Content Warning(s): Rape, Excusing Perpetrators, Alcohol, Politics, Violence, Survivors not Being Believed, Criminal Justice.
Please note that this post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you.
In 2008, Congress declared September "National Campus Safety Awareness Month", an annual campaign to educate the public about the dangers students face on college campuses every day. Articles that you'll see this month will cover general security tips for people living on their own for the first time, warnings about hazing, and discussion of the risk of sexual assault.
If you've seen The Hunting Ground, you know that while statistics on sexual violence can be hard to accurately obtain, even the conservative estimates say one in ten women in undergraduate programs will experience it. Most studies support a much more disturbing estimate of one in five.
During September, there will be some truly informative, inspiring, and helpful articles on ending rape culture on college campuses and beyond.
You'll also see things like this:
That's an actual poster put up by York University.
Now, alcohol abuse and binge drinking is a problem on campuses, and I applaud anyone who wants to educate the public about the health risks. Talk about alcohol poisoning or drunk driving. If you can find a way to get college students to understand that drinking too much puts them in danger of flunking that calculus exam tomorrow, breaking their neck falling down the stairs, killing someone by crashing their car, or slipping into a coma, go for it.
There are so many other valuable things to say about drinking in a scholastic setting than the message York University chose.
The woman in that advert looks distressed at a post on her social media account, and the text tells us we shouldn't be disturbed by the fact that her friends apparently went to pour alcohol down her throat when it's implied she was already quite intoxicated. No. The ad tells us that the woman should be embarrassed because she tried to "keep up with the guys." It tells us that men can apparently handle alcohol just fine, so it's okay for them to binge.
(Incidentally, while abuse of drugs or alcohol in NO way absolves someone of responsibility, it's estimated that as many as half of college men who commit an act of sexual violence drank or used drugs either before and/or during the assault.)
The ad tells her that "it" isn't just about keeping an eye on your drink, but keeping an eye on how much you drink. Just in case you weren't 100% sure that the "it" in question is sexual violence.
This poster could have made a valid point by discussing peer pressure, and how trying to "keep up" with your friends when it comes to drinking can be disastrous. It could have pointed out that forcing your friend to drink alcohol might make an Instagram post that seems funny at the time, but can result in your friend being in the hospital later. It could have offered actual, useful advice on how to help a friend who seems overly intoxicated - get them water, take their keys, stay with them so they don't try to do a back flip off the roof, and call your local emergency number if they're in serious danger. It could have assured students that they won't get in trouble if they call an ambulance, that their health and safety is more important.
Instead, it implies men binge drinking is perfectly okay, but ladies better watch out and not drink too much, or then something might happen to them and it'll be their fault.
So let's talk about false allegations.
If you've ever discussed sexual violence anywhere, chances are you've had people say to you, "Are you denying that false rape claims exist?" Or, "Why are we pretending false rape claims aren't real?"
Somehow, I'm dubious that people who deal with property crimes are often asked, "Why are you pretending that insurance fraud doesn't exist?" If you call the police to report a robbery, they're probably not going to comment on your fancy car outside or your expensive clothes and tell you that you should have expected this, because you advertised your wealth to people. Or ask you if you invited the guy over to take your stuff and then just changed your mind after.
If you try to look up statistics on false allegations, you'll find a wide range - some reports say it's as low as 3%, some will actually claim it's closer to 90%. The Department of Justice reports a rate of 8%, which is higher than their estimated rate of 2% for the false reporting of other crimes.
So what's the real rate? Why is there such disagreement?
It's difficult to answer the first question, but the second one is much easier. We can start by looking at a table from an article in the Cambridge Law Journal from 2006:
That 90% looks pretty damning... until you look at the sample size - only eighteen cases. If you've ever taken statistics, you know that the smaller the sample size is, the harder it is to get an accurate estimate.
But even other studies with larger sample sizes seem to have large numbers - 18.2% from a sample of 1,379? And the Department of Justice doesn't list how big the sample is, but presumably it's from the UCR - Uniform Crime Report - and contains data from all across the country. So sample size alone isn't the reason.
The UCR classifies crimes into different categories based on if they've been cleared or are still open, and then how they were cleared - by arrest, some other way, or if they're considered "unfounded." On the surface, "unfounded" sounds like it could be a synonym for "false." In reality, it's anything but.
Here are a list of scenarios that may be classified in research as "unfounded," "no crime," or "false." Please note this may be upsetting or triggering for some; I urge you to skip this section if it may cause you distress.
- A woman is raped by a stranger and reports the crime to police. She is shown a photo lineup and identifies #2 as her attacker. However, she's made a mistake and #2 was actually in jail on an unrelated charge at the time of the assault and could not have done it. Instead of accepting that memory can be unreliable, especially during trauma, the police decide she is lying and drop the investigation.
