How the Media Should Treat the Sexual Assault Allegations Against Al Gore
The Washington Post tittered, “There are hundreds of jokes to be made here.” Salon rolled its eyes. The Atlantic called it "tragicomic." And across the country, left- and right-wingers alike greeted the news that Al Gore was accused of sexual assault with a collective gasp of, "Not Al Gore. He's just not that kind of guy!"
Almost a month ago, the National Enquirer broke the news that a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon has claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the iconic Nobel Prize winner in 2006. In short, she says that she was called to Gore’s hotel room to give him a massage (he’s confirmed that he was in town then and got a massage in his hotel room). She alleges that during the massage, he begged her to touch his lower abdomen and groin, and then he forced her hand under the sheet onto his pubic region, while alternately “rag[ing]” at her and begging for her to get him off. As she was packing up after the massage, he allegedly forcibly embraced and kissed her, forced her to drink alcohol, and pinned her on the bed and molested her until she managed to escape, but not without a knee injury bad enough, she claims, to require medical care for months. (You can read a detailed account of the police report at TPMMuckraker.)
Several weeks later, she reported the incident to the police. She then changed her mind about pursuing criminal charges, and her lawyer told the police the case would be pursued civilly. She had no further contact with law enforcement until 2009, when she decided to make a full statement to police, who then declined to pursue the matter citing “insufficient evidence.” About a month ago she approached the police again, asking for a copy of the report, which she provided to the Enquirer. The Portland police have now reopened the case, after discovering their previous investigation had been closed improperly.
The media outlets that bothered to report on the story have hardly reported the story. With one dubious exception, I couldn’t find a single source that did what any reporter with the most basic questions about the charges should have done: interview an expert on sexual violence who might be able to provide context and comment on the likely credibility of the story. Instead, they trotted out excuses in Gore’s defense, often going the way of The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, who, in musing about whether the mainstream media would pick up the story, treated it as a choice between defending Gore’s integrity or indulging in a base appetite for celebrity scandal, as if there wasn’t a possibility that a real 54-year-old woman had suffered a violent assault. Salon ran a story titled “3 Reasons To Doubt The Al Gore Sex Assault Story,” which not only claimed that the Portland Tribune’s decision not to cover the allegations should be good enough for us (more on that in a bit), but also reminded readers that “we have seen plenty of cases of baseless (if vivid) sexual allegations against celebrities before.” In fact, false reports of sexual assault are rare (somewhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of cases filed), and tend to be seemingly ironclad stories designed to evoke only sympathy, with no ambiguity or perceived chance for escape (such as some claim the accuser had when she was packing up her table and equipment). What's more, most male celebrities manage to spend their lifetimes being rich and notable without attracting a single accusation of sexual assault. Ever heard a sexual assault charge against Obama? Tom Cruise? Heck, for all the money and bad press Tiger Woods has earned, has anyone ever accused him of sexual assault? The truth is, there are hundreds of filthy rich, incredibly famous men, and only a small handful of them have been accused of sexual assault. If inventing a rape accusation were a great way to make money, it would be a lot more popular. There are valid reasons to dismiss a sexual assault charge out-of-hand—the woman who accused Tucker Carlson of raping her in a city he’d never visited comes to mind—but none of those reasons are present in this case. All we have are a set of behaviors (not fleeing the room at first opportunity, uncertainty about how or when to pursue legal justice) that are so common in victims of abuse as to be almost textbook.
The other reasons that have been offered for doubting the story in articles, blogs and comment threads can also be debunked. Authorities didn't take the charges seriously? Not surprising: if law enforcement took sexual assault allegations seriously, there wouldn’t be tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of rape kits languishing untested in police labs across the country. No wonder 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. She considered filing a civil case but was hesitant to pursue criminal charges? Many victims do that for legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with financial profit, and lots to do with the amount of control a victim can have over the handling of a civil case as opposed to a criminal one (you can read about those reasons in detail here). She waffled about filing a report and took years to finally do it? “Delayed reporting for rape victims is extremely common, especially where the offender is someone known to them [the vast majority of rapes],” says Colby Bruno, managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center, citing trauma-induced cognitive impairments, feelings of shame, self-doubt, anxiety, confusion and other factors as frequent culprits in causing victims to delay reporting. He wouldn't assault someone when he would surely have had no problem finding a willing partner? Men who are sexually violent don’t assault women because they’re hard up for sexual contact. They assault women because they like assaulting. Even if they’re rich and famous. It’s ugly, but it’s true.
