Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Feminist question of the week

Apologies for a delayed posting of the Feminist Question of the Week, but here it is:

Why, in your opinion, do people presume that a victim or survivor of sexual assault is lying about their experiences, especially given that survivors of robberies and other types of crimes are generally given the benefit of the doubt?


  1. Because unless there's hard evidence, it's a horrible thing to accuse someone of if they didn't do it. It seems to me that the only cases where people truly presume the "victim" is lying is under those circumstances. And it is happening more often than people care to admit.

  2. Anonymous, so you're saying that the only cases where people presume the victim is lying is when she really IS lying? Seems unlikely (and an illogical assumption) to me.

  3. Anonymous, I'm curious what you define as "hard evidence," and I'm also curious whether you think women(given your links, you seem to focus on women as victims) are more likely to lie about rape than the average person is to lie about other crimes.

    I can tell you right now that statistics say otherwise - Erica works as an advocate for victims of domestic abuse and can tell you all about it - but I'd still like to know what you perceive.

  4. I dunno, Anonymous troll- we tend to believe the people who claim their friends or families have been victimized by a murder. Statistically, people lie about being sexually assaulted with the same frequency that they lie about any other crime, which is to say in approx. 2-8% of reports. More often than not, the reports that don't result in a conviction are the ones where there's not enough evidence to go forward with prosecution, which is NOT the same thing as saying the victim is lying. The burden of proof in criminal trials is so hard to meet that the evidence can consist of eyewitness accounts to pre-assault behaviour and DNA evidence from a sexual assault forensic exam and STILL not go anywhere near a prosecutor's desk.

  5. I find it interesting, and telling, that all of you attacked the anonymous poster for trying to answer the question. You even called them a troll - which, even in internet speak, isn't particularly nice, right?

    The question is not: do women lie about being raped? The question is: Why do people assume victims lie about being raped?

    And as to that, I think the anonymous poster provided a bit of insight, which has been built upon by Erica: it's so hard to prove rape. Not only must one prove that a sexual encounter occurred, one must also prove it was non-consensual. Both are difficult to prove on their own, as you all have pointed out.

    Speaking for myself, that difficulty of proving anything is what makes an accusation of rape frightening: if a woman accuses me as a man, I cannot defend myself easily.

    (Insert any complaints about the gendered bias of the legal system here. IF you want to argue with me, fine, but if you want to understand my answer to the question, let me continue.)

    I think that the presumption that victims lie about being raped boils down to the difficulty of proving rape, and - as the anonymous user mentioned to us - the serious (justified) social and legal consequences for being a rapist.

    Erica/Emily - in a murder case, someone is dead, and it is fairly easy to establish that the person is in fact dead - Sherlock Holmes-style cases notwithstanding. In a rape accusation, someone can forever screw up my life, presumably on nothing more than their say-so. The difficulty of getting a rape conviction doesn't really play in here - mostly because, for many people, they don't THINK it's hard to get a rape conviction. So there's a strong incentive to doubt a rape has actually occured (thereby forever screwing over the person accused) until they are convinced strongly that it has.

    I am NOT saying that women regularly or consistently accuse men, or other women, of raping them when that was not the case. I am saying that there is such a strong penalty (rightly!) associated with rape that to convince someone that it actually happened takes some doing. In murder, that's easier - because there's a body, or blood, or whatever.

    Another aspect may be the fact that people are not always wise in their sexual decisions, and sometimes regret them afterwards. Lots of people know that. An accusation of rape can blunt social and psychological consequences, and so may be perceived by some as an option to avoid guilt. With the efforts of feminists, the assumed (not necessarily actual! again, I am referring to public opinoin here, not to truth) stigma against rape has decreased - which, in turn, makes false accusations easier.

    I think there's also a strong historical factor to consider as well; when women had even stronger social and psychological penalties for unmarried sex. Again, I am speaking about others' perception, not the justice or fairness of it.

    My guess is that the fact that there ARE 2-8% of false accusations has a lot more weight in public perception than it probably should - consider the large body of popular culture concerned with framing someone else for a murder, for example.

