by Michael Sweeney, Professor; Associate Director for Graduate Studies
Lately I have been troubled by headlines and leads in the Post and the Athens News about rape trials.
The heads and stories referred to the person whose complaint led to criminal charges as an “alleged victim.” I’ve seen this on local stories and on national ones.
I know what’s going on here. If there is a burglary, you can see there’s been a break-in and something is missing. If there is a killing, you have a body. If there is an assault, somebody has a fat lip. The evidence is obvious that there has been a crime, and the only big question is about the identity of the wrongdoer.
With rape, the evidence may be open to interpretation. Defendants often say that they engaged in sex, but that the act was consensual. Or physical evidence of rape may be lacking, for whatever reason. The point is, when the issue at hand is rape, it may not be as easy to say that a crime occurred, and ergo there was a victim.
So, some journalist, trying to be objective and not take sides, sticks that word “alleged” in front of another word, such as “victim,” “rape,” and “sexual assault.” The journalist thinks that such a cumbersome construction is being fair to the defendant.
Egad. Am I the only one who sees that this is wrong? Calling someone an “alleged victim” metacommunicates the element of doubt. It’s as if the writer is winking at the reader — “She says she’s a victim, but we know better.” I mean, after all, would you get bypass surgery from an alleged doctor? Trust your financial future to an alleged financial adviser? I think not.
Fortunately, there is a better way. I suggest a new phrase or two to use in criminal cases where there is doubt about whether a crime has occurred. Let’s refer to the “accuser” in a rape trial. That word is not open to debate. Or, use the longer phrase, “the person who filed the complaint,” or “the woman who called police,” or some such. That does not cast the same shadow of doubt.
Conversely, I don’t believe that journalists should automatically refer to people who raise rape accusations as victims. True, rape is such a terrible crime, with terrible psychic consequences, that people seldom lie when they have been raped. It takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude to come forward, make the complaint, talk to detectives and prosecutors, testify, and see the rapist go to jail. People just don’t put themselves through that ordeal on a whim. . . .
. . . Except for those rare occasions when they do. The FBI says that in the late 1990s, about 8 percent of rape allegations were “unfounded,” a term that embraces not only false reports, but also instances in which elements of the crime were not met. (In other words, that 8 percent includes some rapes that could not be proved to have been rapes, leaving the number of false reports even smaller.)
I can think of a famous example. Dallas Cowboys players Michael Irvin and Erik Williams were victimized by a woman who cried rape in 1996 and then admitted she had lied.
Still to be adjudicated is the case of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A woman filed a civil suit in summer 2009 that said Roethlisberger had raped her a year before in a Reno hotel. Officials in Reno declined to pursue a criminal case. After the woman sued the quarterback, he sued her back, saying she made false accusations. It’s a mess that the courts will sort out.
Meanwhile, let’s have our news pages refer to both the woman and the quarterback as “accusers,” or something else that doesn’t wink at the reader.