Amid the passions of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battle and the sexual assault allegations by psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, the topic of false accusations has become particularly incendiary. A professor at USC came under attack last week for bringing it up when a school-wide email from a campus women’s group invited a “dialogue” on sexual violence and urged people to “believe survivors.” In reply, engineering professor James Moore cautioned against automatic belief, stressing due process and noting that “accusers sometimes lie.” The response was a torrent of hostile emails, a campus rally calling for Moore’s firing, and a message from the dean condemning his “insensitive” comment.
It is a fact, of course, that accusers sometimes lie. Notorious instances include the 2014 Rolling Stone story of a University of Virginia fraternity gang rape that never happened and the 2006-2007 Duke University case in which three lacrosse team members were falsely accused of gang-raping an exotic dancer. But is this such a rare problem that it should not deter us from believing any woman who says she was sexually assaulted? Or is the risk of false accusation real enough that we must keep it in mind when responding to such accounts?
The answer is complicated.
Conventional wisdom among progressives minimizes the issue. In a recent tweet, Caroline Orr, a writer/editor for the website Shareblue Media, says that “#BelieveWomen” makes sense because “sexual assault really IS that common & false accusations really ARE that rare.” Others point out that studies show only 2% to 8% of police reports of rape are false. A much-circulated 2017 Quartz article by writer Sandra Newman, who has analyzed false allegations, concludes that if a woman who is not a known liar tells a story of sexual assault with no wildly implausible details, “you can just assume it’s true.” Newman also suggests that “false rape accusations almost never have serious consequences” because there are few cases of men being convicted on charges that are later exposed as false. (She cites the National Registry of Exonerations and a comprehensive British study of sexual assault reports.)
Yet in reality, no one knows what percentage of sexual assault accusations are false. The 2% to 8% figure refers to cases in which police — or campus investigators — conclude that no crime occurred, either because there is evidence of fabrication or because the accuser recants. But such definitive evidence is rare, and it doesn’t mean all the other accusations are true. Justice Department reports show that more than a quarter of defendants arrested on charges of sexual assault or rape are not prosecuted because there is not enough evidence; of those who are prosecuted, about 1 in 4 have the charges dismissed and about 3% are acquitted. Feminist rhetoric tends to interpret these statistics as rapists going free; but surely at least some cases involve wrongly accused men.
Sometimes, credible-sounding claims of sexual assault are exposed as false only because there is a video recording. Just this week, four California dentists recently charged with raping an intoxicated woman at a Las Vegas hotel were exonerated by a cellphone video that confirmed their claim of consensual sex. Last year, a Shiprock, N.M., woman was charged with perjury after she accused her boyfriend of forcing himself on her but recanted once she was told he had a video.
Things are further complicated by the fact that today, accusations can be made online and amplified in the media even if no evidence is adjudicated. Add to that the shifting definitions of sexual assault and rape. Are you “too drunk to consent” if your judgment is impaired but you can walk, talk, text and initiate sex? (Title IX campus proceedings frequently hold male students responsible in such situations.) Can you retroactively decide that an awkward encounter in which you never said no was nonconsensual? Given such confusion, some may be wrongly accused because of a gray-area experience reinterpreted as assault.
In today’s ugly discourse, the issue of false accusations brings out some blatantly misogynistic rhetoric, even from women. In a piece bashing Ford, conservative columnist Megan Fox declared that “most women lie and scheme” due to “hormones and insecurity.” That’s vile, just as blanket male-bashing is vile.
But some women, like some men, do evil and irrational things. And while few men may go to prison due to wrongful accusations, such accusations are not harmless: consequences can include a frightening legal ordeal, expulsion from college, job loss, unending reputation damage. Any insistence on presumptively believing all accusers will almost certainly hurt innocent defendants; such a directive in England has already led to several botched cases and a massive review of sexual assault prosecutions.
The conundrum of “he said/she said” may never be solved. The best we can do is take each accusation seriously and judge it on its individual merits. “Believe women” is a powerful rallying cry, but it is no substitute for due diligence. And calls to disregard the risk of wrongful allegations are illiberal and dangerous.