    So, to return to the point - people probably assume victims lie about rape because there may appear to be incentives for victims to do so, because there are strong negative effects of a false accusation, and because rape is so difficult to prove. All three things encourage third parties to take a cautious stance on assuming the guilt of the accused.

    That, and our whole legal structure is based on innocent until proven guilty, which plays into that as well.

  6. Brett, careful here - I didn't attack the anonymous poster. I asked him/her to elaborate on that response, and the anonymous poster chose not to do so.

    Erica responded with statistics - sure, she called the poster a troll, and while I wasn't going to call him/her that myself, I think the fact that the poster never came back to elaborate provides at least some evidence that the comment may have come from someone hoping to cause trouble, more than from someone genuinely trying to contribute to the conversation.

    Also, Whitney critiqued what the poster said, not the poster as a person.

  7. Good call on at least two of the points, and the third I'll give the benefit of the doubt on. I apologize, and will be more careful in the future.

  8. I am behind on the commenting trail and I guess that few people will actually look at this comment much, judging on the wealth of wonderful more current posts. I have an experience with this and I hope you will be kind to me. Because wondering if someone is telling the truth has popped into my mind.

    Recently I was approached via a phone call by someone that I dearly love. A close friend that I would do anything for. We were talking on the phone and she told me that at a friends party she was sexually assaulted by a man who she thought she could trust. He was a son of a prominent clergy of her church and himself a returned missionary for his church. She didn't share many more details except that she was upset, she was tired of dealing with the world, she had been avoiding everyone and staying in her room, etc. I was hurt. I was angry. I immediately took her side and believed her. I encouraged her to find help in one of her upcoming therapy session but I felt useless. I felt powerless to offer support. I didn't know what to do. Since that experience I have often wanted to physically hurt her assailant; I hope that he is seeking help for his crimes. But I can think of a couple thoughts that came to my mind a couple days later. I was sitting at school when I started thinking about my friend and I seriously wondered if she was being honest. I thought to myself, what if she was exaggerating facts or merely not taking responsibility for her own actions. I know that those thoughts are wrong. I don't have any evidence other than her word and all the same I am convinced that she is telling the truth. But since then I have wondered, why did I have those thoughts? I consider myself to be engaged in the empowerment of women and I yearn for relationships that are based in trust, inclusion, intimacy and collaborative leadership. So why did I have such a paradoxical thought? Here are some of the thoughts that I have had as to the question why.

    1. I love this person and don't want to believe that they could have been taken advantage of by another man.
    2. I am scared that if it were true she would not trust me anymore because I am a man and therefore not worthy of trust.
    3. I don't want anyone to have to deal with abuse and so I close my eyes to the truth.
    4. I am upset with the social roles of dominating men but still feel that I have to associate myself with some social schema of manhood and therefore try to find explanations other than the current socially accepted man is a jackass and I want nothing to do with him. (Rejecting one's gender is not easy)
    5. I am scared of falling short or not being enough for someone who might need a lot of support. What if I can't give that?
    6. Am I by association of gender also capable of sexual assault? Maybe if she's dishonest thence was still a good guy and so am I.

    That's all. Again I am not trying to say that assuming dishonesty is right in any circumstance. It was disconcerting enough to read Anon's articles let alone accept that I have had similar thoughts. Maybe if I have had these thoughts and these rationales, however un-rational they may be, others might be thinking and acting on the same thought patterns.

    Thank you for your post and your comments.

  9. For the record, I didn't come back because I only intended to give an opinion and didn't feel the need to really come back. This blog, however, has had some other interesting things on it and I decided to check back (just now) to see if anyone had posted-- and WOW. Yeah, I wasn't trying to troll anyone. I merely stated an answer as I see it. If I were ever accused of any crime, rape is the scariest... bar none. Because I have no real defense if here-say is able to be the weighted proof against me when they can't conjure up any other physical evidence. And as far as I'm concerned about the statistics, I am a sociologist, and would love to see the methods used in finding this 8% statistic, because I highly doubt it's full representative. With that in mind, I am not now nor ever stated an assumption that I felt that women only liars where the ones accused of lying. Rape is a horrible crime. Violent rapes cause trauma that can be shadowed by few other things for women. If I had my way, I would lynch every one of them, AS FAR AS the evidence determines that they did it. The nature of the crime in this case makes it difficult to do that. ANYTIME there is an issue before us like this, I believe in innocence before one can be proven guilty. And people in the US are being more and more exposed to stories, probably because they are being overexposed in the media, yet not withstanding, that within these stories we see horrible injustices done to the accused. And the law does nothing much less to protect an accused rapist than it does for any other type of criminal, because here-say is more often utilized to put people away for it. Therefore, I am personally skeptic anytime I hear that a woman has been raped, unless there's some heavy proof released with the initial accusation. And I don't think my skepticism is unjust in any way.

