Thursday, February 27, 2014

"What if she's lying?"

Preface: Many pro-life activists argue that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape. While SPL does not take a position on the rape exception, we do agree that the rape exception should be discussed with particular sensitivity. Whenever you are discussing topics related to sexual assault, whether in the context of abortion or any other context, please take the time to understand how your comments could affect sexual assault survivors.

Additionally, please note that the following blog post originally arises from a conversation about rape and pregnancy, so the ideas are expressed in terms of male attackers and female victims. However it's important to be aware that men can also be sexually assaulted.

Recently I posted this paper to the SPL Facebook page, and quoted from it as follows:
A victim of acquaintance rape in North Carolina became pregnant and carried her child to term. The man she accused of raping her threatened to assert his parental rights unless she agreed not to file charges against him. Another woman from North Carolina became pregnant as a result of rape and placed the baby for adoption. To complete the adoption, she needed the rapist to terminate his parental rights. The rapist, who was in custody awaiting trial, told her that he would terminate his parental rights only if she agreed not to testify against him.
I thought this passage would inspire a conversation about how our society can better support survivors of rape who want to carry their pregnancies and parent their children. To my dismay, this was one of the first comments:

There were also comments like this:

Similarly, the other day, a casual FB friend of mine tagged me in a post asking what I thought of this photo:

Never before have I so wanted to punch a puffin.

Okay, class. What's wrong with these ideas?

People who haven't looked much into rape culture (or worse, who don't believe rape culture exists), may argue that, underneath some of the harsh verbiage, there are valid points to be made here. They muse, "Yes, of course, we all care about rape victims. But if our interest is justice, we must also care about people falsely accused of rape. The wrongfully accused deserve consideration too." 

We want people to pay for the crimes they commit, but we also don't want innocent people to be punished, right? Right! So why would anyone have a problem with focusing on false rape accusations?

In order to explain the problem, I need to give you a quick quiz. Don't cheat now! See how you do without scrolling ahead.
  1. How many rapes and sexual assaults happen per year in the United States?
    • Thousands
    • Tens of thousands
    • Hundreds of thousands
    • Over one million
  2. What percentage of these attacks are not reported to authorities?
    • Less than 50%
    • 50-60%
    • 60-70%
    • Over 70%
  3. How many accusations of assault are false?
    • 1-2%
    • 2-8%
    • 8-20%
    • 20-40%
    • Over 40%
Curious how you did? Let's review. 

According to the US Department of Justice, in 2012 there were 346,830 rapes and sexual assaults, and 72% of these attacks were not reported to authorities. In other words, an average of 684 attacks went unreported each day, for a total of 249,717 unreported attacks in 2012. And we aren't even touching on how few reported attacks result in charges filed, or how few charges filed result in convictions.

In contrast, the most methodologically sound research suggests between 2% and 8% of rape and sexual assault accusations are false. 

So if 28% of attacks are reported to authorities, and there were 346,830 attacks in 2012, how many reports did authorities receive? That's right! Authorities would have received 97,112 reports of rapes and sexual assault. Please note we are again talking about reports, which are, again, not the same as charges filed, much less convictions.

Research suggests that 2% to 8% of these reports are false. To be conservative, let's assume it's 8%; so 8% of 97,112 reports means 7,769 false accusations. (And we are being very conservative. Read the previous link for issues with the way "false accusations" are often defined. Read here (trigger warning) for an example of a woman marked down as a "false accusation." I would especially like the people who wax poetic about how we're not harsh enough with women who lie about rape to read that link.)

So we have (at least) 249,717 unreported attacks and (at most) 7,769 false accusations. That comes down to at least 32 times as many unreported attacks as there are false accusations.

I'm going to go ahead and repeat that, just to be super, super clear:

Now, does this situation mean we should never talk about the injustice of false accusations? No. Falsely accusing someone of a crime is horribly wrong, and it wreaks havoc both on the person falsely accused and on the criminal justice system as a whole. That deserves a conversation.

