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What about the lacrosse case?

the biweekly manwich

It is always interesting to notice how a name like Duke travels. Late last year, I travelled to Gore, a rural town in the South Island of New Zealand affectionately named “The Brown Trout Capital of the World.” Even in Gore, people had heard of Duke.

I went to Gore to document a gathering for men to help stop domestic violence in their communities. The weekend retreat attracted a wide range of male-identified folk. There were biker missionaries with Bible verses threaded white into leather jacket sleeves, caressing monstrous Harleys like you would a pet dog, reformed gangsters identifiable by snatches of conversation in which they talked about old haunts, loners in weathered flannel that sat on the edges of the group, fiddling with the zips on their sleeping bags and staring into the ground.

A lot of the men were ex-convicts who were working to reconcile identifying as both perpetrators and victims of domestic and sexual violence. Many of the men used the retreat as an opportunity to grieve, share, and productively come to terms with trauma. Others reacted in different ways. For Sean, a small verbose man who self-identified as a devil’s advocate, it was an opportunity to rally against the “global oppression of men.” Sean was thrilled to hear that I studied at Duke. “Ah, the Duke lacrosse case,” Sean said. “The apotheosis of political correctness. Those boys were the real victims of all of this rape hysteria.”

I was reminded of this moment when I overheard a throwaway response to gender equity efforts on campus, which also mirrored responses I had previously heard in P.A.C.T. trainings, the Women’s Center’s bystander-intervention program. In my experiences inside and outside of Duke during the past four years, I have learned of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case—in which members of the lacrosse team were accused and later exonerated of rape charges by a stripper they had hired and racially abused—as a byword for false rape narratives. 

“What about the lacrosse case?” is a question that people, typically men who presumably do not support sexual assault, ask to make a counterpoint in discussions about gender-based violence, ostensibly about due process.

For all the concerns with due process, questions like these are often implicated in a different sort of political quest; asked mostly by men and almost never by women. Statistics show that the majority of sexual violence is committed by men against women and people of other genders. To cite the lacrosse case in the context of this reality is to essentially worry yourself with the welfare of men and to make certain presumptions about the hysterical lying of women. It is to violently shift the empathic center of the conversation from survivors of sexual assault to their perpetrators.

Events like the recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia emphasize how crucial epistemological strategies of memory and history are in the resurgence of explicit white nationalism. There is no denying the intellectual contribution the Duke lacrosse case has made for far right political movements, as Sean, our devil’s advocate, or Stephen Miller, can attest. The case has become a touchstone for those who claim that political correctness has gone mad; it seems to have confirmed a fantasy for people who have long suspected that the victories of civil rights and feminist movements—which legitimated the claims of women and people of color to basic personhood—were conducted to oppress white men.

The apparent racial and gender-based suffering of white men appears to be the latest and most meaningless political cause to rally around. Men’s rights movements have been called the gateway drug to white supremacy, and it isn’t difficult to see the continuities between their approaches. Both involve identity building of privileged groups centered on an imagined oppression. Locally, nationally and globally, more and more men are becoming convinced of the victimhood of their gender, a victimhood that is largely manufactured and grounded in the myths such as false rape epidemics.

These connections feel important to me because they are part of Duke’s legacy. This is how the Duke name travels, from Durham to the Brown Trout Capital of the World, and it is also how Duke is remembered. This is not to say that people who reference the lacrosse case are white supremacists or misogynists, but rather an to take an opportunity to explore continuities in the meaning behind a question: who it centers, who it may neglect, what type of worldviews produce and thrive upon its asking. 

I know that I too have wondered about false rape accusations, and I also know that this has been an instinctual response for many of my male-identifying friends and peers who have been captured, to varying degrees, by the fear of being wrongly accused. The men’s rights movement has been largely successful in disseminating a narrative which construes the threat of false rape accusations for men as one that is as grave, likely, and urgent as the well-documented threat of sexual violence for women.

In all of this, possibly the greatest tragedy in this legacy is that Duke has become a byword for false rape allegations while hundreds of students of all genders have experienced sexual violence on this campus with no recourse. In 2015-16, 238 students made contact with support services at the Women’s Center regarding an experience of sexual misconduct. Out of all of these students, only sixteen cases pushed to proceed with a formal investigation. Only five cases resulted in severe disciplinary sanctions of suspension or expulsion. For all those men concerned with due process, it seems a shame that the discrepancies between these figures are not more of an issue.

Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi is a senior and founding member of the Duke Men’s Project.


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