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DSK's Alleged Victim Should Not Be Called His "Accuser"

Posted: 08/20/11 02:22 PM ET

Can we please stop referring to Nafissatou Diallo as DSK's "accuser?" She is his alleged victim. Every time someone calls her an "accuser" they undermine her credibility and bolster his. And it's not just sexist men who are doing this. Even some feminists and victim advocates have started using the term -- although people who are committed to supporting victims and ending rape culture should be the last ones to adopt this problematic usage.

The specifics of the incident involving the wealthy Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the African immigrant hotel worker who reported that he sexually assaulted her have captured worldwide media coverage. The phrase "Strauss-Kahn's accuser" yields over five million hits on Google. But the journalistic and linguistic conventions that have been deployed in this case are hardly unique. "Accuser" has now supplanted "victim" or "alleged victim" in mainstream media coverage of rape and sexual abuse cases.

Why is this such a damaging development for victims of sexual violence? Consider:

• When media coverage sets up a binary opposition between "the accuser" and "the accused," there is no longer a victim or even an alleged victim -- a flesh and blood person who was harmed by the violent act of another. There is only an accuser facing off against the accused. The terms of debate shift away from what happened or didn't happen in the hotel room -- or wherever else rapes might take place -- and onto the credibility of the two parties. This helps fuel the mistaken impression among the public that it's a "she said, he said" matter.

But it's not. The person who reports a rape is only the first player in a chain of events and decisions ultimately made by police and prosecutors, and in relatively rare instances, juries. Ms. Diallo reported that she had been sexually assaulted. But she's not the one who brought the charges. That's what the district attorney did after weighing the available evidence that a crime was committed. By bringing charges, the DA in effect accused the suspect of committing a criminal offense. So why don't we call Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. "DSK's accuser?"

• The public is inclined to sympathize -- even empathize -- with female and male victims of rape. Unless our psyches have been hopelessly distorted by misogyny or desensitization we not only feel badly about what has happened to them; we identify with them. Victim-blaming often distorts this sympathetic identification, but the sentiment derives in part from an understanding that "the victim could just as easily have been someone I love -- or me."

Referring to the victim as the "accuser" reverses this process. She is no longer the victim of his (alleged) attack. She is the one doing something -- to him. She is accusing him. In other words, she is now the perpetrator of an accusation against him. At the same time, he is transformed from the alleged perpetrator of sexual assault to the actual victim of her accusation. The public is thus positioned to identify sympathetically with him -- to feel sorry for him -- as the true victim.

This dynamic is especially pronounced when a famous man is charged with assaulting a woman whose identity is withheld by news organizations. Although this is done to protect the privacy of the victim, the result is that the public's ability to relate to the victim is limited. We know and can relate to him; his friends often publicly vouch for his character and insist he's not capable of such heinous behavior. Meanwhile, she is his "accuser," reduced to a type: a "hotel maid" or a "college student," and thus is set up to be caricatured as a gold-digger, or a vindictive woman, someone with a clear motive to accuse an innocent man of a serious felony.

In the DSK case, Ms. Diallo made the highly unusual choice to go public with her identity and tell her story in public. She did so, she said, because she wanted justice, but felt the media coverage of the case was heavily biased against her.

• Language usage always has a political context. In the case of rape, the words people use to refer to the various parties are freighted with a variety of social meanings -- and biases -- that have shifted over time. Over the past 40 years feminists have successfully lobbied for reform of the laws, better training for police, prosecutors and judges, and a host of other legal and social practices that prioritize the needs of victims and seek to hold offenders accountable. They have pushed for the creation of victim advocates to help women (and men) navigate the medical, emotional and legal challenges they face after an incident.

At the same time they've been fighting these battles, they have striven to counteract a powerful system of deeply entrenched rape myths, including the idea that outwardly "nice" or "normal" men are incapable of rape -- or that women often lie about having been assaulted. And they have introduced new words into common usage, such as "date" or "acquaintance" rape, which correct the misperception that most rapes consist of a violent stranger lunging at his victim from behind the bushes or in a dark alley.

But they have faced resistance and organized opposition almost every step of the way. For example, the anti-feminist "men's rights" movement actively works to undo many of the gains made by advocates and activists in the movement to end sexual violence against women and children on the grounds that legal changes and new law enforcement practices around rape and sexual assault supposedly discriminate against men. Men's rights activists in the blogosphere and their allies in mainstream media have long argued that false reports of rape are common, and that women often lie for financial reasons, to get revenge against men who rejected them, or a number of other nefarious reasons.

In the rare instances when the authorities investigate a case thoroughly and then determine that a rape was falsely reported, these activists light up the internet with angry -- and typically distorted and inaccurate -- diatribes about scheming and vindictive women and the feminist ideologues (women and men) who always take the side of women and have no regard for men's needs or rights.

• The way that rape victims are described in public discourse matters, because wittingly or not, calling alleged victims of rape "accusers" undermines the credibility of women who come forward to report what was done to them. It discourages the reporting of rape, which is already a vastly under-reported crime. It also subtly but profoundly advances the disturbing premise that rape is not as big a problem as anti-rape advocates claim, and that justice for men necessitates treating with skepticism and suspicion women who claim to have been raped by them.

Fortunately there is a solution to the (mis)use of the term "accuser." It's simple: refer to the complaining witness in a rape case as "the victim." A compromise strategy is to use the term "alleged victim," although as many rape victim advocates point out, victims who report other crimes are rarely questioned about whether or not they were victimized. The debate typically turns on questions about the identity of the perpetrator, and whether the state can prove its case.

Using the term "alleged victim" treats the woman or man with respect and crucially preserves the presumption of innocence for the alleged perpetrator. Headline writers might chafe at the extra space taken up by the two-word phrase, but that's a small price to pay for helping to create a safer environment for the victims -- and survivors -- of sexual violence.