Two stories involving shocking multiple rape charges were in the news last week — one that shows striking if still imperfect progress in the treatment of sexual violence by the justice system, and one that highlights the pitfalls of trial by social media.
In Oklahoma, former police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty on 18 counts of sex crimes, including rape. Holtzclaw committed these vile acts while in uniform, choosing as his targets low-income African-American women — many of them with a criminal history of drug offenses or prostitution, which he undoubtedly thought would make them less likely to report the attacks and less likely to be believed if they did. And for a while, it worked: Holtzclaw preyed on women for about six months, and several of his victims have said they didn’t think anyone would believe them. “I didn’t know what to do . . . call the cops? He was a cop,” said one, a 17-year-old girl.
After 59-year-old Jannie Ligons filed a complaint against Holtzclaw and spoke to the media, others came forward as well; 13 victims were identified. Many activists worried when an all-white jury was selected for the trial (Holtzclaw, who was described as white in many news stories but is listed as Asian on official forms, is the son of an Asian mother and a white father). Concerns intensified when the jury deliberated for four days. But in the end, Holtzclaw was convicted, and the jury recommended more than 260 years of prison time. The sentencing is next month.
Meanwhile, social and news media also have been abuzz with sexual assault accusations against James Deen, an adult film star with some mainstream popularity. It all began with two tweets by a fellow porn star known by the pseudonym Stoya, Deen’s former girlfriend, accusing him of rape. In the next several days, eight more women from the adult entertainment industry came forward to accuse the actor of sexual and physical assaults. Not one has filed criminal charges or a civil lawsuit, or has indicated an intent to do so.
While Deen strongly denies the claims, the effect on his life has been drastic. He was dropped by several studios and had to step down as chairman of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. Many have applauded the reaction; on Time.com, feminist commentator Laurie Penny celebrated the shift toward believing women’s accounts of sexual abuse.
Not everyone agrees. Several women in the adult entertainment industry, such as actress Mercedes Carrera, have taken to Twitter to deplore online “vigilante justice.”
The presumption of innocence applies only to the legal system. Nonetheless, accusations that deprive someone of reputation and career should be carefully examined. While a large number of accusers normally lends credibility to such charges, there are many complicating factors in this case — including the fact that Deen and his accusers were involved in rough sex and dominance/submission porn in which the lines of acceptable behavior may often have been blurred, and acts seen as consensual at first might have been reinterpreted as forced. There is social media and video evidence contradicting at least some claims against Deen. (I examined the story in more detail at the blog site Newsish.com.)
The argument that Deen’s accusers should have gone to the police has been rejected by the women’s supporters, who say sexual assaults on sex workers are seldom taken seriously. But Holtzclaw’s victims, too, faced an uphill battle, and they won. Without law and due process, accusations are no more than words, and we will never know for sure who the real victim is.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.