As expected, the case against three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a team party has collapsed. Last week, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that all charges against the students were being dropped. He also took the extraordinary step of stating his belief that the young men were innocent.
When it first made headlines, the Duke rape case was widely treated as an ugly tale of racism and misogyny, of white male jocks brutally asserting their sexual dominance over a black woman. Now the story represents a very different paradigm: a rush to judgment based on politically correct dogmas about race, gender, and victimhood—not just on the part of the prosecution but also on the part of the media and the academic community. The exoneration of the accused may prove to be a turning point in social attitudes toward false accusations of rape. It may also be a major defeat for a certain kind of feminist politics.
The feminist anti-rape movement emerged in the 1970s for very good reasons. At the time, the belief that women routinely "cry rape" out of vindictiveness or morning-after regrets often caused victims to be treated as if they were the criminals.
But "rape-crisis feminism" (as the writer Katie Roiphe dubbed it) replaced one set of prejudices with another, such as the notion that women virtually never lie about rape. As the radical feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon wrote in her 1987 book, Feminism Unmodified, "Feminism is built on believing women's accounts of sexual use and abuse by men."
Making the credibility of women's accusations against men a cornerstone of your belief system is a sure prescription for bias. The Duke case amply illustrates this. As Cooper pointed out at his press conference, there were serious questions about the woman's credibility from the start. Her claims were not corroborated by any physical evidence, or by the other stripper who was with her at the party. She herself gave contradictory accounts of what happened. Yet for a long time these questions were swept aside.
The Duke case also makes it clear that the feminist dogma on rape is far from benign. It is hostile both to men and to basic principles of justice.
Consider the hateful rhetoric of Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor who is now an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law in Boston. She appears frequently as a legal analyst on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and other channels. On the air, Murphy made numerous false statements about the Duke case (documented by K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College who blogs about the Duke case at Durham-in-Wonderland) and repeatedly referred to the accused men as rapists. On one occasion, she fumed: "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."
Even when the case began to unravel, the witch-hunters remained steadfast. After the most serious charges against the young men were dismissed, the prominent feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte, who briefly served as blog coordinator for John Ewards' presidential campaign, opined that they were still "not angels" and that their defenders were "rape-loving scum"—because a different lacrosse team member had sent out an email with a nasty joke about killing strippers. Meanwhile, on the website CommonDreams.org, Gail Dines, professor of American Studies at Wheelock College in Boston, argued that the focus should be brought back to the young men's misbehavior because "they saw the hiring of two black women to strip as a legitimate form of male entertainment."
In other words, the same feminists who rightly tell us that a rape victim should not have to be an angel to deserve support apply such a different standard to men who may be falsely accused of rape.
At the press conference after the charges were dismissed, one of the accused, Reade Seligman, said that the case had opened his eyes to "a tragic world of injustice that I had never imagined" and added, "We all need to take a step back from this case and learn from it." This has been happening already. By the time the case was over, many mainstream liberals and feminists, such as University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, had publicly said that the accused men were the true victims. A presumption of guilt against affluent white males, Kristoff wrote a few months ago, is no better than a presumption of guilt against poor black males—the Scottsboro boys—in the 1930s.
The past 30 years' progress in the treatment of rape victims needs to be balanced by better safeguards against unjust prosecutions. The Duke case, which has given a face to the plight of the falsely accused, may well turn out to be the start of such a change. If feminists want to retain their credibility as advocates for victims of rape, they need to drop the habit of knee-jerk support for every accuser—and to show decency and compassion toward the victims of false accusations.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to reason.