False Accusations and Rhetoric

Every now and then, a story about false rape accusations breaks and becomes the all consuming story and narrative about rape for a few days, perpetuating a wide variety of incredibly harmful beliefs about rape and what happens when people file accusations of rape. It is extremely difficult to find statistics on false accusations, but suffice it to say that of rape accusations as a whole, false charges are a very small percentage, and yet they attract a disproportionate amount of the attention. People say that false accusations eat up valuable resources, which they do, in more ways than one; the obsession and hyperbole over false accusations accounts for a huge waste of resources.

There’s a narrative that seems to be followed with false rape accusations. The accuser is usually a young, conventionally attractive, nondisabled white person. Charges are made, the investigation starts to proceed, and it becomes evident that the charges are false, for whatever reason. Then, the accuser is pilloried in the media for wanting attention, for doing rape victims/survivors a disservice, for abusing the legal system, and then a big merry go round begins as everyone speculates about motivations and makes a point of distancing themselves from the accuser to make it clear that they don’t support false accusations.

In cases involving women making false charges, which is most, misogynist groups naturally jump all over every single one to use as an example of the evil ways of women. These groups often suggest that since getting rape convictions is so very easy, filing false charges is quite damaging because people could be falsely convicted. They speculate about how many convicted rapists are really innocent, and individual women are made into scapegoats for their entire gender.

One of the most common things I see false accusers charged with is making it harder for real victims/survivors to come forward about rape because their accusations will be viewed as false. The fact is that even if only a handful of people filed false accusations every year, people would still decide that rape accusations were false when they didn’t fit in with their narrative of the rapist. People not believing rape allegations has a lot less to do with the relatively low incidence of false charges than it has to do with rape culture in general, with the common belief that it’s possible to know people and that ‘that kind of person’ would never. And it has a lot more to do with the demographics of the accuser; people with disabilities, people of colour, transgender people are far more likely to be disbelieved when it comes to filing rape charges.

What I don’t see is a lot of exploration into what drives people to file false rape charges, or a consideration that perhaps, just perhaps, people who file false charges actually are or were rape victims/survivors. Is it possible that some people retract charges because they are intimidated or coerced, and refuse to cooperate with the investigation? I think it is, and this is certainly not the case in all cases, but it’s something to consider. Just as the fact that filing false charges indicates that something is wrong and needs to be addressed should be considered. Cries for help do not always take neat, convenient forms, and instead of ignoring them, perhaps we ought to pay attention to them.

Filing false charges is absolutely harmful, and absolutely shouldn’t happen. But it’s worth exploring who tends to file charges falsely and why, and to deconstruct the idea that filing false charges somehow makes it harder to file real charges. What makes it hard to file real charges is living in this culture, where rape victims/survivors are disbelieved for any number of spurious and ridiculous reasons. Demonising people who file false charges will not change that, although talking about why false charges get filed in general without speculating about specific cases might help to address some of the reasons for false accusations.

The highly public nature of rape accusations is also something worth considering and reevaluating. Should the media be reporting on every case where someone is accused of a crime, before prosecutors have even considered whether they want to move forward with the case? As soon as rape accusations hit the news, both the accuser and the accused are subjected to very high levels of scrutiny, sometimes intense, uncomfortable-making levels that make accusers regret their decision to come forward. People say that false accusations ruin reputations—one way to address that might be to keep charges confidential until the case is actually brought to court, at which point it becomes a matter of public record. Poor concealment of the victim’s identity is also a continual problem with rape charges that needs to be addressed, to make people feel safer about coming forward.

The obsession with picking apart every instance of a false accusation is most definitely contributing to the narrative surrounding false accusations. Feminists are often eager to hang accusers out to dry because they are afraid of being linked with them, and they don’t stop to consider what may have happened, that the situation may be more complicated than it appears on the surface, that the accuser may actually be in need of support. What if, instead of jumping on the condemnation bandwagon every time false charges were filed, we turned these cases into an opportunity to provide statistics about the number of rapes that get reported, the number of cases that proceed to trial, the number of convictions, and common penalties faced by rapists? What if we used them as a chance to talk about structural issues while the media is paying attention to rape? What if we subverted the narrative a bit?

Rather than viewing false accusations as individual actions, maybe we should consider them as part of a structural problem, and talk about the structures that contribute to filing false charges.