Accused, accuser deserve respect

During the semester, a debate has been taking place in The Spectator and in the UW-Eau Claire community as a whole. This debate was sparked by a rape trial of a local businessman, which ended in acquittal.

The acquittal was consistent with the evidence presented in court and with current Wisconsin law. The investigation and trial were also initiated and conducted in accordance with initial evidence and state law.

This editorial is not about the trial, a trial I suspect few people reading this attended or followed closely.

A far more important issue than the innocence or guilt of one person is in play here. There has been talk amongst members of the student community that people who file charges of sexual assault receive “positive attention,” and such attention serves as an incentive to make false accusations.

Further rhetoric has been tossed around, in The Spectator and elsewhere, that people who make false accusations substantially hurt the interests of real victims.

I couldn’t disagree more as to where the real damage to victims is being done. Accused criminals should be treated with respect. Their guilt or innocence, and their mindset, motivations and culpability should not be decided by the press and its audience. People in the student community seem to be forgetting – as of late – that alleged victims ought to be treated with the same respect.

It is also inaccurate to claim that sexual assault victims receive attention that could be viewed as positive by most. They get to see their family members and close friends torn apart by grief. Those who go public with it are seen as emotionally damaged by society and may even be seen as sexually damaged by potential dates and partners. Victims are usually placed in psychotherapy where they are compelled to relate intimate and painful details of their sex lives to therapists who are often virtual strangers. Sexual assault victims who bring their complaints to court must relate similar deeply private and painful information to law enforcement officers, attorneys and jurors who are also usually strangers. Moreover, they must do so in a trial that is open to the public.

All of this represents a daunting and frightening task in the face of attention that few of us would seek out; attention that most of us would be hard pressed to see as desirable.

I think we all need to ask ourselves what impact our words and rhetoric have not just on the accused, but also on victims. Sexual assault, ranging from unwanted groping to unwanted penetration, is not uncommon in the campus community or in society as a whole. We ought to ask ourselves how many silent victims there are on campus hearing the whispers about the character of the alleged victim in this recent case. They may be wrestling with irrational shame – fears that they are somehow to blame for what happened to them, that they are overreacting, that perhaps people would be right to say they just want attention. We then ought to ask ourselves what impact our gossip and ill-informed speculation and anger has on potential victims and its ability to find the courage to seek justice. We ought to ask what impact this has on offenders who rely on the silence of their victims to dodge punishment and correction.

For that matter, what if the woman who filed the charges in the recent case, a woman who we know little about one way or the other, is still on campus hearing people talk and reading people’s disparaging letters to the editor? It is possible that her accusations were deliberately falsified. What damage, however, do such attitudes and speech do if she genuinely does feel violated? Is that risk worth it because there’s also a chance she did something wrong? Is the risk to victims in general worth it because there’s a chance one victim might have lied?

I would contend that it is not worth it. I would contend that we, as students, should strive to conduct ourselves in a far more just, equitable and well fashion than we sometimes do.