Prosecuting an Ideology: Reflections on the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case
Posted by ritualground on January 11, 2007
by Yolanda Carrington
On December 22nd, Durham County, N.C., District Attorney Michael B. Nifong dropped the first degree rape charges against all three Duke lacrosse players. As of this writing, the kidnapping and sexual abuse charges against Dave Evans, Colin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann are still pending. According to the corporate media—including a recent editorial in the Washington Post—the remaining charges should also be dropped. Many people—mostly white men—also want to see Nifong punished for “rushing to judgment” and maliciously pursuing this case. Meanwhile, the needs of the survivor are completely invisibilized and ignored.
In discussing the Duke rape case, there are key assumptions that people in US society take for granted, and these assumptions must be examined and challenged. Simply put, most people’s understanding of sexual violence is shaped by rape culture, the dominant ideology that frames the public narrative about rape and violence against women. The main aspects of rape culture are:
- Poor understanding of sexual violence
- Poor understanding of gender as a system of power and its dynamics
- Poor understanding of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism
- False consciousness of the law/criminal justice system
- Ignorance about the corporate media’s real purpose: to sell products, not inform readers/viewership—media frames complex phenomena for the purpose of using stories to sell products
- Public discourse on rape/white supremacy/systemic power is poor or nonexistent—relies on “information” from the corporate/consumer media for lexicon and standpoint
Rape is a crime against humanity that violates and dehumanizes a person in the most invasive way imaginable. But rape is also a tool of sociopolitical dominance, and it is a main weapon in the arsenal of white male capitalist supremacy. Rape was and still remains a key component of genocidal imperialist campaigns across the globe. Imperialists understand very well the old dictum that once you have destroyed a nation’s women, you have subjugated that nation. As an old Cheyenne proverb makes clear: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.”
For the victims, rape can leave deep and lasting scars. It can affect a person’s self-esteem, ability to trust others, and one’s sense of safety. Because of rape’s systemic nature coupled with society’s tendency toward reactionary victim-blaming, many rape survivors struggle with internalized self-hatred. This self-hatred can perpetuate a cycle where victims feel so unworthy that they fail to seek necessary support and healing. This dire situation is compounded by the mass political ignorance around sexual violence as both a public health epidemic and as a tool of white male political power.
White male power is a key component of the rape question. The concept of criminal law in the United States is based on capitalist property rights. This property concept includes interactions between individuals; in fact, all relations between people in US society are commodified. Traditionally, women under capitalist law were defined as a man’s property, and the property rights over a woman were passed from her father to her husband upon marriage. Therefore, any injury upon the body of a woman was seen not as a violation of the woman’s bodily integrity, but as a breach of the man’s property rights. Even as women have fought for and won basic citizenship rights over the past two centuries, this basic ideological concept of rape as a breach of men’s property rights still stands.
This property concept forms the very basis of white supremacy in this country. Slavery as a system held Black bodies to be the property of white men, to be used for whatever purposes those men deemed fit. Male and females slaves were purposefully used as sexual and reproductive tools by slave-owners, in order to perpetuate and maintain white male wealth. Female slaves in particular were raped to ensure their total compliance to the master’s domination and will, and the children who were fathered as a result of these rapes legally assumed the class status of the slave mother, ensuring yet another generation of productive slave laborers. In short, it was a win-win situation for the slave-master.
The right to sex at all times is seen as an inalienable right of men. Just as slave-masters bought and owned their slaves, thus purchasing their bodies, the Duke Lacrosse boys saw it as their right as men and paying customers to use the two women dancers for whatever purposes they saw fit. Their $800 payment for two strippers was all the consent they needed. Indeed, the law in North Carolina defines rape as the absence of consent to sexual intercourse, consent being a concept of contract law. In order for a judgment of guilt in a rape case, victims must prove that they did not consent at any point to sexual intercourse. A legal statute that is based on maintaining the property rights of men does not have any mechanisms to hold men accountable for rape.
From the beginning of the case in March 2006, the corporate-owned media has sensationalized every detail of this case, while making no pretense at reporting the facts or informing the public. While this may seem like a classic case of journalism gone bad, this mass exploitation is actually intentional. The corporate media is the propaganda tool of US society’s ruling class, a ruling class that has revealed a vested interest in the outcome of this investigation from the start. Many members of this privileged class were moved enough to try to vote DA Nifong out of office in the early days of the case, by running candidates against him in the primary. Why would so many prominent men care what happens in a rape case that seemingly had nothing to do with them?
Supporters of the three defendants profess an unerring faith in the criminal justice system, especially the supposed American principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” They express concern that Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann are being railroaded, that the prosecutor has nefarious motives or that he has engaged in official misconduct. First, what real motive would Nifong have in “framing” these men? Does he hold some unspoken vendetta against student athletes, rich white boys, or people affiliated with Duke University? Why would he frame three white men who are members of the very class that he as a state official serves? On the flipside, does he somehow care about the lives of sexual abuse survivors, sex workers, single mothers, or women of color? Where has he ever shown this great concern for women or other oppressed people as a class?
When we are discussing sexual violence, or any issue of systemic power in society, it is imperative that we examine and question the conventional narratives that we have all been taught throughout our lives. The narratives of privilege, entitlement, and dominance form the ideology that is rape culture, and this ruling class ideology with its ruling class narratives is internalized by even the most oppressed among us.