April 16, 2007

The problem with widely publicized rape cases

Posted in Feminism, Media, News, Sex at 10:09 am by The Lizard Queen

Jill over at Feministe wrote a great post on Friday about the exoneration of the Duke lacrosse players who’d been indicted for rape. An excerpt:

It’s deeply troubling that so many people have no qualms about posting the picture and personal information of a woman who, thus far, has not been formally accused of a crime. Of a woman who very well may be a rape survivor. Of a woman who, at the very least, believes herself to be a rape survivor. Of a woman who has not been accused nor proven to have done anything wrong.

Rape is one of the least successfully prosecuted crimes out there. It has the lowest reporting rate of all violent crimes. Women who survive sexual assault are too often silenced, and too often keep the crime a secret because they don’t think anyone will believe them. This case has been extremely harmful to rape survivors — who wants to report a rape if you think that, should prosecutors fail to successfully prosecute anyone, your face is going to be plastered all over the Post with the word “LIAR” next to it?

I don’t challenge the right of individuals to weigh in on this case. After all, the “innocent until proven guilty” standard is a legal one, not a social one, and if we’re permitted to speculate on whether the Duke lacrosse team was involved in an assault, then we’re permitted to speculate on whether she was telling the truth. But just because we’re permitted to doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And speculation goes about 10 steps too far when it turns into publishing her picture, her name, her address and other personal information.

The whole post is well worth the read. The comments thread has exceeded 400, and I don’t really recommend reading that. (I did, with a sort of dumbfounded fascination, which occasionally morphed into annoyance and even anger.)

Fingers are pointing everywhere, with people trying to decide whose fault it is that those nice boys’ lives were ruined. (Of course, as many of my fellow feminist bloggers are quick to point out, they aren’t boys, and while it remains to be seen whether their lives have actually been ruined, it would surprise me if they actually have been.) So many people want to make it the accuser’s fault; Jill handles that idea quite well. Others blame the DA, which–while I’m not as informed as I might be about this case–seems reasonable. More than that, though, I think that if people really want to point fingers, they ought to be pointing at the mainstream media. One of the comments reasonable dissenters and trolls alike made in that comments thread is that it’s only fair that the accuser have her name and face plastered all over screens and broadsheets–after all, that’s what was done to the lacrosse players. The problem with that idea is that no one I know finds that acceptable, either. The mainstream media feasted on this story because they could sensationalize it. It was controversial, and thus newsworthy. That, in and of itself, is a problem. And they named names because they could. That, too, is a problem. And throughout much of the past year both sides–i.e. those who thought the described rape had indeed occurred, and those who thought it was entirely made up–were often so busy fighting with one another that they didn’t see that the media was egging them on.

My point, finally, is this: if you must try to place blame, think long and hard about with whom that blame truly belongs.

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