When Kobe Bryant
goes to court on rape charges, he will not stand trial alone. Society's view
of "victims' rights" will also be under scrutiny.
A growing belief that false accusations of sexual assault have become commonplace
has prompted a demand for fairer treatment of those accused, especially from
the media. Critics of the media coverage seem particularly bitter about the
standard policy of extending anonymity to accusers but not to the accused.
They believe the double standard stigmatizes the accused, who should be presumed
innocent, and encourages false accusations.
The criticism assumes that false reports are widespread. Estimates vary wildly.
At the high end is a study
by the now-retired Purdue University sociologist Eugene J. Kanin who worked
in cooperation with the police in a small metropolitan town. Kanin examined
reports of forcible rape from 1978 to 1987 during which 109 accusations were
lodged; 45, or 41 percent, were discarded as false. Three factors commonly
motivated the false allegations: revenge, the need for an alibi, and a desire
At the low end of the estimate is the much-cited but vaguely supported "feminist"
figure of 2 percent, popularized by Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book "Against Our Will."
The extraordinarily low "feminist" figure only adds to a growing sense that
accused men are often victims. First, they are victimized by false accusations
and, then, by politically correct feminists who are seen to provide the ideological
framework that enables false reports.
(The true number probably falls somewhere in between. In the absence of a
signed confession, the adjudication of rape allegations as either "true"
or "unfounded" does involve some subjective evaluation, a problem endemic
to all studies and statistics on rape.)
As the Bryant case proceeds, calls for fair treatment of accused men and an end to double standards are likely to grow louder.
So far the most blatant double standard applied has been the media's reporting
on Bryant while protecting his accuser's identity. In this case, the protection
is nominal because some commentators thought the situation so unfair that
they outed the accuser and her name is easily found on the Internet. Nevertheless,
most news sources continue to withhold the accuser's identity as a matter
of policy and they do so in other cases where that protection is real, not
Their caution is understandable. There may be no legal compulsion to name
only the accused but there is the clear shadow of law. Judge Gannett indicated
this by issuing a "decorum order" in the Bryant case. He threatened reporters
who named the accuser with expulsion from his court and unspecified legal
sanctions -- a threat that has been labeled "unconstitutional."
Many also call it unjust: Either name both parties or neither. This is not
merely a matter of balance and accuracy in reporting; it is also to ensure
a fair trial. By naming only the accused, news reports can prejudice his
court case -- for example, by contaminating the jury pool. By not naming
an accuser, the media can benefit her case. Consider one example. When an
accused rapist is named, other victims can come forward to add their testimony;
when an accuser remains unnamed, witnesses who could discredit her account
may be unaware of the proceedings.
Two defenses are commonly offered for maintaining anonymity: to protect the
victim from embarrassment; and, to encourage other victims to come forward.
The first rationale rests on the compassionate and sound belief that a rape
victim should not be brutalized a second time. However emotionally compelling
this argument may be, it fails because it assumes precisely what is in question.
Is the accuser a victim? Is the accused guilty? Until the evidence has been
openly examined, these questions cannot be answered.
Beside which, sympathy for a possible victim does not explain why equal consideration
is not extended to the accused. After all, the accused is presumed innocent
and, so, the reporting of his name may devastate an innocent life. If the
victim's identity should be protected, so should the accused up until he
is judged "guilty."
The second rationale for anonymity is to encourage accusers to come forward.
There is nothing positive about increasing the number of accusations unless
they are accompanied by standards that maintain the accuracy of reports and
the rights of the accused. By loosening standards of accountability, false
reports are likely to increase and, so, cause the sort of backlash we are
witnessing today. People are concerned not only for victims who may be their
daughters, they also worry about their sons who could be falsely accused.
The Bryant case could be a tipping point for how our society views and treats
"victims." We may start looking at them with more skepticism and less sympathy.
This would be tragic for women who have been sexually assaulted.
Veteran PC feminist Susan Estrich has noted this risk. In an Oct. 22 column
for Creators Syndicate, she wrote: "From the perspective of the laws that
protect victims' rights, this is a train wreck waiting to happen. You have
the worst possible facts; the worst possible victim; the worst possible case
for maintaining privacy. The 'nuts and sluts' defense has found its cover
A great deal depends on how much fairness is extended to the accused. And,
here, the media could lead the way. Changes in the law take time but editorial
and news policy can shift overnight. The media should adopt a new standard
of either naming both parties or naming neither.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Her
new book is Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century.
Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.