After Duke, Rape Counselors Fear the Future

For the three Duke lacrosse players, the ordeal is over. Not only did North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announce last week that he was dropping all charges against them, but he went a step further and declared them innocent of the charges that they had sexually assaulted a stripper at a team party last year. FBI statistics suggest such false accusations are not the norm. Nonetheless, advocates for sexual-assault victims fear that one effect of the Duke case may be that future accusers may find their charges greeted with greater skepticism. NEWSWEEK’s Alexandra Gekas spoke with Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network—an organization that assists sexual-assault victims and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline--about possible fallout from the Duke case. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: What was your initial reaction to the Duke charges?
BERKOWITZ: This case was very frustrating. When a high-profile case like this starts, our hope is that the accuser is telling the truth, but the Duke case really set back the work we’ve been doing to educate the public and to change the way juries react to rape victims. I think [the accuser] did a great disservice to victims.

Has there been a backlash against victims due to the Duke case?
We haven’t seen a backlash yet, but we fear what may happen following the end of the Duke case. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the media treats the next high-profile allegation because in the early stages of the Duke case the reporting was pretty supportive of the accuser. I wonder next time if that’s going to be more skeptical.

How do rape victims react to cases where a woman makes a false accusation?
The general theme I’ve heard from victims and others is really frustration that someone would do this, both because of the effect it has on the boys’ lives and the effect it has on getting juries to believe real victims. There’s also some fear that victims are going to be more reluctant to come forward in the future because they fear they are going to be met with more skepticism than before.

Is it easier today for a woman to come out and charge someone with rape than it used to be?
I think we’ve made massive strides, I think the stigma that existed 20 years ago has largely subsided, but it’s still difficult to come forward. Rape is a very traumatic event and the typical response to trauma is wanting to put it behind you. Coming forward and knowing that’s going to initiate a case that’s going to go on for a year or more is a difficult decision to make.  I think in the last few years the pendulum has really swung to the accuser’s side--there’s become a broader recognition that people are telling the truth and I think there’s a better understanding of how violent a crime this is, so there’s a degree of sympathy for the victim.

Do you think charges should be pressed against the accuser in the Duke case?
When accusers file a false rape report our general position is to support prosecution of them because of the harm it does real victims. But in this case I defer to the judgment of the attorney general, who thinks it’s better to put the case behind them.