  10. *I have not now nor ever stated an assumption that I felt only women who were liars were the ones accused of lying.

    The lynching comment was for the rapists, not the women (in case it wasn't clear enough).

    *And people in the US are being more and more exposed to stories , probably because they are being overexposed in the media, yet not withstanding, these stories show us horrible injustices done to the accused.

    There are the corrections. I'm not really illiterate, I promise. It's late, and I'm sick, and I type sloppily when I'm tired. Not that it would make much difference, being just a simple troll and all...

  11. Anonymous, I only now discovered your comments, so you may not get a chance read my response, but I'm concerned by how Erica, Whitney, and I seemed to you, Brett, and Jonathon, all of whom seemed a bit concerned that we'd jump down the throat of anyone who disagreed. Given that Erica, Rachel, and I put such store in creating a blog environment that welcomes all opinions, I'd hate to give the impression that we'll tear apart anyone who doesn't share our perspective.

    In all honesty, I don't think we tore your comment to pieces, but it was a bit unfair to refer to you as a troll.

    That being said, I've looked back over your comment, and I really think this comes down to a miscommunication. Could I explain what we *thought* you were saying, and why we thought that?

    So, originally, here's what you said:

    "Because unless there's hard evidence, it's a horrible thing to accuse someone of if they didn't do it. It seems to me that the only cases where people truly presume the "victim" is lying is under those circumstances."

    After reading your later comments, I realize that you meant people only assume the victim is lying if there's no hard evidence, and that they make that assumption because it would be a horrible crime to accuse someone of if that person were innocent. But when you said that people only assumed the victim was lying, "under those circumstances," we had no way of knowing whether you meant under circumstances where "there's no hard evidence," or under circumstances where "someone" has been "accuse[d]" who "didn't do it." See, both possibilities were built into your comment, and when there are two possible candidates for an open phrase like "those circumstances," readers tend to take the most recent one. You can trust me on this one - I'm a writing teacher.

    That is why I was hoping you'd come back and clarify. I'm sorry that when you didn't come back to clarify I took it as evidence that you were a troll. But if you really had been saying what Erica, Whitney, and I thought you were saying, can you see why that would have seemed like troll-like behavior? It doesn't help that you posted as "anonymous," either.

    So, anyway - I apologize for the misunderstanding, and I hope you'll continue commenting on our posts. However, it would probably be a good idea to choose a nickname and comment under that, rather than just commenting as anonymous. That way we'd have a little context behind your comments.

    After all, when random people post "comments" advertising some cleaning product, or some book about why American men should boycott American women (true story - someone really did that), it can be hard for us to sort through the well-intentioned anonymous posters and the true trolls.

  12. Anonymous: I'd love to hear your feedback on my reaction to this situation (which does include an apology, by the way) in the newest post ( I appreciate the clarification you gave later on (which is a really good answer, by the way), because it made a lot more sense to me afterwards, and I do apologize for calling you a troll. This has made me reconsider the way the blog handles commenting, so please do check out the post linked above. As someone who's chosen to be anonymous, I'd like your feedback on it.

    Jonathan- wow, I really appreciate the honesty of your experience.

    The reason I asked this question is because it's a truly tough issue. As a broader thing I always believe the victim first, but as a victim advocate- someone who works with survivors on a daily basis- I find myself meeting people making accusations of rape who I have a very hard time believing. While I think my problem is more personal than systemic, I also believe that systemic issues stem from personal politics as well.