There’s been a shocking media feeding frenzy over the discovery that one of the young women claiming to be a rape victim in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s recent Rolling Stone piece might be exaggerating about her experience or even lying about it. It’s not just because reporters love talking about the journalistic missteps of others, though that is part of it. No, the real reason this is turning into such a big deal is there are a surprising number of people who want to deny that rape is a serious social problem and who want to push the idea that many rape cases are just a matter of women lying because they are crazy or vindictive. For these folks—call ‘em rape truthers—this whole incident is like a second Christmas, an opportunity to take an extremely rare and strange case and pretend it should be reason to dismiss the reality that rape is a crime that happens with some frequency.
It doesn’t really make sense, of course. As Wagatwe Wanjuki at the New York Times writes, “Yes, a tiny number of people lie about being raped, but almost all rapists lie about raping.” But, as Amanda Taub at Vox writes, the “fear of giving women the ability to put men in jail” threatens the sexist status quo. Subsequently, even though there’s no real evidence for it, many people stand behind the myth that women routinely lie about being raped, which justifies preserving a status quo where men’s word is considered more authoritative and trustworthy just because they are male. Here is a list of some of the most recent and worst rape truthers.
1. Rich Lowry. Lowry pounced on the UVA story to push the idea that feminists make up rape to push some kind of “agenda,” for purposes of which he was deliberately vague. “Rolling Stone didn’t do basic fact-checking here, I believe because they had an agenda to portray UVA as the bastion of white male privilege, where basically rapists rule the social life,” he said on ABC News. Lowry desperately wants one woman's possible lie to disprove the idea that UVA is male-dominated, that UVA has concealed the extent of its rape problem, or that rapists frequently get away with their crimes.
But one woman’s lie doesn’t wipe out the fact that most rapists never see a day in jail. Nor does it disprove that the university failed to investigate the claims of Jackie or any of the other women Erdely interviewed. (Perhaps, if they had, we would have better information on whether this rape actually happened as Jackie said, or not.) Nor does it change the fact that UVA is under a federal investigation because of complaints about how the school deals with these problems. Lowry’s comment was the equivalent of arguing that because some people fake cancer, cancer isn’t a real problem and oncology should be banned as a profession. It just doesn’t work that way.
2. Charles Johnson.Johnson, a right-wing writer Gawker dubbed the world’s worst journalist, got so excited at the discrepancies in the Jackie story that he went on a crusade to “dox” the real -ife Jackie. It was an act of breathtaking cruelty. Either Jackie is telling the truth, in which case Johnson is attacking a rape victim in an effort to silence her, or Jackie is lying, in which case she likely has serious mental health problems and needs help, not abuse. Johnson ended up doxxing the wrong person anyway, tweeting out a picture of a woman who isn’t Jackie and claiming it was her. This lack of interest in basic fact-checking shows he is clearly not motivated by a sincere interest in the truth and suggests it was mostly a pretense to intimidate other women from speaking out about rape.
3. Kevin Williamson. UVA is an outlier because the woman accused of lying may just have done it, but make no mistake: Accusations of mendacity are flung at pretty much every alleged victim. Witness the right-wing war, led by the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, on Lena Dunham to punish her for telling a story in her memoir about being raped in college. Dunham used a pseudonym for her rapist, which is standard in memoir-writing, to protect the innocentand the guilty. But Williamson wants Dunham to pay for telling this story. First he tried to punish her by accusing her of being a rapist herself because she did weird, inappropriate things with her sister as a kid, as kids do. Then he tried to punish her by calling some random man she went to college with who happened to have the same name as the fake one she gave her assailant in her memoir. The right-wing site Breitbart took it a step further, launching an “investigation” that was mostly a bunch of bugging people about details that were clearly changed in the standard memoir style. The real message was: Try to tell other rape victims they are not alone, and your family, schoolmates and friends will be made to suffer for it.
4. George Will. In his Washington Post column, Will scoffed at the idea that it’s always rape to have sex with a woman who refuses consent. Citing a story where he admits that the victim said no, Will implied it doesn’t count as rape because the victim allowed herself to be alone with a man. Since he refuses to believe women might actually be traumatized by being forced to have sex against their will, he has an alternate theory about why they call forcible sex “rape”: “[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” In the real world, however, most criminal statutes do define forcing sex on a non-consenting person as rape, even if you got her name before you did it.
5. Tammy Bruce. Similarly fame feminist Tammy Bruce suggested on Fox News that women speak out against rape not because they are unhappy with being forced to have sex against their will but because there’s been “a romanticizing of victimhood.” It’s often quite the opposite. Rape victims frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They often find that instead of praise and attention, their friends and family start avoiding them or even blame them for what happened. Many rape victims fear speaking out and treat the experience like it’s a dirty secret, even though they did nothing wrong.
6. Patrick Howley. With the number of women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault and other transgressions rising seemingly by the day, you’d think the rape truthers would let this one go. But Patrick Howley of the odious Tucker Carlson-formed Daily Caller isn’t going to let 20-plus women bearing witness—including Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson—stop him from trying to shame women into silence. He published an article, complete with the most unflattering photos he could find, insinuating that all Cosby's accusers must be lying because a couple of them have fallen on hard times or have criminal records. However, none of this is evidence of lying, particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence against Cosby.
7. Susan Patton. Susan Patton’s entire career as an author and pundit is a testament to how far you can get in society just by being an outspoken misogynist. Patton became famous by writing a snooty letter to the Princeton newspaper telling girls that their hope of ever making a good marriage dries up by college graduation. Since then she has had an amazing career of book deals and TV appearances despite lacking wit, common sense, or any understanding of the idea of evidence. For some reason, her uneducated opinion was welcomed into the debate over campus rape on CNN. Patton did not disappoint, openly redefining most rape—which happens between acquaintances—as not-rape. “What makes this so particularly prickly is the definition of rape,” Patton told CNN host Carol Costello. “It no longer is when a woman is violated at the point of a gun or a knife. We’re now talking about or identifying as rape what really is clumsy hook-up melodrama or a fumbled attempt at a kiss or a caress.” She went on to share her belief, totally unsubstantiated, that a rape victim is just someone who “had sex with a man that she regretted the next morning.”
Women who “cry rape” after having consensual sex with a man is the favorite version of this misogynist fairy tale about false rape accusations, but it is worth noting that even when rape truthers are lucky enough to get a story that seems like it could be false—such as Jackie’s or the Duke lacrosse accuser before her—it does not fit this mold. No one, not even the most ardent rape truthers, believes either of these women are trying to cover up for consensual sex. If women routinely accused their consensual sex partners of rape in order to hide their sluttiness, you’d think rape truthers would have some examples, instead of clinging to situations that don’t fit that mold and hoping no one notices. And yet, here we are.