The Presumptively Innocent Should Not be Vilified for Outing Their Rape Accusers
 
COTWA
June 19, 2013
 
 

Jose Canseco recently was charged with, then cleared of, rape. In between, the former Major League Baseball star tweeted his accuser’s name, phone number, and work address, creating a national outrage. Mary C. Long wrote: “And if sharing one’s alleged rape victim’s name, photo, and (according to Atlantic Wire) also her work address and phone number ISN’T crossing that line [of Twitter’s prohibition about sharing private information] – what is? Why have a line if you’re not enforcing it for everyone?” Barbara Holm wrote: “My least favorite piece of misogyny this week is Jose Canseco’s public outing of his rape accuser.”

We don’t know if Canseco was wrongly accused, and we presume his innocence, but tweeting a private citizen’s telephone number and work address seems inappropriate, if not illegal. A sports celebrity who provides this information to his legion of fans puts the subject of his tweet at potential personal risk. We think that Canseco went too far in providing that information.

The Canseco case aside, the wrongly accused not only have the right but the moral obligation to out their accusers’ identities. A rape accuser should not have any expectation that the man or boy she accuses will keep her name private, short of a law mandating such privacy. Most jurisdictions in the United States have no such laws, but you’ll need to check the pertinent laws of your jurisdiction before you try it.

In the United States, the courtesy of extending anonymity for rape accusers is a policy adopted by news organizations. It was instituted in the 1970s by white male newspaper editors, but the thinking behind the courtesy is a relic of Victorian era chivalry when raped women were treated as damaged goods. Ellen Goodman wrote: “Rape victims and their advocates forced editors to understand that sex crimes carried a unique stigma. A victim might be reluctant to prosecute if it meant revealing her identity.”

Four decades later, in 2013, the chivalrous courtesy of extending anonymity to rape accusers is in jarring contrast with our modern notions of women’s sexuality, and it does no favors to rape victims. In an age when “slut-walks” defiantly, and correctly, proclaim that a woman’s sexuality does not create an expectation of violence, institutionalized policies of anonymity for rape accusers both perpetuate and reinforce the notion that women should be rightfully ashamed of their sexuality, including even sex that is forced on them.

If society wants women to — as Ellen Goodman put it — “cry rape as coolly as they . . . cry thief,” then we need to stop telling them that rape is so terribly embarrassing that the only way to preserve a rape victim’s honor is for white male newspaper editors to hide the offense from the world. The practice hurts rape victims, and, more important, it is unjust to the wrongly accused.

Feminist Naomi Wolf correctly thinks it is time to end anonymity for women:

Feminists have long argued that rape must be treated like any other crime. But in no other crime are accusers kept behind a wall of anonymity. Treating rape so differently serves only to maintain its mischaracterization as a ‘different’ kind of crime, loaded with cultural baggage and projections. 

Finally, there is a profound moral issue at stake. Though children’s identities should, of course, be shielded in sex-crime allegations, women are not children. If one makes a serious criminal accusation, one must wish to be treated – and one must treat oneself – as a moral adult.
. . . .
It is wrong – and sexist – to treat female sex-crime accusers as if they were children, and it is wrong to try anyone, male or female, in the court of public opinion on the basis of anonymous accusations. Anonymity for rape accusers is long overdue for retirement.

Prof. Alan Dershowitz  put it in terms that are difficult to argue with:

People who have gone to the police and publicly invoked the criminal process and accused somebody of a serious crime such as rape must be identified. In this country there is no such thing and should not be such a thing as anonymous accusation. If your name is in court it is a logical extension that it should be printed in the media. How can you publish the name of the presumptively innocent accused but not the name of the accuser?

It is a barometer of the public discourse on rape that there is essentially no discussion about the appropriateness of continuing this outmoded practice.By the same token, almost completely absent from the public dialogue is any discussion about the indisputable harm to the wrongly accused of publicly naming them after they are charged with, but before they are convicted of, rape. If, indeed, anonymity is in any sense appropriate for rape accusers, it is more appropriate for the presumptively innocent who are accused, but not convicted, of rape. If the stigma of rape is a concern for victims, the same stigma is so severe that it often destroys men and boys falsely accused of rape. Rape victims’ advocates claim that rape is a unique offense warranting different rules, including anonymity for accusers. Yet, when it comes to men and boys falsely accused of that same offense, those advocates are quick to insist that a false rape claim is no different than a false allegation of any other crime. The dishonesty of the double standard eludes them.

Far from concern about protecting the good names of the wrongly accused, there is a disturbing tradition of supporting rape accusers who seek “justice” by publicly naming their supposed attackers without affording the supposed attackers any opportunity to defend their good names.For 17 years, the University of Maryland famously sanctioned a Clothesline Project where alleged rape survivors were permitted to publicly display shirts with the full names of men they accused of rape written on them. There was no discussion about even the possibility that any of the men named might have been innocent, much less a national outrage over it. The university stopped the practice not out of respect for the men named but only because it realized the practice subjected it to liability.

In Columbus, Ohio, a Web site was set up to give rape victims a forum to post information about their alleged attackers, due process be damned. Flyers were passed out that said: “Expose your rapist” and directed people to the site where they could out their purported attackers.

