Sexual abusers should be scared

October 9, 2018

Leela Yellesetty takes apart the many falsehoods and hypocrisies in Donald Trump’s claim that anti-Kavanaugh protests have created a “scary time for young men.”

FOR THE millions of survivors who watched Christine Blasey Ford bravely testify at great personal risk, reliving some of the worst moments of her life in front of the world, the message of the past few weeks couldn’t be clearer: your experience doesn’t matter, and credible accusations of sexual assault don’t bar someone from ascending to a post where you can literally make decisions that affect millions of women’s right to control their bodies.

According to the president, however, we’re losing sight of the real victims in all this: men.

“It’s a very scary time for young men in America,” Donald Trump said at a press conference last week. “My whole life, I’ve heard you’re innocent until proven guilty. But now, you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

“You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life,” he went on, “and somebody could accuse you of something ... and you’re automatically guilty.”

Leaving aside the fact that the claims against Kavanaugh are actually quite credible, while his response was full of obvious evasions and falsehoods, this sudden concern for due process is pretty rich coming from Trump.

President Trump claims it's a "very scary time for men" during an interview on the White House lawn
President Trump claims it's a "very scary time for men" during an interview on the White House lawn

This is the man, after all, who carried out collective punishment against thousands of immigrant families based on the demonstrably false claim that those crossing the border are rapists and drug dealers.

This is also the man who took out a full-page ad in 1989 calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five — Black and Latino teenagers who were bullied by police into false confessions to a horrific rape. They were exonerated over a decade later, in 2002 by DNA evidence and a confession by the actual perpetrator. Yet when asked about this in 2016, Trump still stood by his unsubstantiated belief that they were guilty.

It’s clear then, that Trump’s not really afraid for all men — just white, wealthy, powerful men like himself. And it’s not that hard to understand why he’s so worried: if Kavanaugh can go down over three accusations, what about his own 22?

But Trump is not the only one to suggest that the #MeToo movement has gone too far — and that innocent men now must fear that their lives could be ruined by false rape allegations.

There’s a long history in this country of false rape claims being used to lynch and imprison Black men, so this concern should not be dismissed out of hand by those of us on the left.

We should absolutely support due process for those accused of sexual violence. Unfortunately, what passes as due process in our existing criminal justice system (and other institutions such as workplaces and universities) is far from adequate, and often flies in the face of everything we do know about sexual assault and false allegations.

First it’s worth reviewing some facts. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, approximately one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, yet over 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. The hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport powerfully captures the numerous reasons why this is the case.

Sexual assault is one of the few crimes in which the victim can expect to be put on trial even more than the perpetrator (another case is being shot by police).

We all know the questions by now: What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Did you flirt with him? Why did you go there alone with him? If you are accusing someone with wealth and power, you face the prospect of getting death threats and going into hiding, forever ruining your career and even (if you accuse Harvey Weinstein) being spied on by ex-Mossad agents.

Is it any wonder that so many survivors never report, and that many who do say that the experience of reporting a rape was nearly as traumatizing as the rape itself?

The nature of sexual assault makes it notoriously difficult to prove as it usually takes place in private without witnesses. Due to the traumatic nature of the crime, we know it is not uncommon for victims to have gaps or jumbled recollections of events, which are then used to discredit their accounts, even though this is fully consistent with everything we know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — as Dr. Ford, a professor of psychology, explained herself during her testimony.

Yet most police officers and other officials receive no training on this. When survivors at Portland State University challenged an administrator’s handling of their claims, they were told that it wasn’t a priority case because “there was no blood or bruises.”

Police and prosecutors routinely discourage victims from pursuing their claims, even when highly credible, because securing a conviction is nearly impossible. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, of the 300 out of a thousand rapes that are actually reported, only 57 lead to arrests, seven to prosecutions, and six see any jail time (that is 0.6 percent of all rapists).

Even clear physical evidence is not enough to secure a conviction, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits piled up in police departments across the country, or the harrowing story of Amber Wyatt recently reported on by Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post.

THE OVERWHELMING wealth of evidence, then, suggests that when it comes to getting justice for sexual assault survivors, #MeToo has not gone nearly far enough. The vast majority of survivors are never listened to, and the vast majority of perpetrators never face any consequences for their actions.

