DSK, Kachelmann, Julian Assange – what do these scandals have in common besides being about alleged rapes and sexual assaults by powerful celebrities? All of the alleged victims of these rapes had to face the accusation, made by public figures, the media and public opinion, of having falsely accused their rapist. Can you think of any other crime where this has repeatedly been the case?
Sure, one could argue that these particular cases all involve celebrities, are thus much more relevant to the public, and false accusations seem more probable when money and exposure appear to be a possible motive. However, the truth is that it is not just extreme or extraordinary cases that seem to justify the questioning of the accusers’ honesty. In fact, it is a widespread habit to distrust the word of sexually abused women, one of the reasons why only 13% percent of rape cases end in a conviction and only 15% of rapes are reported in the first place. But what makes this crime so suspicious, compared to any other?
The myth of the stranger rape has long been debunked, that is in circles that have actively looked into rape research. However, the idea of an anonymous man lurking in a dark alley to wait for his random female victim still persists. In reality, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by people personally known to the victim: relatives, colleages, friends, boyfriends… Other myths include the assumption that rape victims would naturally go to the police immediately after the offense, their memory of the crime would be coherent and without gaps, and they would have obvious physical injuries as proof. Often, so-called victim blaming enters the equation as well; the belief that if the victim drank alcohol and/or dressed or behaved provocatively, she was somehow tempting her rapist and wanted to have sex to begin with.
All of these assumptions do not reflect the reality of most rape cases, yet they are deeply ingrained in our consciousness. It would be naive to believe that police officers, judges and lawyers are completely free from their own moral prejudices. In fact, investigations into so-called false rape accusations have shown that cases were labelled as such simply based on the police officers’ judgment (for example if the victim did not “appear credible” because she had personal relations with the aggressor), or because the allegations were later withdrawn or retracted (for which there could be many reasons that don’t exclude the actual veracity of the crime).
The numbers that I could find for actual false allegations of rape and sexual assault are settled somewhere between 3% and 9%; an almost insignificant amount when compared to other crimes. These numbers need to be recalled when talking about alleged false accusations. Following the media reports during such high-profile cases as the DSK scandal, one could easily get the impression that false allegations among women are rampant, when this is simply not the case. Feminists have fought for centuries to actually make rape a crime under any circumstances and to make it possible for women to report these crimes and be taken seriously. An increase in charges can therefore be considered progress, not the result of some feminist conspiracy in order to oppress men. But the reinterpretation of the male aggressor as the actual victim is a common and unfortunate trend. This becomes evident in the reappropriation of certain terms or sayings, such as the proverbial elevator, which women were not supposed to share alone with a man in order to protect themselves from sexual assault. These days the common belief is that it is the man who should avoid riding an elevator with a single female, in order to protect himself from false accusations.
The idea is that women are now in a more powerful position, in which they can destroy a man’s reputation and life in a moment’s notice, when in fact accusing someone of rape is not equal to a Sunday afternoon stroll. Victims have to endure medical tests and, of course, repeated interrogations that are often traumatizing, as well as detailed investigations into their most intimate private lives. In the process, women are often subjected to the judgment, scrutiny and misgivings of male doctors, police officers and judges, which is not to say their female counterparts were immune to the pervasiveness of rape myths.
Rape myths protect men as sexual aggressors in allowing them to justify their actions, while at the same time calming the public: after all, it could never happen to them or their daughters, because they play by the rules (i.e. don’t drink alcohol, don’t wear “slutty” clothes, aren’t promiscuous…). Moreover, they help to manifest hierarchical power structures between men and women, in that they encourage women to self-police and to seek the “protection” of other men, whereas men are allowed to do as they please and to shift responsibility to the victims. Claiming that in large parts women falsely accuse men of rape is a false accusation in itself. It is another rape myth that needs to be publicly debunked in order to ensure that women no longer remain silent about their suffering. Innocent until proven guilty – we have to remember to apply this first and foremost to the victim.
edgar degas "interior (the rape)" 1868/1869
about false allegations: Liz Kelly, The (In)credible Words of Women: False Allegations in European Rape Research, 2010.
about the power of rape myths (in German): Susen Werner, Stereotype Vorstellungen über Vergewaltigungen (Vergewaltigungsmythenakzeptanz) als Prädiktoren der Beurteilung von Vergewaltigungsdelikten durch RechtsanwältInnen, 2011.
a brief summary about the most common rape myths: click here