Opinion submission: Rape myths

The woman who cries rape and other myths

By Jessica Marsh | April 30, 2018 10:50pm

Beacon pic
Jessica Marsh. Photo courtesy of Jessica Marsh.

I’d like to respond to a particular statement made by Rebecca Howard in her recent opinion piece. First, though, I want to say that I very much respect her for voicing what she believes is an unpopular opinion and for sharing her own story and perspectives in an honest and thoughtful way. I may disagree with much of what she said, but meaningful conversations on a tough subject don’t happen when  the only participants are people who agree with each other. And really, I’m not just responding to her. I’m responding to a widespread cultural myth.  And since recent events have provoked some important discussions about campus culture, I’d like to add to that discussion.

Howard says in her article, “Unlike other crimes, a spectrum for sexual assault does not exist. If a female says it to be true, there is often no argument to be had. When I speak to male friends, they tell me they are scared to approach women in social settings...”

I want to respond to the idea that once a woman reports a sexual assault, she is automatically believed. And I want to look at the implications of it – that is, that this is a problem because those reports may be false. 

To begin with, the assertion that “there is often no argument to be had” simply isn’t true. If nothing else, a glance through the comments on any news story about a rape shows that. There is no evidence – none – that false reports of rape are made at a higher rate than false reports of any other crime. And you know what? I’ve never seen a comment on a report about slashed tires saying “Let’s just keep in mind that being falsely accused of slashing someone’s tires can ruin a person’s life, and you know, it does happen.” 

If this idea that “all it takes is a woman’s word” is true, why do approximately two-thirds of rapes go unreported? (RAINN). Why did 18% of respondents in a 2010 survey agree with the statement “Most claims of rape are probably not true”? (Opinion Matters). Why were police officers confident that they could tell whether a claimant was lying, with a substantial number believing that  half or more of all reports of rape were false? (Kelly, 2010).

Why is the idea so persistent that “all it takes” is for a woman to report a sexual assault, then? Why is it that some men – a lot of men, it seems –are really, truly worried that someone will falsely accuse them of rape?

Let’s assume for a moment we’re not talking about men who think “consent is complicated” or “sometimes it’s just so hard to tell.” Let’s address the “worst-case scenario” that apparently haunts men around the world: Your intentions are totally ethical. You’re well-informed about what good consent looks like. You have sex with a woman who enthusiastically agrees. You both have a great time. And then she later regrets the sex and claims you raped her.

Ah, yes, The Woman Who Cries Rape. I think I first heard stories about her around the fire at summer camp. They say when there’s a full moon, you can hear her echo in the distance. “Everyone” knows she exists. In fact, I’ve never heard a rape case mentioned where at least one person doesn’t feel the need to remind us that she exists. Apparently, she’s everywhere. Lurking behind every consensual sexual encounter to prey on innocent men.

As is often the case with this kind of frenzied panic, the facts tell a different story. They show that a) false reports of rape are far, far less common than people seem to believe; and b) the majority of suspected false reports have very little in common with the “but what if she just changes her mind?” scenario that so many people seem to fear.

Empirical studies of police records have estimated that false allegations comprise between 2% and 10% of reported rapes (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010). If 10% seems less than reassuring, let’s consider that in many jurisdictions, the category “false allegations” includes scenarios such as the following: 

  • A friend or family member reports that A was raped. When interviewed by police, A denies that a rape occurred.
  • Police find B passed out on the sidewalk and suspect B has been raped. When B regains consciousness, police are told that no rape occurred.
  • C reports being raped. There is no evidence to either support or contradict this report, but C has a problem with substance abuse and police decide that C is not a credible claimant.
  • D is a minor who has become pregnant after consensual sex with another minor. D tells her parents she was raped by a stranger. Her parents report the rape to the police.
  • E reports being raped by a romantic partner. E later tells police the report was untrue. Police suspect E has been coerced into withdrawing the statement.

In a study of 6 UK jurisdictions over 3 years, of 3,527 reported rapes, only 3% were determined by police to be “probably” or “possibly” false. And of those suspected false allegations, the overwhelming majority consist of a person telling police, “Someone raped me.” In only 18% of suspected false allegations did the claimant actually name an alleged perpetrator (Kelly, 2010).

So when it comes to that “she just changed her mind” scenario? You can stop being quite so afraid. Is it possible you’ll be falsely accused of rape? Well, yes, but in the same way it’s possible you’ll contract botulism from a tainted can of pineapple juice in the terrible punch at a party. I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it.

I want to be clear, here: I’m not making light of a serious issue. Being falsely accused of rape has devastating consequences. But so does being raped. And so does the secondary victimization of being doubted and shamed. And that happens a lot more frequently and provokes a lot less social outrage. 

So if a friend, or a romantic partner, or a resident, or a student tells you she* was raped? Go ahead and tell her, “I believe you. How can I support you?” Unless you’re a member of a jury or the person in charge of the accused’s employment or enrollment status, you really can just take her at her word. I promise you won’t be betraying the brotherhood to The Woman Who Cries Rape. And if it feels really, really important to remind everyone that false reports do occur, maybe ask yourself why. And maybe instead consider reminding everyone that reporting a rape or sexual assault is incredibly risky and difficult, and that not responding to victims with an attitude of "lying until proven otherwise"  would be a good first step towards changing that.

* I’ve been deliberately focusing here on a myth about male victims of female accusations, but of course it’s important to remember that people of all genders are victims of rape.

Jessica Marsh '12 majored in Psychology and German. She can be reached at marshj12@up.edu.