When Rape Allegations Are False

Cathy Young tackles an uncomfortable truth:

False rape accusations are a lightning rod for a variety of reasons. Rape is a repugnant crime—and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies. More than a quarter-century ago, feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon wrote that “feminism is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men”; today, Jessica Valenti urges us to “believe victims en masse,” because only then will we recognize the true prevalence of sexual assault.

But a de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Young illustrates how the issue is so damn complex:

Not all reports classified as unfounded are necessarily false. In some cases, women who were victims of rape were disbelieved, pressured into recanting, and charged with false reporting only to be vindicated later on—the kind of awful story that adds to people’s skittishness about discussing false accusations.

Some police departments have been criticized for having an anomalously high percentage of supposedly unfounded rape charges: Baltimore’s “unfounded” rate used to be the highest in the nation, at about 30 percent, due partly to questionable and sometimes downright abusive police procedures, such as badgering a woman about why she waited two hours to report a street assault. By 2013, an effort to provide better training and encourage full investigation of all complaints reduced that rate to less than 2 percent.

Megan McArdle insists that good stats are incredibly hard to find:

What we know is that we don’t know. We should not presume that every rape victim is telling the truth because it would make it easier for victims to come forward. Nor should we presume that every rape accusation has a 50 percent chance of being false. We should look at the facts in each case and judge them with the knowledge that some women do lie about rape — for revenge, to cover up some problem in their own lives, to get attention and sympathy from others. And also with the knowledge that men lie, too, violating their victims a second time in order to cover up their crimes. And that while men have gone to jail for rapes they did not commit, many other men have avoided the jail time they deserved for terrible crimes against women.

That’s not a very satisfying answer, because rape is inherently a hard crime to prosecute. If someone comes into a police station with their face bashed in, you can be pretty much certain that unless they’re a professional boxer, a crime has occurred. If a rape kit shows evidence of sexual intercourse, however, all that tells you is that … something happened. Because this is something that a lot of people do to each other voluntarily, you cannot proceed immediately to the arrest. Usually there are only two witnesses, telling different stories. Often drugs or alcohol were involved, and intoxicated people make lousy witnesses.

Previous Dish thread on the controversial topic here.