Buzzfeed on Dr. Kim Fromme: Blackout, Rape, & Common Sense

Katie Baker’s Buzzfeed article from August 7th showcased Dr. Kim Fromme, a clinical psychologist at UT Austin. Fromme has become a sought-after defense expert on alcohol consumption and its relationship to consent in sexual assault cases. This also makes her a flashpoint in an ongoing culture war. Sometimes, this is inevitable, and even desirable. Things like DNA analysis and cross-racial identification studies have made crucial differences in criminal cases, and usually they were initiated by outsiders unafraid to challenge norms for the sake of justice.

But Fromme’s views- at least on the physical phenomenon of “blackout”- aren’t controversial to begin with. More importantly, though, the relevance of her expertise to the reality of sexual assault and how it should be responded to is grossly over-stated.

Fromme’s willingness to testify about blackouts is not an emerging, maverick stance. Blackouts are commonly understood, particularly by toxicologists, the hard-science experts who actually study the physiological effects of toxins on the body. They’re also understood by well-informed prosecutors who handle alcohol-facilitated sexual assault cases. Yes, blackouts can interrupt memory formation, and they occur most often with rapid consumption of alcohol over a short period of time. Yes, women seem more susceptible than men, in general. Yes, a person in a blackout state might appear lucid and make decisions that appear to be informed, but not remember those decisions later. This is established science, period.

Without a doubt, this science does sometimes create a problem for a prosecutor seeking to prove that a predatory person sexually touched or penetrated a victim too intoxicated to give meaningful consent. There are situations where a person consents to sex and then doesn’t remember doing so. So it follows that, albeit very rarely, the person may believe she or he was sexually assaulted, and report the contact as rape. There isn’t a “silver bullet” answer to a claim that the alleged victim consented during a blackout and honestly doesn’t remember it. And frankly, there shouldn’t be. If the defense can establish that a blackout caused unremembered consent, then so be it. Whether the defense should or will succeed is a complicated trial question; there are aspects of the actual, physical phenomenon of blackout that can be understood and argued. The claim of “she [or he] just doesn’t remember consenting” can often be refuted depending on the circumstances and evidence.

But what’s far more important is the hard reality that the vast majority of women and men who regain consciousness after any sexual encounter do not assume, let alone assert, they were raped to begin with.

This is the most troubling aspect of Fromme’s mini-celebrity in the context of sexual assault. Fromme herself is problematic in that she appears to be yet another “expert” who (at least in part) blames alcohol consumption and “risky behavior” for rape instead of rapists themselves. She shouldn’t be demonized (at all), and certainly not for believing that binge drinking can increase the risk of sexual assault. Without a doubt, predators use alcohol to destabilize and disempower victims. Alcohol as a weapon needs to be reckoned with. Still, controlling alcohol use is not the answer to addressing predatory behavior, which is behind sexual assault.

But even worse is assuming that any use of alcohol by anyone in a sexual situation either 1) negates consent altogether or 2) gives rise to claims of rape in any more than a tiny percentage of cases. Drunk people have and will continue to have sex, largely because alcohol lowers inhibitions and allows them to act on impulse and desire. This might be unhealthy or immoral depending one’s point of view, but it’s not criminal.

But again- almost no one is claiming it is.

In fact, the opposite continues to be true: The great majority of women and men who are clearly sexually assaulted- in any context- blame themselves and tell no one, least of all law enforcement. This is especially true where drinking is concerned, since voluntary alcohol consumption fuels guilt and self-blame on the part of the victim (as an aside, this is exactly what Fromme’s “risky behavior” focus drives home). So the idea that blackouts are creating a flood of mistaken victims, willing to cry rape at the slightest fuzzy memory, thereby regularly threatening the freedom of the wrongly accused, is utter nonsense.

Blackouts are a fact, and a rare but occasional issue in sexual assault cases. Mistaken cries of rape- however imagined by men’s rights groups or media sources- are rarer still.

To Al Lord: Listen to the PennState Community. Sit down. Shut Up.

Be it blessing or curse, our hyper-connected world allows formerly obscure persons to make sudden and universally recognized asses of themselves. Enter Albert Lord, a member of the Board of Trustees for Penn State University. His comments about Jerry Sandusky’s victims, rightly called out by the website Onward State, were despicable, as was Lord’s pathetic attempt to clarify them when given a chance to recant. Driving Lord’s apparent determination to make himself a repugnant and deranged sounding public fool is his fulminating defense of Graham Spanier, the former president of PSU, recently convicted for child endangerment.

Spanier is a remarkable immigrant success story, a survivor of physical child abuse himself,  and a brilliant man. But he was successfully prosecuted for child endangerment because that’s exactly what he did. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s case was carefully crafted to track a simple statute and it did so with precision.

Spanier was shown to have colluded- there is no other word for it- with two truly odious individuals, former Assistant Vice-President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley. All were personally knowledgeable of suspected child victimization by Sandusky in 1998. Curley and Schultz were then faced with an eyewitness account of child rape by then grad- student Mike McQueary in 2001. Their response- the one they personally involved Spanier in- was to abandon an earlier plan to report Sandusky to authorities. Instead, they “reported” him to the charity he created, Second Mile, and told him not to bring children into PSU facilities. You can let that sink in, but it got worse, eight years and several victims later, when Curley and Schultz perjured themselves by telling risible lies to a Grand Jury about what McQueary told them.

