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When Does “Allegedly” Die?!

June 20, 2013

I’ve argued against this tendency to say that a rape isn’t a rape unless the survivor makes a police report and the rapist is prosecuted and convicted. But I’ll give that process one thing: it at least offers finality. Right? Right?!

When talking about a rapist, in the media and in everyday life, but always in the media, if the word “rape” is used at all, it is so often preceded or followed immediately by “allegedly.” There are reasons for “allegedly.” One is that we don’t want to be wrong. I could examine that in more detail, but I won’t. I’ll just take that as a reasonable goal. The other, especially in media, is the liability concern: that calling someone a rapist, if not true, is defamatory.

And at some point, these concerns go away. At some point, the issue is decisively resolved. Not for most rapes, but for that tiny sliver where there is an arrest, and a prosecution, and a conviction. The jury returns, gives a verdict. The judge reads the word “guilty.” Verdict, sentence, finality. It happened. It is no longer “alleged,” but proved.

Not to Whoopi Goldberg. In this clip from The View, Whoopi says that the Steubenville rapists are “alleged.”  There are a lot of problems with this clip, but I am going  to focus on just this one.  The Steubenville rapes are not “alleged.”  The allegation is contained in an indictment or prosecutor’s information.  The allegations are tested at trial, where documents and witnesses are admissible evidence.  A jury, or in the Steubenville case because the defendants were juveniles, a judge, makes findings of fact.  The judge decided.  They were convicted.  They did it.  That’s fact.*

Whoopi said “alleged.”  It’s not because she doesn’t understand.  It’s because Whoopi is a rape apologist.  I was willing to believe, after the Polanski “Rape-rape” debacle, that Whoopi felt the need to defend people with powerful friends in Hollywood, like Polanski.  She has, like Jodie Foster and others, also defended Mel Gibson, who is a racist, anti-semite, domestic abuser who threatened to have his ex gang-raped, misogynist beyond all reasonable defense; but this too could be written off as Hollywood insiderism.  But here, she’s defending a couple of convicted rapists from the Rust Belt.  Her reasons are her own; she owns this defense and it speaks to her moral character. 

But this is not just a Whoopi problem.  Barbara Walters then talks about Mike Tyson.  She doesn’t say “allegedly,” but she dances carefully around what happened.  She says “he was accused of raping a young woman named Desiree Washington.”  And she says “he went to prison.”  And she says “when they were criticizing Desiree because she went up to his room, they said ‘what was she doing in his room’ … she was being villified as a victim.  And he did go to prison.”  But she never says that he did it, and she never says that a jury decided he did it.  She seems to deliberately make room in her comments for the interpretation that she doesn’t think he did it, that the conviction was wrongful.  And she says he is now a “wonderful performer.”

He’s a rapist.  This is as proven as proven will ever get.  Mike Tyson was convicted by a jury.  He appealed, and his appeal was denied.  He served his term.  It is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, all legal challenge to the fairness of the trial has been resolved.  That’s it!  We’re not waiting for further word!  Res, as the lawyers say, Judicata!  So when does he become a rapist in the eyes of the public?

Never, of course, because people like him.  Polanski makes wonderful movies and the Steubenville boys were star football players, and people fondly remember Iron Mike from his boxing career.**

“Allegedly” isn’t an attempt at fairness, or a defense against defamation.  Here, we see that even when all the facts are in and conclusively resolved, “allegedly” never dies. 

I conclude from this that what “allegely” really means is “I’ll never believe it.”  There are those who will never accept that the person they know or admire is a rapist, simply because they don’t want to.  Because they can’t square what they know with what they wish.  Because if it’s true they feel tarnished by association, so instead they reject.  Because it’s easier to insinuate that some usually nameless, faceless women is a liar or irresponsible than to change their mind about the man.

It’s easy to be against rape in the abstract.  Everybody says they’re against rape.  It’s hard to be against the rapist when the rapist is your friend.  But if we can’t even be against the rapist when the rapist is just some guy on television that we don’t really know, then it’s going to be awfully hard to make any progress.

