Whenever we, as a society, discuss allegations about sexual assault, a story about false rape complaints is told. And that story is distorting the way we talk about victims and justice in sexual assault cases.
Here’s the scene. You’re talking with friends about how we should deal with sexual assault as a society. There’s a suggestion that maybe we should make things easier for victims, to reduce the silencing effect of a difficult complaints process. Then someone pipes up with, “But what about that Rolling Stone case? Not all complaints are true.” Something like that. Whatever their contribution is, it involves a ‘bad’ woman accusing an innocent man of rape. The story flips the framing of sexual assault. It says, “Actually, some rapists are not rapists at all; they’re victims.”
People nod and agree. We can’t allow that to happen. Innocent people being convicted of a crime is wrong. I get it – the idea that someone could be locked away for something they didn’t do is terrifying. We all would have been on Brendan Dassey’s side in Making a Murderer. But do we think no deeper about the effect that narrative has on our conversation?
The problem with the story is that false rape complaints are rare and usually ineffective. Their existence is used to inspire fear and cast the accused rapist as a victim rather than a perpetrator. And, unfortunately, it works.
The story is mostly false. Yes, there are isolated, high profile incidents that we should be concerned about. But the overwhelming majority of false rape allegations (which are estimated at 2.1% of allegations made in Australia), do not lead to a trial, let alone jail. As you would expect in a thorough process of justice and investigation.
The lack of witnesses in most sexual assault cases is never going to be easy to deal with in our justice system. But getting to the point where someone can be sent to jail for sexual assault requires a lot of evidence. In a UK study of 216 cases, two false allegations made it to Court, and their falseness was discovered at trial.
People find it easier to imagine themselves falsely accused of rape than falsely accused of murder or robbery or assault. But exoneration numbers are low for sexual assault; in the USA, there are 15 times more exonerations for murder (790 for murder compared to 52 for sexual assault over the same period). That suggests that people don’t end up in jail when they’re falsely accused of rape. If there were a significant number of false allegations being made, the exoneration data would be expected to show it.
The risk of false allegations doesn’t dictate our reasoning around sentences or evidence for those other crimes. Our response to sexual assault, through the prevalence of stories about false rape allegations, becomes focussed on the hypothetical risk of harm to the accused rather than the act itself.
The factor which makes you most likely to be falsely imprisoned for a crime is, overwhelmingly, race. So if anyone needs safeguards in our justice system, it’s not men who are concerned about a hypothetical false rape allegation, but people of colour who face systemic discrimination. Diverting the conversation to focus on one, rare, isolated issue is not the right way to discuss justice reform.
There is a whole range of myths about false rape complaints. Women get drunk, have sex, and decide they were raped despite not remembering. Women regret having sex and tell people they were raped. Women ‘cry rape’ to get revenge against their ex-boyfriends/cheating partners. The more you boil the myths down, the more ridiculous they seem. The subtext behind all these stories, in whatever iteration they take, is that ‘victims are liars and rapists are innocent’.
In essence, the false rape complainant story is used to make us distrust victims. #MeToo has shown us why that’s wrong. Believing and supporting victims of sexual assault should be a priority, whatever hypothetical story is used to argue against it. Don’t let myths about false rape complaints frame victims as villains.Support Villainesse