- A woman in North Carolina consents to have sex with her boyfriend, but withdraws this consent once he becomes violent. He does not stop and she reports this to police afterwards. However, under state law, this is not considered rape, and the boyfriend is not charged with a crime, as it was not illegal under current statute.
- A man is raped by his female coworker and reports this to police. Neither the police nor his friends and family take him seriously, stating that a man "can't be raped" and belittling him for not fighting her off, so he drops the charges out of embarrassment and shame.
- A woman is raped in her home and does not try to fight off her attacker as her kids are in the next room and she doesn't want to risk their lives. The police do not pursue the investigation as they conclude it cannot be rape if she didn't fight.
- A prostitute and a prospective client have an argument over the price of a sexual act. He refuses to pay what she's asking and forces her to perform the act. When she files a report with the police, the rapist claims she's just upset he didn't pay her enough. The police drop the case.
- A woman is raped and tells her brother, but refuses to go to the police. Her brother calls the police on her behalf, but fearing retribution, the woman does not cooperate and the case does not go forward.
- A student is raped on a college campus by a popular athlete. When she reports the crime, she and her family are harassed and threatened, so she recants her story and drops the charges.
- A woman was intoxicated during her attack. She waits for six months before reporting, and due to the alcohol and delay, she has trouble remembering details. Some details even change from one retelling to another. Chalking up the inconsistencies to lying rather than a fractured memory due to the alcohol, time, and trauma, the police do not pursue the case.
- A woman with a history of mental illness is involuntarily committed for 72 hours following a suicide attempt. She is sexually assaulted by a doctor, but the hospital reports she was heavily medicated and misunderstood a routine exam. Even the woman begins to doubt her memory and ultimately the case is dropped.
- A woman takes revenge on her ex-boyfriend by making a false report to the police, claiming he raped her. He has an alibi for the time of the alleged crime and when confronted, she admits to them that she lied.
ANY of those ten scenarios may be reported as "unfounded" by researchers or in the UCR, when in fact only one of them is demonstratively false. Often times there's no distinction made between "false" claims (where the assault did not happen) and "baseless" claims, which are presumed to be truthful but lack the evidence to substantiate. Most articles don't explicitly explain how they classify a report as false, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center has stated that many use data that falls outside accepted definitions. The opinion of the officer or investigator involved is frequently given weight over the actual evidence.
As a result, the rate of false reporting is often inflated, and combined with the media attention that false reports get (see the Rolling Stone story A Rape on Campus as an example), this increases the likelihood that survivors of assault will not come forward. Why go through the pain and humiliation of discussing a horrible attack with the police if there's a good chance nobody will believe you anyway? If you're just going to end up as a statistic in some academic report, a checkmark in the "unfounded" column, because there wasn't DNA evidence, or the DA didn't feel they could get a conviction, or a jury took their word over yours?
The myth of a high false reporting rate keeps the number of unreported assaults high. In July, Betsy DeVos met with survivors of sexual assault and advocacy groups for a total of 90 minutes, then turned around and met with a members of the National Coalition for Men - an organization that professes right on their webpage that at least 50% of rape allegations are false. Candice Jackson, a civil rights official at the Department of Education, and herself a sexual assault survivor, went on the record with the New York Times as saying that, "[r]ather, the accusations -- 90 percent of them -- fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right."
This is what survivors have to look forward to if they come forward.
All reports should be investigated and taken seriously, and researchers and police should abide by FBI guidance and assertion of the International Association of Chiefs of Police that "[t]he determination that a report of sexual assault is false can be made only if the evidence establishes that no crime was committed or attempted." (IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 2005, pp. 12-13)
On a final note, when Betsy DeVos made her announcement on the "Dear Colleague" Letter and Title IX, she repeated employed Trump's "Both Sides" argument. She said, "[o]ne rape is one too many ... one person denied due process is one too many." The fact is that, even going by the most conservative estimates, one in ten undergraduate women will experience sexual assault and rape. In contrast, in a comprehensive British study (archived here), of 216 accusations of rape that were classified as police as "false", only six led to arrests, and only two led to charges being pressed. The idea that there is an epidemic of men whose lives are being ruined by false rape allegations is simply not true. It's a myth. It's more likely that a rapist will never serve jail time for their crime than it is that a man will go to jail for fabricated rape charges.
One person being denied due process is, indeed, a serious problem. But more often than not, the survivor doesn't feel safe reporting, or the police make excuses for the perpetrator, or the DA's office won't pursue charges, or the jury fails to convict, or the survivor just isn't believed, even by their own family and friends.
The people who are being overwhelmingly denied due process are the survivors of assault. Because usually, there is NO process.
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