For a few years, I was the public educator for a regional sexual assault center situated in an emblematically stale strip mall on the cusp of the almost-Toronto suburbs. The center supports victims of sexual and domestic violence, assisting clients through counseling and various practical services, from police reporting and hospital visits to finding new housing and negotiating custody of children. My job was to educate the public about sexual harassment, rape and healthy relationships—including teaching our provincial and regional police how to respond to victims of sexual assault.
There wasn’t a single training session that didn’t involve officers’ doubt or disbelief when dealing with rape victims. Common platitudes included:
Well, it happened two years ago, so . . .
She didn’t look roughed up or dirty, but she said he held her down.
I could smell beer on her breath.
She came in with her friends, I was suspicious of the gang mentality.
My experience is not unique—it is, in fact, backed up by research. According to a 2004 report, “Law enforcement believe half or over half [of victims] are fabricating their allegations of sexual assault.” Other reports from police officers concerning their perception of rape victims are equally distressing, with officers like Burlington cop Tom Tremblay admitting that, “Unlike any other crime I responded to in my career, there was always this thought that a rape report was a false report…”
There is arguably no other crime that is met with such a persistent tendency to disbelieve the victim. And our cultural compulsion to label victims as liars goes beyond the most obvious examples, like the online MRA enclaves perpetuating the idea of a “false rape epidemic.”
Mainstream journalism also continues to offer extended screeds feeding off of, and even amplifying, our cultural anxiety about false accusations. The most recent egregious example? A longform Newsweek essay published last Thursday titled, “The Other Side Of The College Sexual Assault Crisis.” The piece, by Max Kutner, reads like a love letter to the man, Paul Nungesser, still accused of sexually assaulting Carry That Weight‘s Emma Sulkowicz and at least two other women (acquitted by Columbia University and police, but whose guilt is maintained by Sulkowicz and the other victims). Kutner‘s piece attempts to shine a light on what he imagines as the deeply ruined lives of falsely accused college boys. And it hardly exists in a vacuum; see, for example, Cathy Young’s equally damning 2014 Slate piece, “Crying Rape.”
Kutner’s piece also comes on the heels of widespread victim-blaming aimed at Stoya, who recently accused fellow porn star James Deen of rape. Hordes of social media accounts rushed to discount Stoya’s admissions demanding “proof” of her rape, accusing her of crafting the allegations for self-interest and “attention.” Even as, so far, eight other women have joined her in an increasing chorus of accusation, tweets continue to proliferate, focusing on a deep concern for the “ruined” life of James Deen, with hashtags like #TeamDeen trending on Twitter.
Our continued fixation on the ruined lives of those accused of rape is not just wrong; it’s actively dangerous.
Victim-blaming journalists like Kutner and Young, not to mention the social media hordes coming after Stoya, are correct in one way: false reports do occur. Yet, how often are these fake accusations made? How many rapes really are fabrications?
Let’s properly compare the number of rapes in the United States to the number of false rape accusations. Pulling from 2013, for the sake of the most comprehensives indexes, United States’ rape statistics confirm that false reporting is the stuff of the fantastical, and that, in a deeply unsettling reality, men are indeed raping women in droves.
FBI figures from 2013 put the number of reported rapes at 79,770. Extrapolating that number to include RAINN’s statistic that 68 percent of rapes are never reported (and assuming correlation), you end up with 249,281 cases of rape in 2013 in the United States.
After analyzing a number of verified and expansive studies, researchers have placed the number of false rape allegations at 2-8 percent. Any number of false accusations are of course undesirable, but this number remains infinitesimally small, to the point of being negligible; compare this minute potential for false allegation to the almost quarter of a million rapes that are taking place in the United States per year.
Indeed, writers calculate that there is a greater likelihood of being attacked by a shark than being falsely accused of rape. And sticking with statistics from the United States, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control cited in 2013 that a man is much more likely to be the victim of a rape than the victim of a false accusation.
