If you follow hockey closely, it is unlikely that you managed to miss last week's news that Patrick Kane has been under investigation for sexually assaulting a woman in his Buffalo-area home. The response to the news by fans was swift. Many fiercely defended Kane, while others supported his unnamed accuser.1 Some, however, took what is perceived to be a neutral position and said that we should view Kane as "innocent until proven guilty."
I understand the impulse to not rush to judgment. Many have enjoyed watching Patrick Kane the hockey player -- idolized him, even -- and would like to believe that he is not the kind of person that would commit such a deplorable and appalling act. Others are simply concerned about the possibility that these accusations will ruin his life, and if so, he has the right to a fair trial before we all make up our collective minds.2
I've heard these points. I understand them. But I just can't bring myself to feel that same way when I hear that a public figure has been accused of sexual assault.3
In my view, "innocent until proven guilty" is not the neutral position that it is often purported to be.
Stating that Kane is "innocent until proven guilty," by extension, says that his accuser is lying until proven otherwise. While this would of course apply to accusers in any situation, such as a robbery, it is vital that we consider the context. Accusers in sexual assault cases are often accused of lying because they are seeking money, attention, fame, revenge, or anything else that people can think of in ways that accusers in other crimes are not.
Perpetuating the belief that accusers in sexual assault cases are lying is incredibly harmful; not only does this impact those who do come forward, but it is known to discourage people from coming forward at all as well. I am not okay with contributing to a climate where accusers are disbelieved and treated as liars.
I also question the belief that there will be a time where we all have the information that we need to make our informed decisions as to who is telling the truth—Kane or his accuser.
I can't help but wonder: when will this point of irrefutable proof be reached? When enough accusers have come forward that denying any wrongdoing becomes an indefensible position, as was the case with Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby? When there is video evidence? When there is a public confession of guilt?
Irrefutable proof is incredibly unlikely to be reached when the accused is rich and famous. Having the ability to retain an expensive and high-profile lawyer means that your experience with the legal system will look incredibly different than for those who cannot afford that same level of representation.
In criminal cases these people are much more able to discredit accusers, hire experts to undermine the accuser's case, and intimidate the prosecution. This makes a guilty verdict considerably less likely.
What happens while we're waiting for that evidence of clear wrongdoing that is very unlikely to ever come? People move on and forget. They assume that it was a fake report. No one apologizes to the accuser for the blame and insults that he or she had to go through. The image that athletes are good people because they're good at sports continues, as does the belief that alleged rape victims are usually hysterial liars with hidden agendas.
Other victims -- future victims, too -- are watching and listening, and taking note.
I don't know what happened between Patrick Kane and the woman he is said to have sexually assaulted. It is unlikely that you know, either.
But here's what I do know: False reports of sexual assault are incredibly rare—while gathering data on this is exceptionally difficult, estimates frequently range from 6-8% (but there is very good reason to look at these estimates as if they have an asterisk--please read this link).
Shaming and harassing those who do report sexual assault, conversely, is not at all rare. Victim-blaming and articles attacking the character of those who come forward -- whether you are Kane's accuser or an eleven year-old who was gang raped -- happen far too frequently. Sexual assault is an underreported crime, and when it is reported, very few who are accused face any legal consequences.
Whether it is the way that sexual assault is dealt with in the media, by the police, by college campuses, or amongst those who are close to those involved--we have not fostered a culture where those who experience sexual assault feel that they can come forward. So they don't.
I understand the concern that people feel about jumping to conclusions. But given the above statistics, far more people's lives have been devastated by sexual assault than have people who have been falsely accused of rape.
The fact that so many people continue to believe that accusers are lying probably speaks to the fear that some people have about being subject to false accusations about rape, while others worry about actually being raped. These are not equivalent fears.
As a private citizen who is not on the jury of the case in question, I am able to think whatever I want. Contrary to popular belief, a stance of "innocent until proven guilty" applies to the court of law, not the court of public opinion. This is, of course, a personal choice that everyone must make for themselves.
While what we say (depending on who we are and our platform) and feel about these issues may be a personal choice, the impact of our words is not limited to ourselves. How we write about these issues has a more far-reaching impact than in the case in question. It impacts the people who never tell anyone, those who choose not to report their crimes, or those who take their rapists to court.
I choose to believe accusers because I recognize the power of saying "I believe you," when it seems like no one else does.
1. There is a third option, I suppose, which is sort of like viewing Kane as "Schrodinger's rapist" where he's simultaneously guilty and not guilty until more details are known. It's a tough one to maintain I'm guessing.
2. It must be emphasized that there a substantial proportion of people who deny that those accused of sexual assault do so because of misogyny. Many will never believe victims because they will either believe that they are always lying or that they did something that makes them somehow deserving of being sexually assaulted. These continue to be pervasive beliefs. This article is not aimed at those people, as it is unlikely that I can do anything for them aside from inspire them to harass me or others online.
3. I do not want to suggest that people who hold out on judging the situation until more facts come to light automatically never care about victims or addressing rape culture. I'm sure that many do; people have their own reasons for making their choices. What I am describing is a personal choice that I have made, given what I have observed over time.