’ talking points, in hypocritical fact, has been that some of the team members have histories of misbehavior as well, including underage drinking and urinating in public — despite their insisting the woman’s past shouldn’t be used against her in the court of public opinion.)

Since District Attorney Mike Nifong, who has already filed charges against two of the team members and may have another in his sights, is up for reelection, charges of political opportunism arise. Critics say he’s just using the dancer's accusations to further his image as a tough prosecutor of rich college kids who wronged a community- college student and single mom.

Nifong, on the other hand, adamantly claims to have the goods on the two defendants, one of whom was earlier involved in an attack on a man he apparently believed was gay.

Of course, the legion of paid commentators has no more access to all the facts of the case than anyone else, which renders their arguments silly at best and vicious at worst. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, referred to the two dancers as “hoes,” a black inflection for whores, then later claimed in mock horror it was a slip of his over-exercised tongue (vicious). Sean Hannity made himself look even more ridiculous than usual by drawing many of his talking points from a Newsweek article, a publication that he has regularly pilloried as part of the lying, biased, liberal national media (silly).

Eventually most of these talking heads get around to weighing the relative harm done to the defendants if they are ultimately cleared of crime. And it is true that many who follow the case will, even if the youths are exonerated, continue to believe that something unsavory probably happened, given the circumstances – a bunch of drunk, hormonal college athletes whipped into frenzy by two nude dancers.

It sure seems like a recipe that includes all the ingredients for a sexual assault, particularly in light of the race difference and the purely lustful purpose in the dancers’ being hired by randy players in the first place.

But not to digress. Certainly, the accused athletes' reputations will suffer, no matter what the outcome — perhaps in totally undeserved ways. Which gives rise to the question: why should their accuser’s identity be protected if their identities are not?

The rationale among most news organizations, who do not identify victims, or alleged victims, of sexual assault, is that it would cause them shame and embarrassment in the community on top of their suffering, because there is a certain stigma attached to being raped or sodomized. But this is not the policy for victims of any other violent crime. They are routinely named in news stories, sometimes even being given a heroic spin as real survivors. Despite three bullets in him and a loss of blood, Smith managed to drive himself to the ER . . . .

During more than a decade of reporting on such crimes, I worked for a paper that adhered to a policy of anonymity, but it always made me wonder if we weren’t perpetuating the very attitude from which we intended to shield the victims. Implicit in treating sex assaults differently from other crimes of violence is the message that just maybe the victim does have something to be ashamed of. (And I'm a little ashamed to admit that some of that attitude still resides in me. My wife drove home this point recently by asking me, if I were threatened at gunpoint and sexually assaulted while walking through the park at night, would I care if other people knew about it? And, yeah, I have to admit I would rather they didn't.)

But there remains the question of whether those accused of sexual assaults should be widely identified before a trial or plea bargain decides their innocence or guilt. Just as there is a certain segment of the community that will always have sneaking suspicions that “she must have been asking for it,” there will be another that will surmise that “there must have been something to her accusation.”

Rape and sodomy are ugly and violent in a very special way, wresting away control of something that is perhaps our most personal and intimate possession. And to be named as the perpetrator of such behavior is enough to earn the accused permanent contempt in many people’s eyes.

Not revealing either party’s name would seem to be preferable to how the situation is handled now, but that presents its own dilemmas.

Some argue that people have the right to know if an alleged sexual predator is living next door, so that they can exercise a higher level of caution and so on, and there is certainly some merit to this. A single woman whose neighbors include a suspected double-Y-chromosoned hirsute sociopathic serial rapist definitely should be taking extra security measures.

But you could make a parallel case for revealing names of false accusers. Shouldn’t those about to get romantically or socially involved with such men or women have the right to know that they have damaged others through their lies?

Unfortunately, there is no great or even good solution to this, just as there isn’t to preventing sexual assaults and false charges in the first place. (Conservative blatherers self-righteously state that women should not go down dark alleys alone, etc., thereby placing a little of the blame on the victim, and making it seem a little more reasonable that under such circumstances they might expect to have their bodies violated, and they smugly add that virile young men shouldn’t imprudently be hiring low-lives to entice them with their smutty gyrations, since they are inviting these accusations. See, they’re potential victims, too!)

But being unwise or imprudent does not make someone more deserving of rape or sodomy, and it definitely isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue.

Or at least it wasn't until pathetic hosts such as Limbaugh and Hannity apparently ran low on other steaming cow flops to chew upon.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez.