Cheers can’t drown out painful truths – Public brawl over rape allegations reminds us of the price women sometimes must pay for being heard

20 06 2007

The Chicago Tribune: THE DUKE LACROSSE CASEBy Anne K. Ream

June 17, 2007

Supporters of the Duke University lacrosse team are in a celebratory mood. The team excelled in last month’s NCAA tournament. And just last week, the prosecutor who filed rape charges against three of the team’s players was himself put on trial, accused of ethics violations in pursuing a case fraught with problems.

The young men who narrowly lost to rival Johns Hopkins in the NCAA championship game are indeed gifted and resilient athletes. But praising the players as “outstanding” and “upstanding” young men, as the Duke Lacrosse Booster Club did in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, is a reminder of just how low the bar has fallen when it comes to acceptable male behavior. Legal vindication is not moral vindication, no matter how hard a PR campaign works to make it so.

We may never know everything that occurred on the night of March 13, 2006, when the Duke lacrosse players threw a team party at an off-campus house. But what we do know is troubling enough.

Photos taken at the party show two young women, hired to perform by the players, dancing at the center of a group of largely drunken and leering men. The North Carolina attorney general’s report details how one of the lacrosse players held up a broomstick during the night’s events, suggesting that the women use it as a “sex toy.” Another player sent a chilling group e-mail just hours after the party, musing about bringing in more “strippers” and cutting off their skin while ejaculating. Witnesses reported hearing racial slurs lobbed by partygoers.

To be fair, individual acts do not implicate the entire lacrosse team. Misogyny is not illegal. And none of these ugly events constitutes a criminal act. But they stand as a testimony all their own, a window into a world where “good” men engage in troubling — and sometimes troubled — behavior.

The statement that “boys will be boys” has become an all-purpose justification for male behavior that is boorish, bad and at times even brutal. The degradation of women has been normalized for so long that it seems we have ceased to see what is right before our eyes.

Yet the words and images that came from the residence of the captains of the Duke lacrosse team demand to be addressed, as does the prosecutor’s possibly criminal mishandling of the case. They speak volumes about the climate in the players’ house. So what does our silence in the face of these truths say about us?

We talk endlessly, exhaustingly, about “moral values.” But we talk little of valuing women, particularly when they are young, poor and black, as were the women hired by the Duke lacrosse players.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the news conference two months ago when North Carolina Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper dismissed all charges against the players, taking the opportunity to muse about the mental stability of the young woman at the heart of the case. Later that week, when the mother of one of the lacrosse players appeared on “Good Morning America” and insinuated that the accuser ought to lose her children, she left little doubt about who was being tried in the court of public opinion.

Every public rape case exists in two spaces: In the practical, “law and order” world, where it works its way through an imperfect system; and in the public imagination, where it exists symbolically, a Rorschach test of our values and beliefs. It is not only the specifics, but also the symbolism, of the Duke case that remain troubling. Both serve to remind those who come forward with rape charges that they may pay a steep and very public price for the chance to be heard.

Millions of rape victims, most of whom never report the crime — much less see legal justice — must have watched silently as this case unfolded, thinking about how they might have fared under such scrutiny. That the accuser gave conflicting statements to the police is not unusual. A victim’s statements, particularly in the wake of a traumatic attack, can be confused and inconsistent. Memory is resolutely imperfect over time and under the duress of repeated questioning.

Our cultural response to rape leaves its victims in the cruelest of double binds: They must choose between coming forward, which carries the risk of being blamed, and remaining silent, which carries the risk of isolation. It is a silence that damages more than the victim. It strikes a blow to our public safety as well, because unreported sexual violence allows perpetrators to violate again.

The myth of the “false report” of rape must be replaced by this truth: It is underreporting, not false reporting, that poses the greatest risk to our families and our communities. It is silence that is the enemy of change.

———-

Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and founder of The Voices and Faces Project, voicesandfaces.org, a national documentary initiative. Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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