Debate over public sex incident teaches more than Grand Jury findings
By Damon Krane
October 30, 2013
In his Oct. 17 statement about the Oct. 12 public sex incident and alleged sexual assault that occurred on a busy Court Street sidewalk, Ohio University President Roderick McDavis urged “members of the university community to embrace the educational opportunity that this unfortunate incident has presented.” But few seem to have needed the president’s encouragement. A fierce debate has raged ever since images of the incident were first posted online minutes after being captured. And this debate has been nothing if not educational.
What we have seen is a kind of educational battle – a fight, not only over how we should understand the Oct. 12 incident, but over what broader lessons we should draw about sex, violence and the responsibilities of individuals and institutions.
So many of us have participated in this battle – and often participated so passionately – because its subjects could not hit closer to home. Sex is among the most basic of human desires and certainly a top concern of college students. So regardless of whether we are survivors or perpetrators of sexual assault, or know people who are, we all have a very personal stake in this debate. It is part of broader societal deliberations that will establish what is and is not permissible behavior for and toward each of us, and for and toward practically everyone we know.
So now that a Grand Jury has decided not to indict the alleged assailant in the Oct. 12 incident, what can this debate teach us?
The Grand Jury’s findings may be criticized. (Should consent given by a person who later claims to have been blacked out qualify as consent, either legally or morally?) But the findings likely will make some debaters defensive and others feel vindicated.
Most defensive will likely be those who, from the very beginning, asserted that this was a clear-cut case of sexual assault. But serious charges merit serious investigation. A mere half-century ago, African American men were routinely lynched on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations of raping white women. Fast forward to the present, and we have a president who routinely carries out modern-day lynchings via drone strikes on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations of terror plots against Americans.
The due-process rights of the accused are among the most basic principles of justice, and they are always under attack by bigots of one variety or another – people who give vastly more weight to the suspicions of some than they do to the lives and liberty of others. Obviously, those rushing to condemn the accused in this case have not been bigots armed with torches, ropes or unchecked executive power. Still, any rush to judgment should be cause for concern – and that would be true even if the Grand Jury had decided to indict the accused.
Conversely, the debaters most likely to feel vindicated by the Grand Jury findings are those who didn’t rush to condemn the accused but instead condemned his accuser. We’ve all heard their popular refrain: “The woman involved only claimed to have been assaulted because she was embarrassed by the viral video and photo posts online.” But this was no less a rush to judgment, and it is the most troubling aspect of this debate. What is so remarkable about this claim is that it was always as popular as it was unlikely – and the Grand Jury’s decision doesn’t change that, either.
Rape and other legally defined varieties of sexual assault generally are not the kind of crimes that get over-reported. On the contrary, a 1995 report by the American Medical Association ranked sexual assault as the most under-reported of all violent crimes in the U.S., and a large body of subsequent research suggests the category of offenses remains at or near the top of that list. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, more than half of the nearly 1.2 million sexual assaults that occurred in the U.S. from 2008 through 2012 went unreported to police. Last year alone 72 percent were unreported, down from 73 percent in 2011. In contrast, most research into false accusations of rape puts their prevalence at between just 2 and 8 percent of reported incidents. Therefore, the chances of anyone crying wolf about sexual assault appear to be very slim – a 2 to 8 percent exception that would prove a 92 to 98 percent rule.
YET LONG BEFORE ATHENS County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn announced the Grand Jury’s findings and reasoning, countless people had rushed to condemn the woman involved. Some argued the incident was not sexual assault because cunnilingus and digital penetration aren’t performed for a man’s benefit. Or because the woman supposedly wasn’t observed crying out for help or trying to ward off her alleged assailant. Or because both parties were likely intoxicated. But none of this warrants the crying wolf thesis. Cunnilingus and digital penetration are routinely depicted in pornography for the sexual benefit of heterosexual men. More importantly, the Ohio Revised Code defines both acts as sexual assault when they are performed without consent, and a substantially intoxicated person legally cannot give consent.
The crying wolf thesis becomes even more unlikely, however, when we look at its bundle of underlying assumptions. The first is that claiming to have been sexually assaulted is a way for a woman to avoid the embarrassment of further public scrutiny and judgment. Contained within this assumption is the notion that women who claim to have been assaulted are most often greeted with sympathy, honored as survivors of harrowing experiences, and seen as courageously striving to hold violent men accountable.
Yet in this case the allegation of sexual assault caused increases in media coverage, public scrutiny and harsh condemnation of the woman involved. What’s more, those results were totally predictable – and not just to anyone who has followed the horrendous Steubenville and Maryville rape cases, but to anyone who has ever cared enough to pay the slightest bit of attention to this issue. Psychologists and sexual assault survivors frequently refer to the experience that follows reporting a sexual assault as “the second rape.” The unfortunate cost women typically must endure as they attempt to hold their attackers accountable is a major reason why so many sexual assaults go unreported and unpunished in the first place.
But let’s think even more specifically about Ohio University. If crying wolf about sexual assault was a surefire way for a woman to escape the embarrassment of a tryst she subsequently regretted, then given the number of sloppy drunken hook-ups that occur at a university of more than 25,000 students frequently ranked as America’s number-one party school, we would expect sexual assaults to be reported on a daily or even hourly basis in Athens. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education and OU’s annual campus security reports, the total number of sexual assaults reported on or near OU’s main campus during the entire 12-year period from 2001 through 2012 is 230. Rounded to the nearest whole number, that’s an average of just 19 per year.
Granted, that number is unacceptably high considering the heinous nature of the crime and the high rate of unreported incidents. What’s more, during five of the past 12 years, more sexual assaults in residence halls were reported at OU than at any other public university in the state. During a sixth year, OU tied with Miami University for the highest number of these incidents. And during all six of those years, more residence hall assaults were reported at OU than at Ohio State University, even though OSU then had two to three times more students than OU. Nevertheless, an annual average of 19 reported incidents is infinitely lower than what we would expect if the crying wolf thesis rested on correct assumptions.
Finally, the ultimate irony of the crying wolf thesis is that its adherents refute their argument by making it. That’s because if sexual assault survivors were generally celebrated as heroes, there wouldn’t have been an enormous chorus of people so eager to condemn this alleged survivor (or any other) as a villain.
Managing to disprove one’s own thesis is quite a feat of stupidity. Combined with everything else that’s dumb about this sadly predictable rush to judgment, it teaches us two things – first, just how much of their own intelligence many people are willing to sacrifice in the defense of privilege (and in this case, we’re talking about the privilege of men in our society to most often rape with impunity) and two, that when feminists talk about “rape culture,” they’re probably on to something.
The Grand Jury has let an alleged assailant off the hook – maybe even for legitimate reasons. But many of us still have a lot to answer for.
Damon Krane is a freelance writer and community organizer who lived in Athens from 1999 to 2009, during which time he attended Ohio University, wrote for the Post, The Athens NEWS and The InterActivist magazine (which he edited from 2005-2009), and helped organize various local social justice campaigns, including efforts to combat sexual assault at OU. For more of his writing, visit www.damonkrane.com.