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Do we need to have, like, a special law school seminar on “things not to say in your closing arguments, or really ever?” Because it seems like some attorneys and judges are having a hard time with this concept, and the results are thoroughly gross, not to mention socially damaging for those of us who believe that things like rape and assault are bugs, not features, in society.
The latest dispatch comes from New Zealand, where a defense attorney (full disclosure: some of my best friends are defense attorneys! I don’t think defense attorneys are all slick, sleazy, gross people!) wrapped up his closing arguments in a rape case with a definitive statement meant to settle the matter for all time, or at least the jury: if the rape victim hadn’t wanted to be raped, she should have closed her legs.
I am not engaging in hyperbole. This is what he said in the arguments he presented to the court:
All she would have had to do was to close her legs...it's as simple as that. Why didn't she do that? The reason she didn't do that was because the sex was consensual, as easy as that. (“Dominion Post”)
Keith Jeffries, the defense attorney, says his assertion doesn’t represent his personal views, and argues that court officials didn’t object to his comments. While attorneys and judges are expected to leave personal opinions at the door and focus on representing the best interests of the court, this kind of victim-blaming from members of the legal profession isn’t just a personal view, it’s an opinion with legal implications. If you effectively liken a victim’s body to an attractive nuisance, you’re making a suggestion that absolves not just one client but future defendants from guilt in rape cases on the grounds that they just couldn’t help themselves.
The case involves a 20 year old woman who encountered a bouncer, George Jason Pule, who promised that he could walk her to the club where she was meeting up with friends. Instead, he raped her, and she in turn filed a complaint against him. In a rare and miraculous alignment of the stars, the case actually went to trial, and he was convicted, even after the defense attorney’s rousing closing statements.
His comments, of course, went to the heart of social attitudes about rape and enter a long line of hideous things attorneys have said about rape victims (as for example in the infamous “denim defense” once used in Italy to argue that women in jeans couldn’t be raped because they had to help get them off). There’s a common belief that victims are somehow complicit in their rapes -- that either they were asking for it or they enabled it by not fighting, not crying out, or, apparently, not keeping their legs shut.
Insisting that victims and survivors are responsible for what happened to them, of course, absolves society of responsibility when it comes to dealing with its rape problem. If the people who experience rape should have just tried harder to avoid it, it means that other people in society don’t need to take steps on their own to make a safer, more functional world. Such personal responsibility blaming tactics are used as a covering technique for a wide range of social ills by people who don’t want to examine their complicity, or feel at a loss when it comes to addressing social inequality and thus want to avoid the subject altogether.
New Zealand has been having some difficulties with rape, sexual assault, and social attitudes of late. Intriguingly, many of these difficulties are reflected in the reporting around this case; many stories have taken care to mention the awful Roast Busters scandal and have referenced other issues, but they haven’t taken a close look at their own framing. For example, most stress the fact that the victim had been drinking on the night of her assault, and the defendant's accusations of a false report are presented without any counterpoint (such as a note on the statistics1 when it comes to the actual number of false claims).
His suggestion that this was consensual sex she later regretted reflects another common attitude about rape accusations, and to see it provided in news coverage without any comment is striking. It’s simply not neutral reporting that aims to present as much information as possible: not in a world where false attitudes about rape reporting persist, and many of those attitudes are dangerous.
While the New Zealand media are clearly aware that the country has a problem, and they’re covering the outrage over this case, their coverage also leaves something to be desired, creating a strange double bind. At the same time that the media decry victim blaming and highlight the fact that advocates are furious about this case, they’re contributing to a culture where people question the circumstances and events surrounding a rape and subsequent complaint.
Responsible media handling of sexual assault cases can involve walking a tightrope. They are news and should be reported as such, and as in any news story, the details are important, and shouldn’t be altered or selectively reported to push a specific agenda. At the same time, sexual assault is not a neutral subject, and thus, reporters need to consider the ramifications of how they present a story. Especially when a nation is struggling with high-profile rape cases, something the US is no stranger to either, journalists can become a big part of the solution in terms of how they handle their reporting, or they can be a big part of the problem.
1. How about those statistics? This is actually a subject that could take up an entire post, but here’s a thumbnail overview. Researchers estimate that between 2-8 percent of rape reports may be false or contain falsified elements, which leads to even fewer rape accusations. If those numbers seem high to you, consider the fact that many rapes go unreported, and that some people who file reports and proceed to accusations are later forced to recant by external pressures – not because they weren’t raped, but because they’re intimidated, threatened, stressed, or coerced into retracting their claims. Return