Yet despite the concrete and rigorously researched data, the belief that false accusations are widespread continues to be a leading myth. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with centuries of devaluing a woman’s word on the sole count of her gender—a cultural practice that dates back to ancient times. Throughout history and in most cultures, women have habitually not been trusted; women’s words are discounted and devalued because they are not those of men. Certainly, men and boys are also rape victims—ones who, like women, all too often go unbelieved. However, when 90 percent of rape victims are women, there are gendered nuances to the conversation.
Ideas on why so many people think victims would falsify a rape claim include: for personal gain, post-sex “regret,” revenge and due to a mental illness.
It’s fair to say that even if bitten by the proverbial shark of a fabricated accusation, Newsweek’s Kutner is also drastically dramatizing the impact on the life of a man falsely accused of rape. This dramatization, which is endemic to the “false epidemic” narrative, is offensive to victims of sexual assault who experience a gamut of physical, emotional and psychological trauma following an attack: 49 percent develop PTSD, 30 percent experience major depressive disorders, 13 percent attempt suicide, and many will self-harm.
But before setting fire to Kutner’s flawed premise, let’s be reasonable and consider the fallout experienced by men who have been falsely accused.
Tucker Carlson was accused of rape in 2001, and currently remains a political news correspondent for the Fox Network. Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault in 2003, and the case was dismissed on the grounds that the victim would not testify. Bryant remains comfortable in the spotlight of his celebrity, having signed a seven-year, $136 million contract following the allegations. The recent allegations against U.K. television star Michael Le Vell were found to have been falsified; the actor has since returned to his long-time role on the popular series Coronation Street.
Even when convicted of sexual assault, rapists often manage to carry on with their lives. In 1992, Mike Tyson was found guilty of rape. Despite this heinous and very public conviction, Tyson currently stars in his own cartoon series.
So, if false accusations are negligible when talking about rape, and if those who do deal with this unfortunate experience appear, at least anecdotally, to fare well in both life and fortune, what is this myth of false accusations doing to victims?
The false rape accusation myth accounts, in part, for the gross number of rapes that go unreported, and for the terrifying treatment of those who do come forward. Recently, it was revealed that at Florida State University, only 14 of 113 campus rapes are reported to law enforcement. And in recent cases like Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons and the Hampshire rape lawsuit, public treatment of rape victims was nothing less than heinous.
Additionally, in allowing this mistaken stereotype to proliferate, we create a narrative that inherently casts a bias in the practice of professionals who deal directly with rape victims. In 2014, the U.K. saw an all-time low in rape cases being taken to the level of prosecution, with the figure coming in at just 28 percent. That depressing reality is a direct result of an entrenched commitment to false accusation narratives.
Although it is unlikely that we can change the minds of MRA-cabals that deny the existence of rape culture, and seek to “legalize” rape, it is possible to recast the conversation around sexual assault, false accusations and the reality of victims.
By reminding those committed to the fairytale of false accusations being everywhere that, in fact, only 2-8 percent of accusations are false, we can reorient our harmful focus. We also need to reject the trope of the “deeply wounded accused” that writers like Young and Kutner try to sell us. Instead we should focus on shoring up support for those who are able to share their truth of sexual assault. We need to continue to dismantle systems where only 3 percent of rapists spend time in prison and where white police officers are able to sexually assault dozens of Black women.
Todd Minerson, the executive director of White Ribbon, a non-profit that works with men around the world to prevent violence against women, confirmed in an interview with me that the young men he connects with express concern over false accusations. He also spoke to what victims of sexual assault need:
Always start by believing, listen twice as much as you speak, affirm, thank the person for having the trust to share with you and the courage to share at all.
It’s remarkably difficult for some people to internalize the nuanced idea that when we believe victims, we aren’t trying, convicting and sentencing the accused. But it’s time we switch our focus and stop talking about women who “cry rape” and instead develop a new language for supporting victims.
With the images of all the terrified faces of victims I escorted to the police department, or whose hands I held during a rape-kit examination in mind, I say: we must believe women.