About that Duke lacrosse thing

by Jill Filipovic, Feministe

Unless you’ve spent the past 48 hours hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard the news that prosecutors have dropped charges against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper. The backlash has been stunning: The woman’s face as plastered across the cover of the New York Post yesterday along with the words THE DUKE LIAR, and The Smoking Gun has posted her personal information. I’m not linking to either.

The overwhelming response, from liberals and conservatives alike (but mostly conservatives), has been to brand the accuser a liar. I’ve already had to delete a series of “gotcha!” comments from the moderation queue. Anti-feminists in particular are overjoyed with the players’ exoneration — not because they particularly care about justice, but because they think this is a good way to stick it to the feminists who support rape survivors, sometimes to the detriment of white men. These are the same people who regularly lectured us not to jump to conclusions, and to wait until the “boys” had their day in court.

Last I checked, the woman has not recanted her story. Last I checked, she isn’t being prosecuted for filing false charges. Last I checked, there is no evidence that she lied about a rape occurring.

At this point, what’s obvious is that there was not a strong enough case against Reade W. Seligmann, David F. Evans, and Collin Finnerty to take it to trial. That doesn’t mean that they’re upstanding citizens — after all, they hired a stripper for a team party, harassed her, etc etc — but that doesn’t make them rapists. On the other hand, they may very well be rapists, and there was simply not enough evidence to make a case. I hope we can all agree that, if they are in fact innocent, then it’s terrible that they had to go through this whole ordeal. I hope we can all agree that the DA screwed up this case royally.

But this post isn’t about guessing whether or not they did it. As far as the courts go, that issue has been pretty much settled, and we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not we think they did it. I have no idea. I do think that the DA made a hasty indictment and had a shoddy case. But just because Reade W. Seligmann, David F. Evans, and Collin Finnerty may not have raped the woman in question does not mean that there was no rape, or that the woman is a liar. A guilty conviction is not the standard for determining whether or not a crime occurred, or whether or not someone who files a criminal report is telling the truth. OJ wasn’t convicted of murdering Nicole, but she’s still dead. If your car is stolen and the police never find it, it doesn’t mean that the theft never happened.

Women do not lie about rape any more than people lie about being victims of other crimes — but yet we look at rape charges with far more skepticism than we do crimes like theft or other kinds of assault. Could it be that she completely made up the assault? Yeah, it could be, but there’s about a 98% chance that she’s telling the truth.

This isn’t a choice between the three Duke lacrosse players being guilty OR her being a liar. They can be innocent, and she can still be raped. There were a lot of people in that house that night, and the three indictees are not the only possible perpetrators.

The DA dropped the ball on this one, not the woman, which is why I don’t understand the desire to post her picture and her personal information online. She was taken to the hospital an examination supported her claim of sexual assault. Several of her fingernails were left behind on the bathroom floor, along with her cell phone and her purse. She fled the house without collecting her money. She called 911. Is that definitive evidence that she was raped? No. But it lends itself to the contention that something out of the ordinary happened in that house.

From the reports I’ve read, even the law enforcement officials who don’t believe she was raped believe that she’s mentally unstable, and that she honestly thinks she was raped. The “nut or slut” defense is too often used by defense lawyers to discredit rape survivors, and these prosecutors obviously have much to gain by blaming her for their inability to make a proper case, but at the very least it’s worth noting that even the people who don’t think she was raped believe that she thought she was being honest. If that’s true, it doesn’t make her a liar; it makes her traumatized, troubled, and possibly mentally ill.

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 unsuccessfully 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 fact is that the three Duke men will go on leading lives of relative privilege. I’m not trying to downplay the trauma of being falsely accused of a crime, but these men have hordes of support. They are roundly perceived as innocent white victims of an evil black hypersexed slut. They had some of the best lawyers available. They will graduate from a top-tier university, and they will go on to have well-paying jobs.

She will forever be branded a lying whore. She will go back to her home in Durham — not her pricey dorm room, not the house her parents pay for her to live and party in — and she’ll try to move on with her life. She’ll have survived assault, and she’ll have survived being used as pawn by the media and her local legal establishment. She isn’t coming out unscathed. Further attempts to cause her harm — posting her pictures, calling her a liar — strike me as unbelievably cruel (not to mention usually hypocritical).

Even if you believe that the attacks on this individual woman are warranted, consider the effects that they will have on rape survivors. Consider what rape survivors feel every time they hear her called a liar. Consider what women will internalize about rape from this incident. Consider how that will effect them in the future — how it will effect their own reporting, or their belief that their friend, their daughter, their mother is telling the truth.

Accusations of lying about rape have far-reaching consequences. Lauren wrote an incredibly moving post about this a while back. I hope you’ll all read it, and re-consider the Duke case through that lens.

article originally published at http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2007/04/13/about-that-duke-lacrosse-thing/.

The Duke lacrosse incident

Dear Ms. Filipovic,

Mr. Finnerty and Mr. Seligmann had left the house by the time other players insulted Ms. Pittman, the other dancer. The alleged victim only had diffuse vaginal swelling, nothing to indicate rape. Therefore, your account is not wholly accurate. For the sake of transparency, I suspect that the alleged victim does believe she was raped. However, if the laws of chemistry and physics hold in Durham the same way they do for the rest of the planet, there is no possibility that Mr. Seligmann or Mr. Finnerty had sexual contact with her.

I have read the AV's autobiography, and she has certainly had a troubled life. She might have been raped as a teenager, and I feel compassion for her. However, neither Mr. Finnerty nor Mr. Seligmann deserved to have their mug shots on the cover of a national magazine for a tasteless though legal party that neither of them had any part in organizing. Indeed, both have abundant character witnesses. One can defend the AV without attacking the indicted players.


The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey