Outlook: Rape and Myth

Online Chat with Alice Vachss, Former Sex Crimes Prosecutor
Washingtonpost.com, November 3, 2003

Not so long ago, it seemed that most of the myths about rape had been exploded, or at least suppressed—myths like those that hold a woman isn't a "real" rape victim if she didn't fight her attacker, or if she spent time with him before the assault, or if she had sex with other men in the days surrounding the incident. But now, the Kobe Bryant case has brought all the old fallacies back to the surface, says former sex crimes prosecutor Alice Vachss in this Sunday's Outlook section: "The Charge of Rape, the Force of Myth." Long before Bryant even faces his accuser in court, a large swath of the public has decided he can't have committed rape—he's not the "type," another rape myth—and has rallied to his support, while the complainant has been identified, vilified and even threatened. Why are we so willing to buy into myths about sexual assault that have no basis in fact or experience?

Vachss was online Monday, Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her article.

Alice Vachss is former chief of the special victims bureau of the Queens, New York, district attorney's office and the author of Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators (Random House).

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on if the convention of hiding the identity of the victim contributes to the myths around rape. I was raped several years ago and because I was attacked by an intruder in my home it made the news and papers. At the time I appreciated the freedom to tell my friends and acquaintances on my terms rather than having my name in the public arena, but in the years since then I've wondered often whether this practice is actually helpful.

My understanding is that this convention is mostly to protect the victim from shame and humiliation, but we shouldn't be ashamed or humiliated so I think hiding makes it easier for society to perpetuate myths. If we act like we should be ashamed then it's easier for people to believe we did something to deserve it. The fact that rape is still an unspeakable topic in most arenas shields people from understanding how common it is. If people had a better idea of how many of their friends, colleagues, and neighbors have been affected by rape then it would be harder to think that only loose women in bad neighborhoods get raped.

Alice Vachss: I am so sorry that you had to go through that horrible experience, and I am tremendously impressed with the strength you carried through the process. What you are saying about some possible implications of protecting the identity of sex crimes victims is true. But I think it is necessary to offer them the choice of anonymity, until we can guarantee to those coming forward with reports of rapes that they will be treated with the same neutrality that we treat someone reporting burglary or armed robbery.

Taipei, Taiwan: In all your 10 years on the front lines did you ever see anyone who was falsely accused of rape? Is that even possible in your ethos?

Alice Vachss: There are no magical categories of crime where no one can falsely report. I think some of the best work that we did when I ran a Special Victims Bureau was the investigations that led to us not filing or pursuing charges. But we made those decisions based on the facts we uncovered, not on an ideology. I don't think my "ethos" was part of the equation.

Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: Isn't it more likely that the rape myths reappearing in the Kobe Bryant case are a result of America's obsession with and glorification of athletes? Had someone less popular been accused of rape, a politician, for example, I don't think you'd see the same kind of shameless behavior from people. For many people in this country, sports and the athletes that play them are the only thing distracting them from how pathetic their lives are. Take away their sports heros and you take away most of what's important in their lives.

Alice Vachss: It is disturbing how close a correlation there seems to be between Kobe Bryant's point average for a game and the degree of passion expressed about his innocence. If I were to name any one profession that has fostered rape tolerance, it would be coaches—from Little League up through pro sports. There are some great coaches and trainers—Teddy Atlas is one of my heroes—but we tend to reward only winning in our coaches, and their job performance reflects that pressure.

Rockville, Md.: Sometimes I feel prosecutors are using the justice system to represent alleged (and usually authentic) victims, rather than "the people." Some rape prosecutions are just one example. The Moussaoui and sniper trials where much of the plans seem to be more oriented towards putting on a show rather than getting at the truth. I think these guys are guilty, but I feel bad for the jurors who will have their time wasted with this malarky, the people whose lives will be disrupted by the security in that area, and the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Can we please limit our justice system to pursuit of truth and punishment of the guilty?

Alice Vachss: I think anytime any of the lawyers in a case—prosecutor or defense attorney or judge—is playing to the media, then it compromises the justice process. I'm not sure I know how to stop that. Some states that originally allowed cameras in the courtroom no longer do. But that's hardly a sufficient solution.

Gotha, Fla.: I have read your book and everything that your husband has written. My question is how can justice be served when the defense has all the advantages? They have money prior conduct is thrown into the mix through the media etc. I am a male and I understand that no is no and always will be no. I wish Wolfe was prosecuting this case.

Thank you.

Alice Vachss: If I could make just one change, it would be that we elected our District Attorneys based on job performance. For those of you who might not understand this reference, Wolfe was a sex crimes prosecutor and chief of a special victims bureau before she was fired for doing her job. If you want to know how she would handle this case, or truly gain insight into these kinds of crimes, I don't know of any better source than the words written by my husband, Andrew Vachss.

Heidelberg, Germany: Mrs. Vachss, thank You for your work.

