Last week Steven Taranto wrote some misogynist drivel about campus rape and I got a little rant-y in my response. Perhaps rant-y enough that I glossed over some important points that I'd like to follow-up with now. Basically, Taranto wanted people to know that an important thing to consider in our campus rape prevention efforts is that when alcohol is involved, all too often the morning after will find Her regretful, and coping with that by blaming Him for rape. He then goes on to highlight a story of one such incident, bringing the grossly distorted spectre of false rape allegations to the fore. And I'd like to talk more about why that particular myth is a powerful one underpinning rape culture.
There is excellent scholarship and methodologically rigorous evidence that false rape allegations are extremely rare, with estimates between 2 and 8%. Yet there exists a prolific and widespread myth that in fact women (and children) are running around crying rape a lot, almost all the time according to a lot of people who are in positions to determine whether or not an allegation will ever result in an arrest, let alone a charge, let alone a prosecution.
Jan Jordan has published findings from several studies revealing the culture of mistrust amongst law enforcement authorities that compels many to default to suspicion and disbelief when a woman alleges sexual assault or rape. She notes legal texts as recent as 1975 quoting a detective as saying “Women and children complainants in sexual matters are notorious for embroidery or complete fabrication of complaints”. Another gem comes from a judge who shared his view that “It is well known that women in particular, and small boys, are liable to be untruthful and invent stories”. Uh-huh. What a coincidence that the most vulnerable to violation are the ones most likely to lie about it... That must work out well for one side of the allegation! And the justice and wisdom doesn't stop there folks. A particularly colorful perspective comes from Roscoe Cofield, who as the investigator for the Philadelphia police sex crimes unit shared his pet name for his department: The Lying Bitches Unit.
I don't think I need to spend too much time teasing out the link between the default distrust and vitriol directed at sexual assault allegers by law enforcement authorities and those in the criminal justice system and the low rates of reporting. Hopefully.
And this business of thinking that all these women and children who are so looking forward to the world of victim-blaming backlash that re-victimizes to terrible ends isn't unique to the criminal justice system. One study of college students in the US found that a lot of them also think about half of all rape accusations are false. And we need zero studies to show us what we know about how well women who allege rape are treated by school administrators, coaches, and classmates.
For that matter, look no further than your own lived experience of hearing about victims of crime. I can't recall the last time I had a friend or acquaintance say that their wallet or iphone was stolen, only to have the general feedback be suspicion that that person was lying about it or gave their iphone away and later regretted it. And that's because suspicion of women and children as deceitful scammers out to use their wiles to prey upon innocent men isn't a new thing, or a sentiment unique to any one community or population. It's part of the psyche behind the systematized violence against women that underpins rape culture.
And it's a pretty important piece of the puzzle, so overlooking the profound effect of reinforcing and encouraging this default distrust is dangerous and harmful. It plays into not only how encouraged a rapist feels about their chances of getting away with it, but also how discouraged victims feel about reporting what they understand will be viewed from the get-go with suspicion. To say nothing of what that shows us about how we view men's voices versus women's, especially when it comes to ownership over women's bodies.
This default bias against women and children who allege rape becomes particularly alarming when we look at it in terms of how that bias plays into a rapist's agenda. From Alana Prochuk at the Women Against Violence Against Women blog comes this horrifying piece of research:
However, you might be shocked and sickened to learn that 30% of American college men surveyed by Dr. Margo Maine (2000) admitted they would commit rape if they were sure they could get away with it. This figure jumped to 58% percent when the wording of the question was changed from “commit rape” to “force a woman to have sex”. Apparently, the word “rape” has a bit of a nasty ring to it, but people don't seem to find the actual crime of rape quite as objectionable.
Got it. So, turns out, a lot of guys out there are holding back from raping someone not because it is a deplorable act of violence, but because they don't want to get caught. Even more so when we call it something different! (ahem, see here, here and here for discussions on just why and how the language we use around rape, specifically dressing it up as something more palatable sounding, does a disservice to victims and hurts prevention efforts). So how encouraging is it for someone looking to rape that when in doubt, many people will bet against the victim and side with the alleged rapist? If what is stopping a third of college men from raping is the fear of getting caught, and we show college students that not only are we not invested in taking rape and sexual assault allegations seriously but that more often than not the victim won't be believed, what message are we sending to these would-be rapists? I'm pretty sure it translates as something close to 'Go right ahead! It's very unlikely your victim will have the support and resources to go through what amounts to a traumatic reporting experience, and even if they do, it's equally unlikely their testimony will be believed!'
Not long ago I was hanging out with a friend who happens to also be a cop. I was telling him about the work we're doing at PARC and how dismal the rates of rape reporting and prosecuting are, and the first thing he says with a sigh and a look of genuine dismay is “It's just so hard to prove.” To be fair, I honestly think this guy does feel badly, and does wish he could do more. I just don't think he realizes that the more he could do is to simply realize that if one wants to say that there are two sides to every story, then fine. It is true that there are two sides to a coin, but he and his cohort are flipping one rigged to land most often on the side of the alleged.
What he said stayed with me in a cloying and depressing way. Because as we've set the system up now, it is hard to prove. And both rapists and victims know that, and that works to encourage rape and suppress reporting.
So to anyone thinking that we're getting ahead of ourselves when we start believing victims of sexual assault and rape, we're not. We're not even close. And when we bring up false rape allegations in the context of talking about rape awareness and prevention, we're not doing anything helpful, rather we breath invigorated life into a vicious and intentional ignorance. An ignorance that encourages rape, and all but promises to silence its victims.