The same investigative Grand Jury lied to by Curley and Schultz recommended perjury charges against Spanier as well. These charges might have gone forward on all three had the testimony of Cynthia Baldwin, a former attorney for PSU, not been ruled inadmissible due to a legal technicality. In that testimony, Baldwin excoriated Spanier, calling him a dishonest man who lied to her about what he knew and when he knew it. Along with Schultz and Curley, Spanier may have stonewalled a subpoena request from that Grand Jury for 16 months.

Spanier has repeatedly painted himself as attenuated from the obvious perfidy of Curley and Schultz, a stressed-out administrator facing multiple crises and perhaps making a regrettable call with little information.

This is common claptrap.

But to pretend that it has any merit whatsoever is not only insulting but downright dangerous. I say dangerous because, if men like Spanier, or Curley and Schultz- who in my mind continued to perjure themselves in Spanier’s trial- are allowed to create a shred of doubt in the minds of any of us about the indefensibility of their actions, then the occurrence of another gross institutional failure and the destruction of innocent lives is that much more likely.

The callow parsing of what words were used by whom, batted between these three men (and also Joe Paterno himself) must find no purchase. Did they know the full scope of Jerry Sandusky’s sophistication as a predator and the depth of what he was doing? No, and it doesn’t matter. What they knew, first about the 1998 case and then from McQueary, clearly demanded a report to authorities trained and tasked with investigating child abuse. The deliberate choice all three men made to abandon a simple plan to refer a possibly dangerous man to civil authorities was preposterous, wanton and immoral. It was also illegal.

Among the more ridiculous excuses they’ve made through lawyers is how careful they felt they had to be because of how loved and respected Sandusky was. Actually, Graham, Gary and Tim, Sandusky’s stature is exactly why you needed to act with more vigilance. A report to the Department of Public Welfare for an appropriate investigation would not have meant abandoning or betraying Sandusky. It would have been the right thing to do, and also the only lawful thing. Spanier is perhaps less morally guilty than the lying scum he colluded with for the sake of a football program. But he is equally criminally guilty, and his guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The best thing Al Lord can do in the wake of that is to keep his vile mouth shut. I tend to think the vast majority of the Penn State community, valiantly facing this failure head-on so it’s not repeated elsewhere, would appreciate that.

For support, information, and to help with regard to the fight against the sexual abuse of boys, please visit www.malesurvivor.org (full disclosure: I serve on its Board of Directors), or www.1in6.org. 

 

What Putting Steve Bannon in the Oval Office Says to Survivors of Domestic Violence

Steve Bannon, appointed by Donald Trump as his “chief strategist,” was charged in 1996 with domestic violence and witness tampering for 1) grabbing the throat and wrist of his then wife (a charge corroborated by the responding officer who saw the injuries) and then 2) apparently threatening her with destitution (or worse) if she didn’t leave the jurisdiction so she couldn’t be called as a witness against him.

I’ve spent nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, a consultant, a legal expert, a teacher and an advocate, fighting to end violence against women and children.

So yes, I find the idea of giving this thug unlimited and unmatched influential access to the President of the United States insulting, to say the least.

But my service and my experiences can and should be held cheap, in terms of this vile choice and its effect on me, next to that of every woman beaten, savaged, threatened and ultimately silenced by a man.

One such man will now be at the ear of the most powerful person in the world for at least the next four years, and will report to work regularly within steps of the Oval Office.

 

 

David Brooks, Please Don’t Assume What I “Get” on Gun Control as a Progressive

iStock_000011104157_ExtraSmallIn his latest column, focusing on various afflictions plaguing the American working class, David Brooks had this to say about gun control:

“It’s a culture [the American working class] that celebrates people who are willing to fight to defend their honor. This is something that progressives never get about gun control. They see a debate about mass murder, but for many people guns are about a family’s ability to stand up for itself in a dangerous world.”

I am a progressive, depending on how one defines the term. I also grew up largely as a part of, and certainly surrounded by, the American working class.

I can say with confidence there is nothing I don’t “get” where the enthusiasm for owning firearms is concerned, despite Brooks’ blunt and stereotypical accusation. Like many people who lean left as I do politically, I absolutely understand, and in most cases honor, the desire of individuals to protect themselves and their families. I would not seek to prevent Americans from owning firearms within common sense limitations, the details of which are beyond the scope of this piece.

But please, David, don’t tell me I simply “don’t get” what guns are to the working class or anyone else. I do. What I also “get” is that, unfortunately, far too many of them (along with people in other demographic groups, like Donald Trump) are not plain-spoken, responsible men and women wanting to protect their families. Instead, they are gun fetishists who believe- with adolescent naivety and emotion-driven fantasy- that guns are shields and not swords. With inattention to facts and utter blindness to human experience, they nevertheless assert that that arming everyone, everywhere, is the answer to preventing the kind gun violence that, in fact, stems from the proliferation of those very same guns.