But what I am seeking is a sense of proportion here. Do you hear people talking about unreported rape 32 times as often as you hear them talk about false rape accusations? Because I sure don't. If anything, I hear people discuss false rape accusations more often than they ever talk about how many attacks go unreported. Our public discourse on rape is hugely disproportionate to the reality of the situation.

And having such a skewed public conversation about rape isn't just misleading--it's horribly damaging. Sexual assault survivors are frequently surrounded by an atmosphere of suspicion and even hostility, and we promote that atmosphere every time we jump to, "But what if she lied?" When survivors think they won't be believed, they don't speak up. When they don't speak up, unreported rapes rise, both because less people are reporting their attacks and because the attackers can continue their behavior without repercussion.

So remember this idea? "Yes, of course, we all care about rape victims. But if our interest is justice, we must also care about people falsely accused of rape. The wrongfully accused deserve consideration too." 

I'm going to explain the disproportionality of this response by way of analogy*. Let's pretend "justice" is a big house we want to upkeep. Whenever injustice happens, it damages the house. So false rape accusations look something like this:

A smashed window in the House of Justice.

And unreported rapes look something like this:

Now consider this conversation:

Me: "Oh my god! The House of Justice is on fire, please help me to save it!" 

Other people: "Yes, of course, we all care about the house being on fire. But if our interest is in keeping up the house, we must also care about smashed windows. Smashed windows require repair too."

How does that sound to you?

And really, this analogy doesn't even cover it, because it doesn't account for how, every time you focus disproportionately on smashed windows, you actually throw gas on the fire. How? Because every time you emphasize not trusting women who say they've been raped, you make it harder for survivors to come forward with their incredibly painful stories. And that means more rapes go unreported.

So if you're not going to help me put out the fire, could you at least stop throwing fuel on the flames? That'd be great.

*Thanks to my friend Mishy for the analogy.


Jameson Graber said...

I started typing out a comment on the main issue you raised at the top of the post, and I realized as I went along how complicated the issue can be. So suffice it to say that I think your point is a good one, that at least we should be educated about the statistics and have a sense of proportion.

The link you gave with a trigger warning was pretty brutal. I couldn't read it all.

Janet Susan said...

Very difficult to read about this topic. Thank you for the thorough and enlightening article, Monica. This could not have been easy to research and write.

SPLfan said...

Glad you guys are highlighting this, and I agree with what you've said here and how you're laying your emphases.

My one nit-pick -- just for obsessing about accuracy and preemptively diffusing objections -- is with your otherwise great 'House of Justice' analogy. The flame picture is great. But I wonder if a 'smashed window' understates the damage that false rape accusations can do (and thus is inaccurate). People's lives can be heavily impacted by false rape claims -- like permanently affecting their relationships, career, and public image. Not saying we should downgrade the objective degree of harm from rape or it's degree of harm relative to a false charge. But it won't hurt your argument to accurately acknowledge the harm there is in false charges, especially with the stats you've got. If you can make would-be objectors feel their concerns are validated while still presenting a compelling case, I think you'll change minds.

Anyway, I don't mean to be discouraging. This is good stuff!

Sybil said...

What analogy would suggest as a better representation?

ClumpOfCells said...

I know you can't check all the links on a page you link to, but this was disturbing...I clicked on the link you provided about to explain "rape culture," because I really didn't know what that meant. The article you linked to there includes an appeal to " Read Akiba Solomon's account of
the how she bridged the personal and the political in the struggle over
reproductive justice." What they mean by that, is that Ms. Solomon's mom had an abortion, and that Ms. Solomon uses that story to advocate for more permissive abortion laws.
Rape is a very important issue to discuss, but these things can happen when you get off-point. I'd humbly suggest taking out the link to that article (10 things to End Rape Culture), as it advocates the very thing you are fighting.

Caitlin said...

*standing applause*

THANK YOU so much, this is one the most eloquent expressions of the situation I have ever read. SPL rocks. :)

m17l6s85 said...

Thank you for pointing that out. I had read the link, but not the links in the link, or not all of them.