This isn’t about “allegedly.”  This is about accepting that the rapists are not space aliens or zombies or the “other” from somewhere else.  This is about accepting that the predators look just like everyone else.   

* Of course, it isn’t.  What happened and what a jury decides may be two different things.  The determination of the all-white jury in the Scottsboro Boys trial doesn’t make it true, and the acquittals in other cases don’t change what the defendants did.  But we’re talking about media, liability and external validation.  Should the media treat the allegations as unproven until verdict, and then treat the verdict as questionable forever?  There’s no risk management reason to do that.  The only reason to do that is to take the side of the rapist.

** Folks around the feminist blogosphere a long time may remember my rant about Tyson in comments at Feministe, writing as a boxing fan, and I won’t repeat it, but I stand by it and I probably know more about boxing than anyone who reads this blog.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2013 2:56 pm

    Whoopie baffles me with her rape apologia (well, rape apologia baffles me in general).

    I think there are some people though, myself included, who believe in the ideal that our government should treat people as being innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In that, I will often use the word allegedly until a conviction is reached. Since I have never been witness to a rape, I cannot possibly know what happened in a rape until the details are revealed in court and a verdict is released*. So I often choose to not speculate and allow the justice system to do its job (something obviously that needs to be improved in cases of rape).

    That people misuse words and use allegedly after the verdict is reached is probably evidence of a general misunderstanding of the justice system by many people. They like to throw around words they have heard on tv to make themselves look smart and at the end of the day they wind up making themselves look even dumber. And even if the intent was not rape apologia, the result is the same… ignorance that allows for treating rapists with kid gloves.

    *Some cases like Steubenville are so clearly obvious that there is really no question as to the facts of the case. In such cases it is reasonable to speculate.

  2. Andrew permalink
    June 20, 2013 3:09 pm

    “Alleged” need not be used in only the legal sense. One may say that someone is still alleged to have committed a crime even after they are convicted in a court of law. She is then stating they don’t believe the decision handed down by 12 jurors constitutes absolute truth. (I think we’ve all seen enough deceit in the courts to know that a verdict is not the decider of absolute truth. “Alleged” and “falsely convicted” often go hand in hand, even in cases that have not been overturned.) I think finding fault with Whoopi Goldberg’s syntax is silly. Though the above consideration starkly underlines her ridiculous views.

    • June 20, 2013 3:30 pm

      Your comment reads like you didn’t really read the post, since I already addressed what you said.

      • Andrew permalink
        June 20, 2013 4:34 pm

        No, I read your post. I think you confuse the decision of a jury for the absolute truth. And don’t allow for the position that no verdict stands in for absolute truth. You seem to clai those you critique have cherry picked their faith in the court system. (It’s a bit strawman feeling.) Having not served in the jury on any of the cases you mention, I wouldn’t bet my life on the absolute truth of the situation based on the legal outcome (not that I would even if I were on the jury). Not that I would go the length to say “alleged,” because I’m willing to accept the result of the legal process. But your post doesn’t seem to leave middle ground.

      • June 20, 2013 6:01 pm

        “And don’t allow for the position that no verdict stands in for absolute truth.”

        Andrew: Yes, he does. It’s right there in the footnotes. You just paraphrased him. It’s “fact” only in that a court had to determine, for legal reasons, what happened. I remember that part clearly: “* Of course, it isn’t. What happened and what a jury decides may be two different things.”

    • Vicki permalink
      June 20, 2013 5:01 pm

      If it was just about being suspicious of courts and juries, it would turn up more generally, and it wouldn’t only be in favor of the accused.

      When someone is accused of rape and not convicted, people don’t routinely refer to him as an “alleged rapist” or say “X, who was charged with rape in 2007,…” if they’re referring to him in some other context.

      If someone is convicted and serves time for robbery, non-sexual assault, embezzling, drug dealing, or any number of other crimes, we don’t get that pattern of “alleged robber” while they are in prison, or “alleged white-color criminal so-and-so was released from prison early today.” Rather, it’s “convicted Watergate burglar Chuck Colson,” noting that yes, the court said he was guilty.

