Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cathy Young cautions about a new sexism -- where any man or boy accused of a sex crime is presumed guilty

Recently, Megan E. Jones-Williams, Rape Crisis Services Program Coordinator for The Women's Center, Inc. wrote to this blog to respond to one of our posts. Among other things, she posited the following: "In a culture that overwhelmingly believes men over women, this results in 'her' side being diminished. When a victim tells us that she did not want what happened - that she said 'no' - we believe her."

"We believe her." Jones-Williams' words resonated when I read Cathy Young's latest piece that cautions about a new sexism -- about assuming guilt of men and boys accused of rape on the basis of nothing more than an accusation. Here is an excerpt:
. . . many feminist activists and bloggers who have made Steubenville the latest emblem of America's "rape culture" have often promoted their own brand of sexism, in which any man or boy accused of a sex crime is presumed guilty. The unfortunate truth is that -- particularly in cases involving young, reckless, intoxicated people -- the facts can be very difficult to sort out. Incapacitation clearly rules out consent; but if every person who has sex when his or her judgment is alcohol-impaired is a victim, millions of men and women alike should be behind bars. To treat only men and boys as responsible while under the influence is not only unfair to them, it's patronizing toward women and girls.

The mix of sexual politics and online vigilantism can lead to a lynch-mob mentality that gravely undermines the presumption of innocence -- a cornerstone of justice that some feminist crusaders openly scorn. A few years ago, Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor and law professor at the New England School of Law, declared, "I'm really tired of people suggesting that you're somehow un-American if you don't respect the presumption of innocence, because you know what that sounds like to a victim? Presumption you're a liar."

As it happens, Murphy was talking about an accusation of rape against members of the Duke University lacrosse team that was later exposed as a hoax -- after three young men spent a year fighting false charges and being stigmatized as rapists. Today, the ubiquity of social media could make such wrongful accusations even more damaging.

Thanks to the women's movement, we have seen major gains in the treatment of rape victims. Yet even in the 1970s, pioneering feminist legal scholar Vivian Berger, now a Columbia University emerita law professor, cautioned against "sacrificing legitimate rights of the accused person on the altar of Women's Liberation." It is a warning we should heed.