I'm going to leave the link in because it was one of the best summaries I could find about the aspects of rape culture. SPL certainly doesn't endorse their point about abortion, but I do want people to be more aware of the other aspects, and I think a link within a link is removed enough that it's worth the trade off.

But again, thanks for drawing my attention to it. I hadn't realized.

Barry G said...

Such a great article. Thanks for posting!

I wonder what role the media plays in this. As I was reading, I went into my memory banks and tried to quickly recall what stories regarding rape I could recall. The only one I could immediately remember was the Duke rape case. If there are others similar to me, that's a huge problem when it comes to bias. It's the main story in my mind even though it was a highly sensational outlier-type story. And that really sucks. Biases sucks.

Thanks for this potent antidote and perspective!

ignorance_is_curable said...

Duh, this is obviously a NONproblem. If the woman lies about rape in order to obtain an abortion, then she is failing to pass her genes --some of which may have contributed to a tendency to lie-- on to the next generation. We don't really need those genes, do we?

ClumpOfCells said...

Yeah, I hear you. Thanks for checking it out.

m17l6s85 said...

That's a good point. Stories of false rape accusations seem to get way more play than stories of actual rapes, but I'm not sure whether this is due to the media pushing them or just responding to what the culture finds interesting to read. Chicken and the egg.

However I can think of stories that go the opposite way, like Steubenville, a lot I read about that. I don't know if that means things are getting better as far as media coverage, of if I've just gotten more attentive. Hopefully both.

Barry G said...

Good point on steubenville. I think part of it, is that for a rape case to make national news, there has to be a larger meta narrative that the story represents. For Duke and Steubenville the narrative was the protection of athletes. But I can't think of national story where the actual crime was the reason why it was being reported.

Michelle Ewing said...

When children are involved, These things need to be considered more carefully. I would like to know, of these women who falsely accused, how many had children with the man? of the family court cases i've seen,2 were falsely accused, 1 was having criminal charges brought up and the was a lot of evidence that he did it, 3 of them had physical abuse, and about 20 did not have any abuse of the mother. I did not see any with child abuse, but I think that cps took the reports for that. I'm not sure if that is an accurate picture of the whole US, but it's only what I've seen. So, at least in my county, women report rape in family court a lot to hurt their children. other forms of domestic violence were reported just as much (in this small sample) and they had solid evidence that it happened. From a criminal law point of view, yes, unreported rape is something we should focus on. from a civil law point of view, we need to be more careful and look for false accusations for the children involved.

Please understand I am not trying to undermined rape. I have seen many sides of it and all of them are horrible. i'm just saying when it is lied about, a lot of it is probably done during a custody battle. But again, it's a small sample of people from a small part of the US.

The Bint said...

There was still plenty of victim blaming in the Stuebenville case. As the 2 students were convicted, CNN contributors clearly sympathized with the rapists' emotional display. The link includes transcripts from the CNN coverage.

And I distinctly recall people commenting online that it was the victim's fault since she was intoxicated in the first place. That's the rape culture's common refrain "good girls don't get themselves in those kind of situations. She shouldn't have been [drinking, high, dressed that way, alone in public, flirting, teasing, walking to her car alone at night, etc, etc]. She could have easily avoided the whole ordeal". It never occurs to them that women, girls, children DON'T ASK to be raped!

The Bint said...

This was a wonderful post! Even though I am now on the opposite side of the abortion debate, I deeply appreciate your passionate writing about rape & the dangers of rape culture. Thank you!

m17l6s85 said...

You make good points, especially about civil versus criminal cases. Like the blog post says, it's not that we should *never* talk about false accusations. False accusations are a serious injustice to a person, and as you've pointed out this is especially important when there are also kids involved. I think that is worth talking about, I just don't think it's wise to jump to it in every conversation about rape, which is what some people seem to do.

John Bates said...