    • Jessica Burde permalink
      June 20, 2013 6:22 pm

      You know what, I’d accept this argument if Vick Whatshisname the football star was said to be ‘allegedly’ abusing animals after he was convicted of dog fighting, or in reference to any other crime aside from rape. Regardless of whether or not the absolute truth is a factor in the court system (and if you believe that, I have some lovely bottom land to sell you), the fact that ‘allegedly’ is only used this way in respect to rapists means that these media figures treat rape and rapists differently than murders, animal abusers and thieves. Rapists get a benefit of the doubt that no other convicted criminal does. Why? I don’t know answer they have might, but I don’t like the possible ones that I come with.

      • Andrew permalink
        June 21, 2013 2:06 pm

        Search ‘Mumia Abu-Jamal “alleged murderer.”‘

  3. June 22, 2013 6:57 pm

    I’m sorry but I can’t disagree more. Allegedly means it has not been proven but viable accusations have been made and we should treat the person as though they are under suspicion and accused of rape.

    The fact that Whoopi or any other media personality uses it incorrectly does not change what the word means to an intelligent individual.

    If you are accused of rape, you are an alleged rapist to me or an accused rapist. That certainly does not mean I don’t believe it and I am certainly not going to treat you like I would treat someone who has not been accused.

    I’m also not going to treat you like someone who has been convicted.

    I don’t care who Whoopi uses it… that’s what the word means and if you hear me use it, I would be shocked and offended if your response to my words was “Why don’t you believe the victim???”

    Also, in response to some of the comments… I use allegedly for anyone who has not been proven of a crime or for which there is reasonable doubt. Alleged thieves, alleged murderers, alleged rapists…

    I agree Whoopi used it wrong. I do not agree that means I should not use it correctly.

  4. June 22, 2013 11:34 pm

    Great post! Very thought-provoking. I often find myself asking the same questions about the use of the word “allegedly” in new reports. I understand the need for the media to protect itself in cases where the case has yet to be decided by the courts, but it seems completely absurd to use that word once a guilty verdict has been handed down. I’ll be the first to admit that there is the possibility of false convictions, BUT that as the sentiment behind the use of “allegedly” is nonsensical. If you question the verdict, do so directly! Question the idea that it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Talk about appeals. Talk about something like the Innocence Project. Don’t use the word “allegedly”!

    And while that word may be used (albeit VERY VERY rarely) in reference to other crimes, rape reports disproportionately contain that word. That is a fact.

  5. Julian Morrison permalink
    June 24, 2013 4:46 am

    I figure sometimes they just get used to sticking “allegedly” in there all the time they refer to something that might get them sued, because it’s simpler than caring whether a jury returned a verdict, that hasn’t been overturned on appeal. But then, that’s another sort of rape-apologism, the sort that goes “meh”.

  6. Nic permalink
    June 24, 2013 9:16 pm

    I mostly agree with you, with one caveat: I do think there’s an acceptable context for using the words “alleged” and “allegedly” surrounding rape trials, but that context has to be solely in reference to the person who’s been accused of the crime, and it is only appropriate before and during the trial.

    What I don’t think is at all appropriate, is the way that media outlets conflate the legal formality of “Allegedly Person X raped Person Y…” and confuse the situation by using it interchangeably with the “alleged rape”. Because no. Whilst it is possible for police to target and arrest the wrong person, and it is absolutely right that we keep in mind the principle of innocent until proven guilty, the crime itself should not be doubted.

    The crime itself must be assumed to have happened exactly as the victim describes, unless something crops up during the collection and analysis of evidence that actively disproves it. It’s common sense – if a burglary is reported, we don’t start off by saying, “Well, are we sure the householder isn’t making it up as an insurance scam?” If a murder is committed, we don’t start talking about the “alleged murder victim.” The house has been robbed. The murdered person is dead. Rape is the only crime where investigators start by assuming the “complainant” is unreliable until they can get enough proof that they’re telling the truth.