Those people who threaten the complainant and others, their violent behavior proves that they are not about justice. They are not just engaged with a person they regard as innocent. That would be a contradiction. Maybe they don't think at all, that Bryant is innocent... I think this behavior has like a coin two sides: Some people admire power, the strength of a winner. They feel, for him everything should be allowed, he can take what he wants. Maybe they identify with him, want to be like him. The other side of the same coin is lack of empathy, despising the injured, the "weak," the readiness to blame the victim. I fear, that is a widespread and very dangerous behaviour, that occurs even in everyday's situations and has to be fight against by taking up a position for the victim!. Thomas, Heidelberg, Germany

Alice Vachss: Your words are much more beautiful than anything I could say in reply.

Arlington, Va.: So you really deep down believe this woman was raped and that she isn't doing it for some sick form of publicity she so obviously craves (according to people who actually know her)?

Alice Vachss: I think your having completely missed the point of what I said is emblematic. I also think it is very dangerous to decide your facts on what you've heard about what "people who actually know" have said. If someone claimed to be Kobe Bryant's best friend and claimed to have overheard him confessing, and you heard about it fifth hand, would you be prepared to say he's guilty?

Endwell, N.Y.: Excellent article, thank you for injecting some sorely needed reason and truth into this situation.

In your experience as a prosecutor did you ever encounter the same level of vitriol directed at either yourself or the victim that seems so prevalent in this case?

Thank you.

Alice Vachss: Thank you. On a smaller scale, I've certainly seen intense vitriol directed at victims and prosecutors. I was still shocked though by some of the shameful conduct and commentary that have gone on in this case. I don't remember ever seeing this much pure hate so openly expressed by so many people against one rape complainant.

Buffalo, N.Y.: You said Wolfe was fired for doing her job. Could you explain what that refers to?

Alice Vachss: Wolfe is, of course, a fictional character, but like all of my husband's characters, she stands for an important truth. (Here's an inside tip for Andrew Vachss' readers—she has a great role in the next Burke book, Down Here, which will be out in the spring. The book also contains the most useful investigative forms I've seen to chart and track the predatory patterns of serial rapists.) Wolfe was fired for refusing to "tank" a case. One of the difficulties of sex crimes prosecution is that, unlike most other DA's units, many of the defendants are people of money, power, and status. DA's are political creatures and their self-interest may well conflict with prosecuting such an individual no matter, for example, how many children he's raped.

Washington, D.C.: Since you have problems with the Kobe Bryant defense team is operating, what are legitimate ways someone accused of rape should defend himself?

Alice Vachss: I have seen some dignified, skilled, extreme effective defenses in sexual assault trials. What they all had in common is that they spoke to the facts at issue, instead of trying to smear the witnesses.

Chicago, Ill.: If Colorado law permits hearsay evidence at a preliminary hearing, what kind of weight does that evidence carry into the trial, if any? Does this help the prosecution or does it, more often than not, feed the prejudice against rape victims who are not "ideal?"

Alice Vachss: The judge's comments and the media frenzy about this case have made it seem sinister that hearsay was used in the preliminary hearing. It's not, it's very common. In those states that require preliminary hearings—and many do not—the hearing was designed to protect the accused from having to stand trial where the complaint does not even meet minimal standards. That's why hearsay is permitted. At trial, the normal rules of evidence apply.

Seattle, Wash.: I read your book Sex Crimes when I was still in college, and it just stunned me. I wish you would do another one. My question is, now that you have gone on to other things, do you miss being a sex crimes prosecutor?

Alice Vachss: Yes. But I do not miss having to constantly watch over my shoulder for the people within my own office who were trying to subvert my work. Thank you for what you said about Sex Crimes. I think if there was one point I was trying to make, it was that there are collaborators within prosecution and the rest of the criminal justice response who provide a support system to rapists.

Arlington, Va.: Your list of the biases held against rape victims was exhaustive. Have you seen similar types of biases directed at male rape victims?

Alice Vachss: It wasn't possible to be anything like exhaustive about the biases sex crimes victims face. In my experience, it is tremendously difficult for male victims to come forward and, and they are often greeted with the ugliest of laughter (!) It offends me, for example, that it is a standard sitcom line, whenever any male character faces arrest, to joke about them being raped in jail.

Baltimore, Md.: What changes would you make in court procedures to prevent the influence of rape myths upon judges' and juries' behavior?

Alice Vachss: One of the modern trends is to severely curtail the attorneys questioning of prospective jurors. It's true that lawyers often abuse this process so I understand the trend. But I think that's one of the very few ways within the trial to address rape myths and, so long as the attorneys are genuinely trying to uncover bias, it must be allowed. If someone who really buys into rape myths is seated on the jury, then no matter what the evidence the best the prosecution can hope for is a hung jury.

Washington, D.C.: You seem very level-headed in your comments and your article. When I hear these myths or their harbingers in the press, I turn red with rage. Do you have a sense of why the myths are still so strong? We've had so many years of great research and discussion about rape and the devastation it causes. How can someone, aside from the defense attorney, present such specious and blind arguments with a straight face?

Alice Vachss: Your question is the hardest one for me. There have been years of truly brilliant effort, and yet the Bryant case has turned over the rock and exposed these worms crawling underneath. My hope is that we can convert that into an opportunity to expose the truth.

Alice Vachss: Thank you all. There were many more questions than I could possibly answer. Your words were far more eloquent than mine. Yours are the voices that need to be heard.