4 dangerous myths about rape, debunked

Fallout from Rolling Stone's bungled UVA story reveals how alarmingly misinformed we are as a culture

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 12, 2014 9:45AM (EST)

  (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Over the weekend, there was a huge media kerfuffle over the discovery that Rolling Stone’s devastating expose of campus rape at the University of Virginia has some discrepancies in it. Specifically, there are discrepancies in the story of one of the alleged victims profiled, who went by the name of “Jackie” and claims to have been date-raped at a fraternity. While the discrepancies are very likely to be the result of Jackie misremembering key details of the night she told reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley, many anti-feminists have seized on these discrepancies to argue that Jackie is lying. This has, in turn, set off a frenzy of hysteria over the belief that false rape accusations are common, a hysteria that has no real basis in reality. In light of this, here are four myths about rape and false rape accusations, and why there is no reality-based reason for men to be afraid.

Myth #1: Rape is a “he said/she said” situation. You hear the phrase “he said/she said” a lot, which falsely suggests that the odds are even that either party is lying when a woman says she was raped. But that’s simply not true. Most reputable research shows that the vast majority of women who report rape are telling the truth.

It’s hard to pin down an exact number. In 2010, researchers David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah Nicksa, and Ashley Cote did an analysis of the existing research on false rape reports and found that many of them had extremely shoddy research methods. “There is considerable evidence of widespread misclassification by police departments and enormous disparities among police agencies in how cases are classified,” they write, showing that some studies classified many rape allegations as “false” that were likely quite real but could not be prosecuted for some reason.

When the researchers separated out better studies from less rigorous studies, the most reliable numbers for false reports converge on 2-8 percent of overall reports. For some perspective, as Zerlina Maxwell of the Washington Post notes, 10 percent of car theft reports turn out to be false.

Myth #2: False rape reports are about vindictive women trying to hurt men with whom they had consensual sex. Not only do people overestimate how many false rape reports there are, they often don’t even have the right idea of what happens when false rape reports do happen. Many people believe that false reports happen when a woman, angry about not getting a phone call after a one-night stand or ashamed of having had drunken sex, decides to accuse her consensual sex partner of raping her. This belief is rooted in long-standing misogynist stereotypes of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

The reality is a little different, according to a report for the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, which is part of the National District Attorneys Association. “Despite the stereotype, false reports of sexual assault are not typically filed by women trying to ‘get back at a boyfriend’ or cover up a pregnancy, affair, or other misbehavior,” authors Kimberly Lonsway, David Lisak, and Joanne Archambault write. Instead, “the vast majority are actually filed by people with serious psychological and emotional problems” who lie for “the attention and sympathy that they receive.”

In addition, false reporters often describe “perpetrator who is either a stranger or a vaguely described acquaintance who is not identified by name,” because they “may not want anyone to actually be arrested for the fictional crime.”

Even the most high profile cases of false accusations, such as the Tawana Brawley case or the Duke lacrosse case, did not fit this myth of the vindictive woman getting her revenge. Instead the alleged victims accused men, somewhat at random, in an apparent effort to keep people believing them when holes in their stories began to appear. And yet anti-feminists keep invoking these cases to perpetuate the fear that men are in danger of having their partners accuse of them of rape to get revenge.

Myth #3: Inconsistencies in the story show the alleged victim is lying. The people who believe Jackie lied about her rape have no real evidence for that claim, so instead they are focusing on the inconsistencies in her story, such as her confusion about what frat house she remembers, as “proof” that she must be lying. (Indeed, one of the Internet’s biggest scumbags, Charles C. Johnson, has been using this as a pretext for outing Jackie online.) The problem is that inconsistencies in stories don’t demonstrate that someone is lying. In many cases, they just show that you’re a human being with an organic brain instead of a computer chip.

Scientists have known for a long time that human memory is a shoddy thing, though the last time you wandered around your house looking for a wallet should be reason enough to believe it. It’s not just limited to “minor” memory issues like this, either. As Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld wrote in Scientific American, memory doesn’t work “like a video recorder.” Instead, “psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them.” Details, through no will of our own, get added and subtracted each time we recall a memory, and the more we think about it, the more distorted it can get over time. As crime victims are called upon to retell their stories over and over--and they often think about them a lot on their own--memories of trauma are often even moredistorted than memories of mundane things, like what you talked over at dinner last night. These distortions do not mean that the basic truth of what they’re saying is wrong, but it does mean that it’s important to find as many external verifications of the details as possible, a step the Rolling Stone overlooked in its reporting.

Myth #4: Feminists want to deprive accused rapists of due process.Every time rape accusations are discussed in the media, even when liberally peppered with the word “allegedly,” a sea of people wring their hands about how the accused is being deprived of his constitutional right to due process. None of the concerned seem unduly worried about this when it comes to crimes that aren’t rape, an oversight that suggests this concern is less about the integrity of the justice system and more about discouraging rape victims from coming forward.

Needless to say, discussing the fact that rape allegations exist and even examining the evidence for them publicly does not deprive the accused of his right to a trial and there is zero evidence that feminists wish to end jury trials for accused rapists. But the ugliness of this myth goes deeper than the surface dishonesty evident in the glib invocations of “due process” to scare people into silence outside of the courtroom. After all, those who are sincerely concerned about due process and getting to the truth of the matter would be clamoring formore investigations and more trials, especially since 60 percent of rapes aren’t even reported to the police. A true concern for due process would result in wanting more of those rapes reported. Instead, we see a continuing pressure on rape victims not to speak out about their experiences, but instead to quiver in silence and shame, afraid of being called liars and sluts while their rapists go free. Due process is a great thing. It will happen more often if victims feel free to come forward without the fear of being publicly castigated.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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