Similarly, feminist icon Germaine Greer called for an online rapists’ register “because we know the courts can’t get it right.” The fact that the accuser would be the judge, jury, and executioner of such a register was of no concern to Greer. Greer, incidentally, once did a television special in the UK about the beauty of boys (as opposed to physically mature men). A full frontal nude 18-year-old male model posed while Greer waxed poetic about boys as sex partners for grown women: “There are many ways in which a boy is an ideal fantasy partner for a woman,” she clucked. “Any woman of taste would have a boy for a lover rather than a man. He’s easier to manage. His sperm flows like tap water, which happens to be a biological fact. And quicker recovery time and all that kind of thing. More rewarding in all sorts of ways. Conversation might be a bit lacking, but then, who does it for conversation?” That someone like this is in any sense respected is disturbing on a host of levels.

A group at Oberlin College once posted signs identifying its first “rapist of the month” — a random male freshman. The young man not only had not been charged with any crime but was not even sexually active. The New York office of the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Organization for Women declined to comment on the issue.

Once at Brown University, a “rape list” scrawled on the wall of a library women’s room named some 30 “men who have sexually assaulted me or a woman I know.” Women were not happy that university janitors continually erased the names. One woman told a reporter that erasing the names reinforces the idea that “women are to blame for their rapes. . . . I think the writing on the wall was these women’s way of taking control, of taking action and saying what they needed to say.”

Women in a feminist art class at the University of Maryland once plastered the campus with fliers listing the names of numerous male students who had not committed rape under the heading, “NOTICE: THESE MEN ARE POTENTIAL RAPISTS.” The women also set up large posters containing all of the names on the grassy mall at the center of the campus. The project angered some men on campus. Several advocates of the signs, however, declared that the men’s anger was the point. “I think it’s admirable that men in this school have been saying the word ‘rape’ and are being angry at the same time,” said Jessica True, 23, a freshman from Takoma Park.

Last year, teenager Savannah Dietrich violated a court order by tweeting the names of two teenage boys who pled guilty to sexual abusing her. She was treated in some quarters as a brave crusader for rape victims; the boys were treated as deserving of this smear that has reportedly ruined the life of at least one of them. The boys had been charged as juveniles, and their pleas were premised on an expectation that their cases would be kept confidential. The Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations have taught us that many innocent young men plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have no real choice. Brian Banks is a prominent example: Brian pled guilty to a rape he didn’t commit because his lawyer convinced him he would lose if he went to trial on account of the fact he was a black teenage male. Brian, then 17, wasn’t permitted to consult with his parents and was given just ten minutes to decide. He sat down and cried, then he decided 18 months sounded “way better than 41 years to life.”  (Read the linked article about Brian — an Innocence Project lawyer has written praising it.)  Dietrich’s crusade did no favors for rape victims: now, even boys who ought to plead guilty can’t be assured of confidentiality and may be more likely to proceed to trial, where rapists sometimes prevail.

Landen Gambill has been afforded international support in her college crusade to declare that her ex-boyfriend — unanimously adjudicated not guilty of sexual misconduct in the only disciplinary hearing against him — is a rapist. (She didn’t mention his name, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out.) The boyfriend, who went to class every day in fear of people who wanted to hurt him because of the crusade against him, received virtually no support and, in fact, has been branded a “rapist” by major on-line sites that ought to know better but, of course, don’t.

We are not suggesting that there should be an exception to the First Amendment that forbids people from talking about their rapists. But in the public discourse about these issues, there is great concern about outing rape accusers and virtually no concern whatsoever about the indisputably horrid effects of publicly naming someone a rapist for a crime he didn’t commit. For rape claims, the accusation becomes its own conviction in the court of public opinion because, given the “he said-she said” nature of the claim, it is often impossible to undo even the most far-fetched claim. Legion are the cases where the wrongly accused have suffered unspeakable atrocities due to the vile stigma of the claim — we’ve covered them in our blogs. False rape claims have caused innocent men and boys to be killed and to kill themselves; to be beaten, chased, spat upon, and looked upon with suspicion long after they are cleared of wrongdoing. They lose not only their good names but, often, their jobs, their businesses, their spouses, and the affection of their families and their friends. It is often impossible for the falsely accused to ever obtain gainful employment once the lie hits the news: for the remainder of his life, a falsely accused man or boy will have prospective employers Googling his name and discovering the horrid accusation. Talk about “damaged goods.”

There seems to be an implicit belief among rape victims’ advocates and women’s groups that granting anonymity to men and boys accused of rape would be a victory for rapists because it would spare them the punishment of public disgrace unless they are convicted. A UK newspaper reader summed up the feeling when she wrote: “Yes sometimes women lie but an overwhelming number of rape cases result in no sentence so there are men getting away with rape and the least they deserve is for their names to be dragged through the mud.” The chilling implication is that the “few” innocents who might also be dragged through the mud are acceptable collateral damage in the war on rape.

COTWA advocates ending the antiquated courtesy of keeping rape victims’ identities confidential — a courtesy that treats women as children and rape as something to be ashamed of. Short of that, there should be a national dialogue about granting anonymity for men accused, but not convicted, of rape. We had our say on that issue here.