    Having said all that (and diverged a bit from the point)…

    I think you’re absolutely right that an awful lot of people use “allegedly” as a statement of denial. A sort of “I personally can’t believe it happened even though the jury did, so I’m going to pretend the jury have less validity than me.”

  7. Phil permalink
    June 25, 2013 1:46 pm

    I actually came across someone use the term “alleged victim” once! “Alleged” was never thrown around when I was mugged walking home from a night out, or when I was pickpocketed and claimed my phone on insurance. Rape victims seem held to a higher standard and level of scrutiny than other victims, like THEY have to prove what happened before they’re taken seriously.

    “Alleged” has a place, in determining who committed the crime and in reporting (innocent before proven guilty still stands, and libel/slander is serious business for any outlet). but all too often it is used to sow doubt in the crime’s occurrence itself, which is completely indefensible.

  8. donna permalink
    June 26, 2013 4:52 am

    Well a prosecutor pointed out to me that “rape” is a legal term of art. So unless the male was convicted, I can say “he put his penis/finger inside me against my will,” but i cannot testify that he raped me, because “rape”is a legal conclusion — in the same way i can say that someone phoned me 20 times a day and showed up at my job and demanded to speak to me, etc — but i cannot legitimately say he “harassed me” because “harass” is a legal conclusion, reserved for the court system. It’s a stupid techinicality, i agree, but the judges want to know what happened, not what our own personal legal definitions of it, is.

    And i do agree that allegedly is used to dismiss the credibility of rape victims, as opposed to using that term when referring to other crimes. The whole patriarchal world wants to discredit women — nothing new there, just more reason not to go to the police/court system. And it’s not just that they dont want to believe Clinton abused women, or basketball stars did, or Sean Penn, or Alec Baldwin. The public knows quite well that they did those things – males also know that they themselves do it all the time to women in their own lives, and females know it is done to us all the time in our own lives — and none of us want to admit it, for obvious reasons.

  9. June 26, 2013 7:00 pm

    THIS. Nail on head. Truth sucks.

  10. Soxy permalink
    July 1, 2013 11:39 pm

    Of course bill clinton allegedely raped jennifer broderick.We dont talk about that much.

  11. Adam permalink
    August 9, 2013 6:41 am

    I don’t know if you have written much on bell hooks/ Maya Angelou, but what is your opinion on their discussion of compassion/ condemnation in relation to Tyson and Clarence Thomas here:

    • August 9, 2013 2:24 pm

      Well, first, they’re coming from a place of implicitly believing the survivors. Neither says that these men “allegedly” did what they did. And they are saying that they believe that holding people accountable is not inconsistent with, and indeed should be part and parcel with, reaching out to and trying to reform them. And they both come from faith traditions and talk about that in terms of religious messages. And they are welcome to that.

      Personally, I don’t operate from a place of faith, or spirituality. And while I see some merit in the approach that nobody is permanently beyond the pale … it’s simply not my view. If they feel like they want to reach out to those who have done horrible things and try to rehabilitate them, that’s their project. Me? I’m not a nice person. To err is human; to forgive is really not within my core skill set.

      • Adam permalink
        August 9, 2013 2:54 pm

        Thanks for the reply.

  12. October 15, 2013 1:51 pm

    ‘Not to Whoopi Goldberg. In this clip from The View, Whoopi says that the Steubenville rapists are “alleged.” There are a lot of problems with this clip, but I am going to focus on just this one. The Steubenville rapes are not “alleged.”’

    Whoopi Goldberg works for a major media company. She may be a comedian and actor, but I’m sure they’ve been schooled on The View about liability, just like anyone else in mass media. Whether it’s rape, murder, or whatever, until the court case goes through you need to be careful, because there’s always the slim chance that the three boys didn’t commit rape while it was going on, but it was really little awkward Ichabod Snodgrass that committed the rape while everyone was passed out, and ABC will get taken to the cleaners by the families of the accused.

    It’s one of the first things you learn in mass media, and one of the first things journo students learn in college.


  1. What happens when poor people report rape? | Free psychology

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