Feminism is entering a new phase of the movement. You could call it the era of mea culpa. Feminism has rightly claimed "victim" status at the mercy of rapists, and now certain women have turned the tables and are making victims of men, but with slander, the rape of reputation. This isn't an "epidemic," as feminists have said rape is an epidemic, but the numbers are significant enough to make the headlines.
The story of "Jackie," the protagonist in the notorious Rolling Stone account of a campus gang rape, has been shredded in its particulars. But college fraternities are reeling against accusations that as a "band of brothers" they're denounced as collectives of sexual criminals. Drunkeness is a way of life in many frat houses, and the brothers and the young women who conspire with them should set restrictions for themselves lest they become a generation of alcoholics, but to tar a specific fraternity chapter with false accusations of "gang rape" is not the way to do it.
Lena Dunham, 28, creator of the HBO series "Girls" and author of a bestselling memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl," is at the mercy of the lawyers for her publisher, Random House, which is now auditing her fishy tale of rape at the hands of a prominent conservative, a mustachioed Republican she called Barry from her freshman year at Oberlin College. When an actual man named Barry, who was a prominent conservative at Oberlin, where conservatives were an endangered species when Lena was there, threatened to sue, the Random House lawyers promised to change the name in future printings and pay the fees of the real Barry's lawyers. Negotiations are continuing.
In the digital age, when accusations go viral without having been checked and passed on by skeptical editors (often because there are no editors), innocents can be grievously damaged. You could ask the brothers at Phi Kappa Psi, erroneously identified as the rapists of Jackie at the University of Virginia. Or you could ask the real Barry, today a father with a wife and a young family. He tried for more than two months to get Random House to clear his name and finally got their attention by hiring a lawyer of his own.
Sometimes a television scriptwriter is better at raising questions than a fact-checker. In a striking serendipity of timing, a fictional HBO television episode in the series called "The Newsroom," asks the pertinent questions. In the story, a woman runs an Internet website where men are anonymously accused of rape. It's the woman's way of obtaining "justice." When as a website victim she wants to go on television to confront the man she claims raped her (and which he denies), the fictional reporter asks whether she has considered how dangerous it is to convene her own trial before a television audience with "no due process, no lawyers, no discovery, no rules of procedure, no decision on admissible evidence, threat of perjury, confrontation of witnesses."
Such a cautious television reporter might be hard to find in real life today, but the reality is that only the law -- "a ass -- a idiot" as it may be in the description of Charles Dickens -- can acquit, and the various forms of social media and television interviews cannot. Although even a man remains innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, an accusation running through the media lingers on. (Try to erase a story from the Internet.)
In the television episode of "The Newsroom," the reporter cites "journalistic ethics," and feminists watching it decried "journalistic ethics" as an oxymoron. Given the recent performance of Rolling Stone, they have a point. But in real life even a man remains innocent until proven guilty. "The Newsroom" episode is smart and clever, and offers the natural sympathy for a rape victim but also depicts the raw destructive power of public accusation without proof. Rolling Stone and Random House are learning that indifference and sloppiness can be expensive.
Lena Dunham's show, "Girls," is appreciated by both liberals and some cultural conservatives because it depicts millennials from privileged backgrounds stumbling in their raunch and ignorance toward an uncertain maturity. Viewers can watch young characters, wrapped up in their irresponsible, narcissistic selves, act out their sex lives in a believable way, and the viewer can decide without an imposed judgment of what those experiences mean.
Lena Dunham, the writer, must regret that she demeaned an innocent man as a common criminal, a rapist, and now in real life she's learning how grim it can be when that innocent man pays the cost of her irresponsibility. Feminists aren't accustomed to pleading "mea culpa," and a late education can be both painful and expensive.