Sunday, January 24, 2010

Woman recants rape claim: what to make of it?

Here's a sort of Rorschach inkblot test of your objectivity about rape.  It's from a news story out of New Haven where a 20-year-old woman reported being sexually assaulted Friday at a downtown club on a night that the bar promoted an appearance by a star from the hit MTV reality show “Jersey Shore.”  But she ended up recanting her statement.

It's all very fuzzy, and police don't know what happened and don't plan to charge the woman.  But here is what the local newspaper reported:  The management of the nightspot where the incident allegedly occurred, Alchemy, reported that the "alleged victim," a 20-year-old woman, "was ejected from the bar at 10:45 p.m. [Thursday] and attempted to reenter at about 11:15, 'at which time she was denied entry and referred over to, and interviewed by, two New Haven police officers.'"  The woman told a police officer at 12:15 a.m. that she had been raped.  Detectives worked the case all Friday before the woman told them she wasn't going to pursue it.  "A source said Friday that police were viewing the complaint with increasing skepticism as their investigation progressed."  And: "John Carta, an attorney for Alchemy, pointed to 'discrepancies' in the woman’s account.  'From what I understand, she gave several different stories about the alleged assault, that it happened inside Alchemy, outside Alchemy, by this person, by that person,' he said." 

The club apparently sponsored a party featuring an appearance by Vinny Guadagnino, a cast member of “Jersey Shore" at the time of the alleged attack.  "On Friday, police officers in a morning briefing were told that a member of the 'Jersey Shore' entourage may have been involved in the alleged attack, but police later discounted that possibility.  Assistant Chief Peter Reichard told the New Haven Independent that Guadagnino was the lone cast member at the club and wasn’t at the club long enough to have much contact with the crowd."

So, what to make of it?  Extremists on one end insist that we view rape claim recantations with skepticism, and they would lump this particular incident into the category of a "not false" rape claim because, they would note, it wasn't determined to be false.  It is important to mention that for this group, all rape claims that are not determined to be "false" are, by implication, actual rapes even if we don't know what really happened (so, if it can only be determined that 8 or 18 or 41 percent of all rapes are "false," then all the rest, by implication, must be rapes -- even though there is insufficient evidence for lots of those claims to say what happened one way or the other).

Extremists on the other end would conclude that this claim must be considered false since it didn't result in a conviction. She obviously lied, and that would be the end of it.

How would an objective person look at it?  He or she would say that we don't really know what happened -- because we don't. A recantation means only that the woman decided not to pursue the claim.  That decision might have been prompted by her refusal to pursue a false claim or by a decision not to subject herself to the judicial process.  Police generally only classify recanted claims as "false" when the alleged victim's story otherwise just doesn't add up.  Often the recantation occurs when the police reveal to the woman some gaping hole in her account (think Hofstra). While there are indications here that the story didn't add up, we don't have quite enough information to say that definitively. Therefore, it shouldn't be considered "false" and it shouldn't be considered by implication a "rape."  When we're trying to figure out the prevalence of false rape claims, we should take this one out of the mix and not include it in either the "rape" or "false claim" column.  We should invent a new column -- "insufficient information" -- a column that is sure to anger the zealots on both sides.

Persons trying to raise awareness about false rape claims don't need to rely on fuzzy claims to make our case.  Our credibility suffers when we overreach.  And persons trying to raise awareness about rape would do well to stop overreaching and stop including doubtful claims in the "rape" column.  Such dishonesty only engenders disrepute of your movement.