This is the most depressing article I've read in a long
time. It seems such an obvious failing of the judicial system that accused rapists can
use the pregnancy to coerce the plaintiff. Who could disagree that this needs
urgent reform? The press are complicit in this systemic sexism. The details of
a rape case are perversely titillating for a broad readership, it will sell
papers. Puritans are enraptured by having their biases confirmed. Many will
tacitly rationalise that women should be held to a higher standard than men.
Young guys will be lauded for their obnoxious behaviour, dismissed as drunken
tomfoolery. It's not difficult to
believe the 32:1 ratio given these conditions. Well done on this powerful and disturbing insight.

LN said...

Never before have I so wanted to punch a puffin.

m17l6s85 said...

Noble effort, Michelle, but IIC is a troll. Probably best not to talk to him at all.

ignorance_is_curable said...

OK, I admit I didn't read the whole thing. But my post is still reasonable --after all, most abortion opponents want to ban abortion except in cases of rape or incest. So, all a woman need do, if the opponents get their way, to obtain an abortion, is lie....

But I'm willing to inspect the post more closely, and offer another reply, later.

Nathaniel said...

I just came across this article on the same topic.

Conclusion: Men are about 3% likely to be falsely accused of rape in their lifetime, women are 15% likely to be raped in their lifetime.

I thought the reasoning in the article, along with his takedown of an obviously false Buzzfeed article claiming men were more likely to be hit by a comet than to be falsely accused of rape, was worth reading.

LN said...

I'm on mobile so can't write a lot but wanted to say I don't know....anyone...who says false accusations are nothing/ have no effect. I guess some people underestimate it, but as the blog pointed out (and this has been 100% my experience too) I only ever see people saying we need to stop underestimating that, but no one actually underestimating. Meanwhile I never hear people saying we underestimate the effects of *rape* even though society seems to do that 100000x more frequently than underestimating false accusations. so the call for reform seems, again, focused on the wrong side...

Michelle Ewing said...

Still goes on to try and prove we are wrong. No one brought up the subject. I question if s/he even read my whole reply. I would like to see a pro-choicer on here that is able to respond to reason, with reason. Is there a way to ban IIC? maybe plagiarism? or just an other code off conduct s/he is breaking? Im all for freedom of speech, but Im sure there is something that could be enforced.

And what could of person belittles the subject of something as bad as rape and just say, Lying about rape would get women what they want, when lying about rape hurts good men children and the justice system?

Clinton said...

Just ignore him and he'll eventually go away. I had a troll on my pro-life blog that kept bugging me for a couple of weeks, but he eventually stopped because I stopped feeding him.

ignorance_is_curable said...

Abortion opponents ARE wrong, in this day-and-age, as proved by the nonsense they choose as foundations upon which they apply reason. Net result: GIGO --"garbage in, garbage out". I see no reason to accept reasoning that is based on nonsensical foundations.

You seem to think that a pro-choicer should start with the same foundations that you start with, and try to reach different conclusions --but WHY should any pro-choicer want to do that, when the foundations you want them to use are provably flawed, and better foundations can be chosen?

ignorance_is_curable said...

If you look through History, you can find plenty of people who told the Truth that were then executed for it. I'm not interested in being another victim of folks so deluded they would kill rather than let their cherished opinions be demonstrated as nonsense.

As far as I'm concerned, the mere fact that you want me to shut up, without countering the arguments I've made, means you CAN'T prove that your opinions, in the Overall Abortion Debate, are anything but arrant nonsense.

Mirable said...

What has IIC plagiarized? And if your arguments are rock solid you should be able to destroy him with little effort.

He is not rude and he has never insulted anyone. He is just relentless like a machine. That is his personality. He isn't warm and fuzzy with pro choicers either. But he is not a troll.

librtee_dot_com said...

It really boggles me how anyone can be so un-critical as to repeat any statistics of 'false rape allegations' as if they are solid.

If a woman claims a false rape, the police believe her, and he goes to prison...that DOESN'T count as a false rape. There is no way to no. That simply is counted in the real rape column, and that is that.

Likewise, if a real rape occurs and the rapist convinces the police it was a false report, that will go in the false rape column. There is no fixing for, or correcting for this, either.

Whenever anyone repeats the '2-8%' statistic, they simply demonstrate that they do not have a good head for statistics.