Monday, July 2, 2012

Battling injustice with injustice is never just

The community of the wrongly accused needs to be at the forefront in denouncing both sexual assault and injustice to the presumptively innocent committed in the name of fighting sexual assault. The latter half of that balance -- concern for the presumptively innocent -- too often is absent from the public discourse in a culture that is punch drunk on law-and-order and building more and more and more prisons. The following are a few of the more infamous examples in recent years of woefully misguided attempts to wage war on sexual assault without regard for the harm caused to the presumptively innocent.  These might be classified as little more than outliers, but we wonder how widespread are the attitudes that underlie these efforts:

For 17 years, the University of Maryland Clothesline Project allowed purported rape survivors to publicly display shirts with the full names of men they accused of rape written on them. Jennifer Pollitt-Hill, the executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said a sexual assault survivor "can feel empowered by naming the perpetrator . . . ." Many of the women who scrawled names on shirts felt the justice system -- both the courts and the university judicial board -- was too lenient on perpetrators. "Victims feel like these things silence them," Pollitt-Hill said, "and there's no justice . . . ." The public discourse on this issue focused almost exclusively on the value to rape victims of writing names on shirts. Absent was an acknowledgment of even the possibility that there might have been more than one side to the story for at least some of the alleged rape claims.  The university-sanctioned practice of branding presumptively innocent men "rapists" without the pretense of due process was only stopped when the school realized that the practice subjected it to liability.  See here.

In Columbus, Ohio, a Web site was set up to give rape victims a forum to post information about their alleged attackers. Flyers were passed out that said "Expose your rapist" and directed people to a Web site where they could list details about their attacker, including their names.  The local prosecuting attorney gave this effort his quasi-imprimatur. See here.

Germaine Greer is on record advocating something similar: "Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival she said yesterday: 'I wish there were an online rapists' register and that it was kept up to date, because we know the courts can't get it right. When I say that to people, they get so scared, and say 'Oh you can't. What about privacy?  Years ago I knew we would never get convictions in a court of law for date rape, so I suggested women kept an online dossier, so if a woman had a date with a guy and he did something to her, or frightened her, and she asked him to stop and he didn't, then instead of going to the police she should put him online. Other women could check this dossier, look up a guy and see that he has form. Then she can say no, or if she does go, goes knowing it's a high risk strategy.'" See here.

Women in a feminist art class at the University of Maryland once plastered the campus with fliers last week listing the names of virtually every male student 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.  See here.

A group at Oberlin College once posted signs identifying its first "rapist of the month" -- a male freshman -- despite the fact that the targeted youth had not been charged with any crime and was mortified by the signs because, he explained, he was not even sexually active. A female freshman told a reporter that she knew the male and didn't feel he did anything wrong, "but there's a part of me that is questioning him" because of the signs. The New York office of the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Organization for Women declined to comment on the issue. See here and here.

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.'' Some 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.'' See here.

Many years ago, some zealous victim's advocates insisted that women must have the unilateral right to define rape in whatever manner they see fit, regardless of the harm to the person accused. This attitude was manifested in Catherine Comins' quote: "To use the word ['rape'] carefully would be to be careful for the sake of the violator, and the survivors don't care a hoot about him.'"

Given the seriousness of a rape charge, and the attendant reputational, psychological, and even physical harm to persons wrongly accused of rape, the community of the wrongly accused will continue to insist that the word be used carefully.