Women Rarely Lie About Rape. But I Reserve the Right to Doubt
In these #metoo times, to be accused of sexual assault is, in the eyes of many, to be guilty of it.
I was 13 when our neighbor accused my brother of trying to rape her. She and her parents showed up in the middle of the night, pounding on the front door and demanding justice.
There was no friendly greeting from the trio, who had never before crossed our threshold. They got straight to the point. The teenage girl’s parents told my parents that my brother had just broken into their house by climbing through their daughter’s bedroom window.
“It was him! It was him!” the mother shouted, pointing at my brother as he entered the living room rubbing his eyes. She insisted he didn’t get a chance to do the dirty deed because she had caught him in the dark. After he’d jumped out from the window he’d allegedly used to enter, the girl told her mother he was about to rape her.
I was shocked by the accusation and frightened by the vehemence of the mother’s conviction. My brother, who was 14 or 15 at the time, never would have done such a horrible thing.
I would have been convinced of his innocence, even if I hadn’t been certain of his moral fiber. A lifelong insomniac, I spent many childhood nights tossing and turning in the bed next to his. If he had left our bedroom, I would have heard him. He was a sound sleeper and hadn’t roused all night. I didn’t believe a word of it.
Eventually, the truth came out and exonerated my brother. Our neighbors’ daughter admitted she’d been trying to cover the muddy tracks of her boyfriend, who had been the guy her mother had seen in the dark bedroom.
As I think back to that episode, I wonder and shudder. If the daughter decided to recant her admission tomorrow and revive her initial lie on social media, naming my brother as the assailant, in these #metoo times — when to be accused of attempted rape is, in the eyes of many, to be guilty of it — my brother’s reputation would be shredded instantly.
If 2016 was the year Donald Trump hijacked U.S. politics, 2017 will go down as the year #metoo became the global game-changer. Suddenly, the accusations are coming fast and furiously. Since scores of women outed Hollywood super-producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial sex offender in October, a domino effect has sent numerous other alpha males tumbling down.
Meanwhile, one online think piece after another has embraced the idea that in order to keep rape out of the closet, we must believe women when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted. There’s no room for doubt. Never mind the 10-year Northeastern University study that placed the percentage of false rape allegations at 5.9 percent and other reports that set the ratio between 2 and 10 percent. That amount is negligible, the writers reason, because in the general scheme of things, women rarely lie about rape. So just believe them as blindly as you may or may not believe in God.
Does that mean we must also automatically believe the men they accuse are sex offenders? In cases of rape and sexual assault, should we permanently suspend “Innocent until proven guilty” because we don’t want survivors to go back into hiding? Should the authorities not even bother to investigate since the man is clearly guilty?
I understand where the think pieces are coming from, but I respectfully disagree. We must always support these women. We must always listen to them and take their claims seriously. We must never shame them and blame them. As conscious and conscientious observers, we should never call them liars. But do we owe it to them and to society to believe them without question or exception?
Though enlightening and disappointing, that incident with our neighbors didn’t set me on a lifetime course where I brand all women as liars. Most of the women I know are truthful, sometimes to a fault. But I’d never be naive enough to proactively dismiss exceptions to any rule. As admirable and essential as it is for women to stand behind each other, absolute statements are a trap.
Considering the U.S.’s legacy of black men being lynched for alleged sexual misconduct with white women, I just can’t bring myself to bestow my unwavering belief on everyone who accuses someone of rape. (My childhood neighbors, like my family, were black.) Historically, that sort of rash, rush judgment routinely sent innocent black men to the hanging tree.
This is no underhanded comparison between modern women and racists of the Reconstruction era. But although a man who is merely accused of rape today isn’t likely to end up with a noose around his neck, it still has the potential to leave an indelible mark on his life. While a relatively small number of misreported rape cases might be nothing to us onlookers, if only two to ten lives in a thousand are disrupted, or ruined, that would be two to 10 too many if one of those lives happened to be ours.
I won’t cite “Innocent until proven guilty” because sloganeering is too simplistic for such a complicated issue. Rape accusations should be rigorously investigated without casting the shadow of doubt on women. Defenders of men too often end up portraying survivors of alleged assault in the most negative light possible, both inadvertently and directly.
Lena Dunham did the latter with an official November 17 statement in which she backed up former Girls writer Murray Miller against a claim by Aurora Perrineau that he raped in her 2012 when she was 17. In essence, Dunham, Hollywood’s reigning queen of media gaffes, called the young actress a liar. Three and a half months earlier, she’d tweeted: “Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don’t lie about: rape.” She just keeps getting it totally wrong.
Dropping that L-word, or merely implying it, shames and blames women into silence. I’m a survivor of sexual abuse by an older medical professional 26 years ago, and I’m all too familiar with the shame and self-doubt that can lead to decades of silence.
I’m glad women and men are speaking up. We should continue to support them and take them seriously. But that doesn’t mean we have to instantly damn the accused. This isn’t to suggest that high-profile alleged abusers like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer don’t deserve their negative press and professional demotions. When a string of women and men reveal similar encounters with the same person, chances are it’s not a conspiracy to bring down the powerful (and their Presidential campaigns) with a string of lies. Where there’s too much smoke, there’s usually an out of control raging fire.
I’m not talking about the homepage news. I’m referring to the less press-worthy incidents involving civilians, the ones that don’t trend, the ones that are literally he said/she said, without multiple accusers or witnesses. I’m referring to the ones that allegedly happen in the workplace, or in lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Florida.
Even if we stay in the big leagues, though, newsworthy men have been wrongfully accused of rape in the past. From 1910s silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to magician David Copperfield to former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brian Banks, they’ve been wrongfully accused and later cleared.
Banks spent five years in prison for raping a woman who admitted that she’d fabricated the entire story after he served his time. He probably doesn’t care that only between two to 10 percent of women who claim rape are lying. One who did took a wrecking ball to his life and career.
How do we support women without instantly banishing the accused to the persona non grata list? That’s a tricky one. Carefully choosing our words during our social media monologues or not commenting at all would be a good start. (Dear Lena Dunham: Please take a cue from Uma Thurman, who wisely declined to comment on the current state of rape-culture affairs until she’s not quite so angry.)
In an age where everyone feels the need to weigh in on everything, fewer voices telling us what to think and feel might provide more clarity. Silence can indeed be golden. Whatever we say or don’t say, blind, blanket belief doesn’t help anyone.
Though I tend to side with accusers, I reserve the right to be skeptical if the evidence or lack thereof warrants a “Let’s wait and see.” Once the accusations have been made and the denials issued, whom we choose to believe is a personal decision. It doesn’t have to be an automatic one. As we once again find ourselves fighting for women’s right to choose, we shouldn’t start forfeiting our own.