And now the Portland Tribune, whose now-famous disinterest in the story has been used repeatedly by other outlets to justify not taking it seriously, has published a detailed account of their reasoning for passing on the scoop. The piece boils down to this: they had no physical evidence, a victim who was ambivalent about going public, acted "troubled and fearful" and was easily emotionally triggered, and wanted to remain anonymous (pretty common characteristics of trauma survivors), and they couldn’t find anyone else who’d leveled a similar accusation against Gore. The Tribune did consult experts on sexual assault in their reporting, who told the newspaper that it was common for victims to delay reporting to the police, but the Tribune apparently didn’t find that persuasive, nor were they convinced by the evidence she provided that she called a sexual assault hotline in the immediate aftermath of the alleged assault. They also discredited one of her corroborating witnesses—a friend she'd called the night of her encounter with Gore—simply because he was now homeless.
The Tribune piece asks the question, "How can you judge the credibility of a sexual assault charge when there are no witnesses and apparently no physical evidence?" It's a good question, but why not ask, "Why, in cases of sexual violence, is the victim assumed guilty of lying until proven innocent?" We assume that accusers of other crimes are credible enough to report unless there's clear evidence to the contrary: a repeated history of making false claims, for example. Or evidence that the two people in question weren't in the same place at the same time. Barring these sorts of clear contravening evidence, media outlets should consider sexual assault accusations credible enough to report.
On a certain level, I get it. Sexual assault is scary. We want to think it could never happen to us or to anyone we love—or committed by anyone we respect. We want it to be easy to stay safe. We want to avoid thinking about our own vulnerability so much that we weave a web of soothing fiction: she wanted it, what did she expect in her line of work, she's obviously just after his money. And, of course: he's a really good guy. He would never do something like that.
It's natural to want to imagine the perpetrators of sexual violence as monsters. It's a monstrous act, after all. And wouldn't we all sleep easier at night if we knew that the guys who do it were as easily identifiable as we want them to be: creepy dark hulking strangers that give us the shivers as we walk by? Or, failing that, slimy sociopaths with known reputations for mistreating women.
But sexual predators aren't monsters. They're men (about 98 percent of them are, anyhow). They can be handsome and seem kind. They can be well-liked. They can do you a favor and think nothing of it. They can kiss their wives in public and mean it. They can be brothers, boyfriends, best buddies, talented film directors, beloved athletes, trusted priests and even (prepare to clutch your pearls) lefty political heroes who seem like genuinely nice guys. What they all have in common is the sociopathic rush they get from controlling another person’s body.
What's more, our fierce attachment to the idea of the obvious monster has the exact opposite of the intended effect: it puts all of us in great danger. Every time we indulge it, we give cover to the actual sexual predators among us: we discourage victims from reporting because we've already told them we won't believe them, and, when charges do get filed, we've already encouraged the police, prosecutors, judges and juries to make like we do and find whatever reasons they can to dismiss, diminish and deny justice. All of which means that these guys—these nice-seeming guys in your community—are free to attack again and again. Which, research shows, they do.
A handful of feminist blogs, including Feministing, precede me in decrying the media's haste to impugn the credibility of the accuser. As they rightly observe, almost all other media coverage of the story has given the rest of us permission to giggle, when what we really need is a sober dose of reality: that these are credible charges against a very powerful and influential man. It's in our shared interest to take them seriously, evaluate them based on whatever information comes to light and demand answers and accountability.
I don't know if Gore did what he's been accused of doing. He may well not have. But clinging to these misconceptions gets us no closer to the truth, makes everyone less safe in the meantime and allows sexual assault to remain the public health crisis it is today.