Feminism has achieved real and important progress in the treatment of sexual assault victims. A couple of generations ago, a stripper at a party with athletes would have been viewed by many as fair game. That this is no longer the case surely makes us a more decent society.
Whenever I see Cathy say something nice about feminism, I know the word “but” is fast approaching. Sure enough…
But even some people who applaud this change believe that in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far. Many feminists seem to think that in sexual assault cases the presumption of innocence should not apply. Appearing on the Fox News show ”The O’Reilly Factor,” Monika Hostler of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault declared that her role was ”to support a woman or any victim that comes forward to say that they were sexually assaulted.”
To O’Reilly’s question, ”Even if they weren’t?” Hostler replied, ”I can’t say that I’ve come across one that wasn’t.”
Cathy is conflating two things that should be kept separate: an individual citizen’s own opinion, and our Court system. Yes, agents of our Court system are required to presume innocence, but unless she’s sworn in on a jury, Ms. Hostler doesn’t share that requirement. As I wrote in an earlier post:
I believe very much in “innocent until proven guilty.” If and when the police make arrests in this case, I want the accused rapists (whoever they turn out to be) to have their day in court, to be able to present a defense aided by legal council, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Then, and only then, should they be sent to prison for what I hope is a long miserable stay.
But “innocent until proven guilty” is a courtroom standard. My opinion is not the same as a courtroom… Nothing about the American system of justice requires ordinary citizens to refrain from having opinions; and it’s not inconsistent to want Courts to adhere to “beyond any reasonable doubt” while holding my personal opinions to a less stringent standard.
Cathy thinks that rape victims’ advocates should not assume that a rape happened until it’s been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. How, exactly, does Cathy imagine that would work? Victim advocates don’t have the resources or the training to conduct independent investigations. Courts can take years to reach a “guilty” verdict – assuming there’s ever a trial, which there isn’t for most rapes. Should advocates refuse to help victims (pardon me, alleged victims) until a “guilty” verdict is handed down?
Here’s what I imagine rape victim advocates would do if Cathy Young ruled the world:
ADVOCATE: (picks up phone) Hello, rape crisis hotline. How may I help you?
WOMAN: (Distraught) My… I… I think I’ve been raped. This guy I know, Edward, he held me down and forced….
ADVOCATE: (Interrupting) You mean he allegedly held you down and forced you.
ADVOCATE: I have to presume Edward’s innocent until he’s been proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Please go on.
WOMAN: Okay… He, well, I kept saying “no, please don’t.” But he ignored what I said and ripped off my skirt -
ADVOCATE: You mean Edward allegedly ignored and allegedly ripped off your skirt. I’m keeping open to the possibility that you’re lying. Now, please hold, while I get Edward’s attorney on the line so he can cross-examine you. If your story remains credible after adversarial cross, then we can begin talking about dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
WOMAN: Umn… Could I talk to someone who’ll believe me?
ADVOCATE: Before a trial takes place? What do you think this is, Nazi Germany?
Ms. Hostler was correct when she said “it’s my role as an advocate to support the woman or person who comes forward to say they were sexually assaulted.” She’s not there as a judge, or a jury member, or an officer of the court; her support will not send any accused rapist to prison. She’s there to support rape victims. Being adversarial, skeptical or cynical about the stories she hears will not help rape victims. Going on O’Reilly and saying “why yes, Bill, I think some of the so-called victims who have come to me for help are total liars” will not help rape victims.
What does help rape victims is knowing that there is one place in the world where they can go and be believed and taken seriously. That is Ms. Hostler’s role.
And suppose that there are a couple of liars who come to Ms. Hostler’s agency and say “I was raped” when they really weren’t. So what? It makes no sense for victim advocates to treat 100% of the victims they help with skepticism and doubt, impeding their ability to help actual victims, in order to catch out the occasional faker. It’s not a rape victims advocacy center’s job to divide rape allegations into those that can be proved true and those that can’t be proved – that’s what courts are for.
Even if Cathy had fairly quoted Ms. Hostler, Cathy’s argument would be wrong, for the reasons given above. But as it happens, Ms. Hostler wasn’t quoted fairly (there’s a transcript of the interview here). Here’s the important bit:
O’REILLY: You don’t believe as an American citizen that you should give anyone the presumption of innocence. Is that what you’re telling me?
HOSTLER: Oh, absolutely. But my role in sexual assault is to support a woman or any victim that comes forward to say that they were sexually assaulted.
“Oh, absolutely” can be interpreted to mean “oh, absolutely, the courts shouldn’t presume the defendant is innocent. But my role is to support the victim.” That’s how Cathy seems to interpret it.
But if that’s what Hostler meant, why start the second sentence with the word “but”? A sentence starting with “but” usually contrasts with the previous sentence in some way – that’s what the word “but” means. But there’s no contrast here, so the “but” is out of place.
I think Hostler meant “oh, absolutely,” meaning “Oh, absolutely, defendants should get the presumption of innocence in court. But my role as an advocate is to support the victim.” If so, the word “but” makes much more sense, because there’s a contrast between the two sentences.
Another statement Hostler made in the same interview clarifies her attitude:
O’REILLY: Now for the top story tonight, convicting two Duke lacrosse players in the court of public opinion. An organization called the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault apparently believes Reade Seligmann and Colin Finnerty, the two Duke students charged with rape, are guilty. [...]
HOSTLER: Bill, I wouldn’t say that I think that those particular boys are absolutely guilty. But what I do think is that woman was raped in that house on that night.
Clearly, Hostler doesn’t dismiss the possibility that the two accused rapists are innocent.
It’s ironic that Cathy is criticizing Hostler for not giving the two accused rapists any benefit of the doubt. Ms. Hostler does give them the benefit of the doubt; it’s Cathy, assuming the worse of Ms. Hostler even though the interview as a whole doesn’t justify Cathy’s assumptions, who is unreasonably refusing to give the benefit of the doubt.
Wanting to remove all doubt, I emailed Ms. Hostler. She says “of course” she believes that courts should presume defendants innocent until proven guilty. With all due respect to Cathy, there was enough textual evidence in the interview itself to raise doubts about Cathy’s interpretation, and Cathy should have made that clear in her column. Not only did Cathy’s column fail to inform her readers of the presence of doubt; Cathy’s quotations omitted the elements of the original interview which would have enabled her readers to notice the ambiguity for themselves.
Although I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose, the effect is that Cathy has unfairly smeared Ms. Hostler before a national audience. I hope Cathy uses a future column to correct her distortions and apologize to Ms. Hostler.
Let’s consider, one last time, Cathy’s accusation that “many” feminists want to do away with the presumption of innocence in rape cases. The one example she gave falls apart on examination. Without resorting to quoting undergraduates (a desperation tactic Cathy’s used in the past), I wonder if Cathy can support her accusation at all?
Comments for this post are open only to feminist and pro-feminist posters. Non-feminists may respond to the identical post at Creative Destruction.