Even in the wake of #MeToo, relatively few powerful men have actually faced any criminal charges, and many who were forced temporarily into hiatus are already making their comebacks — hardly a “life-ruining” experience.

But what about false allegations? For starters, statistics are hard to pin down, as many lump together allegations that were actually proven false with those which were found to be “baseless” or “unsubstantiated,” which could mean simply that there was insufficient evidence or the case was not pursued for various reasons, not that the claim itself was untrue.

With that caveat, a 2010 overview of studies estimated of false accusations at around 2-10 percent. To put this in perspective, one is about 15 times more likely to be falsely accused of murder than of rape.

The fear stoked in the media about perils of false reporting is therefore all out of proportion to how rarely it actually happens. But while rare, these cases are worth studying because they actually make one more likely to believe most accusers. As Sandra Newman explained for Quartz in an excellent analysis of false rape accusations (that is worth reading in full):

Because real rape victims are often mistaken for false accusers, it can be uncomfortable to insinuate anything negative about either group. But these two groups are not at all alike. In fact, rape victims aren’t even a group; they have no unifying traits. They can be young or old, Black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rich or poor — anyone at all. Even a 65-year-old man can be a victim of rape.

When one looks at a series of fabricated sexual assaults, on the other hand, patterns immediately begin to emerge. The most striking of these is that, almost invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud. Indeed, they’re often criminals whose family and friends are also criminals; broken people trapped in chaotic lives.

Newman goes on to make a rather obvious observation when you stop to think about it: if you’re going to make up a story about being raped, you’ll probably try and come up with a good story.

False rape allegations usually leave no doubt that a terrible and violent event occurred of which they were the innocent victim. They will not willingly supply details that might undermine their credibility — that an encounter began consensually, for example, or that they had been drinking or that parts of their memory are unclear.

In fact, the very things that people generally believe undermine a rape victim’s credibility are more likely indicators they are telling the truth, especially in light of the significant costs to coming forward at all.

IT’S INTERESTING to think about this in light of Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony.

Ford readily conceded points that she knew full well would help bolster Kavanaugh’s case: that no other witnesses could corroborate her account, and that she couldn’t remember how she got home. She even volunteered that there were some inaccuracies in her original account.

Likewise one of Kavanaugh’s other accusers, Deborah Ramirez, admitted she was severely inebriated when Kavanaugh shoved his genitals in her face, and she probably knew all too well that this would hurt her credibility.

Compare this to our new Supreme Court justice, who not only denied the specific allegations of these women, but went out of his way to paint himself as blameless in every way — even going so far as to make up a new drinking game rather than admit that he ever made sexual references in his high school yearbook — among many other easily disprovable falsehoods. Ask yourself: why would an innocent person do this?

Reviewing Ford’s story in a more recent article for Vox, Newman concludes:

Finally, while Ford’s alleged story of drunken wrestling sounds nothing like a false rape accusation, it does sound exactly like millions of real attempted rapes. It’s such a common story that it’s likely happening to many people as you read this sentence.

In fact, when defenders of Kavanaugh aren’t insisting Ford is a liar, they’re energetically arguing that what Kavanaugh is accused of is so normal it doesn’t matter. If we ever hope to live in a world where it isn’t normal, we cannot continue to elevate alleged sex offenders to the highest positions in our society.

Trump is right that this a scary time — but not for men. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer observed of Trump’s cruel mockery of Blasey Ford at his press conference:

Even those who believe that Ford fabricated her account, or was mistaken in its details, can see that the president’s mocking of her testimony renders all sexual-assault survivors collateral damage. Anyone afraid of coming forward, afraid that she would not be believed, can now look to the president to see her fears realized.

We owe it to all survivors to raise our voices loud and clear: we believe you, and we will not let you be silenced. Despite this setback, the #MeToo movement has unleashed a wave of anger that shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon.

Here’s hoping things get a hell of lot scarier — not for innocent men, but for powerful abusers like Trump and Kavanaugh who are all too comfortable in feeling like they can get away with it.

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