Why "Always Believe Victims of Sexual Assault" Is Deadly Dogma

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This post will definitely be a departure from normal articles here. It is however something that needs to be said. Like all other articles on this site, feel free to disagree with it, but please do so respectfully.

The statement "Always Believe Victims" will be acting as a shorthand for the following idea: That when somebody brings an accusation of sexual assault, that person is a victim, and to prevent any further trauma must always be believed without question.

The idea that such a belief could be lethal may seem like hyperbole. It isn't.

Warning: The rest of this post will mention non-consensual sexual encounters and acts of heinous violence.

The Origin of "Always Believe Victims"

The basic reason for the "Always Believe Victims" rule is this: Unlike many crimes, frequently the only evidence available in cases of sexual assault and rape is the victim's testimony, and the accused's testimony. So in the relatively rare instances when someone who commits sexual assault is put on trial, the accused basically argues that the victim consented and is lying about not doing so, that creates reasonable doubt, they are found Not Guilty, and thus somebody who committed a heinous crime gets away with it. And this repeated pattern of getting away with henous crimes, of course, encourages those inclined to commit such crimes to continue to commit them, causing great damage to those they go after.

On top of this, it is common for those who report instances of sexual assault and/or rape to have their entire sexual history dragged into the public record. This is based on the thoroughly wrong idea that if the person in question is known to have consented to sexual activity with other people, they're more likely to have consented to sexual activity with the person they're accusing. For women in particular, this is tied into the "Virgin-Whore" dichotomy, where some cling to a patriarchal belief that a woman not jealously guarding their "purity" or "virtue" (i.e. refusing sexual advances from everybody other than her husband) are now considered "fallen" and thus considered sexually available to everybody.

There also were and in some places still are police departments and private organizations that utterly fail to take seriously reports of rape and sexual assault.

All this can be as traumatic as the crime itself, and is one of the major reasons rape is severely underreported.

The good news is that much of this has shifted dramatically over time, thanks in large part to the efforts of brave feminists and victims speaking out, to the point where nowadays the degree to which this kind of backlash occurs depends in large part on the organization and/or jurisdiction: Some are extremely sympathetic to victims and very likely to convict, some are decidedly not.

In this context, the general rule of always accepting a victim's version of events made a great deal of sense.

The Problem

The problem, of course, is that a victim's version of events could be wrong. There are 2 main ways that can happen:

  • Intentional lying: In this case, the person bringing the allegations knows they are not true, but decides to bring them anyways. The most common reason for this, historically, has been to explain unexpected pregnancies or relationships across social boundaries, but there are documented instances of cases of rape and sexual assault being completely fabricated.
  • Faulty memory: Far more common than lying are cases where, due to the trauma associated with sexual assault and rape, genuine mistakes occur about who, when, and what happened. One subset of this is the implanting of false memories in an individual by a therapist, which has led to lurid accusations, among them the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the early 1990's. Another common case, when the accusation is against a stranger, is mistaking somebody the police suggested might be the culprit for the actual culprit.

Both of these instances are relatively rare: Current estimates are that somewhere around 95% of reports of sexual assault are accurate, and in the absence of contrary evidence those reports should generally be believed. They are not, however, non-existent, and those cases can be seriously disruptive to the lives they affect. If we accept a 1 in 20 figure, then on its face Always Believe Victims is in fact incorrect and leads to significant injustice.

A World in Which "Always Believe Victims" is the Rule

At this point, we could examine the flaws with the Always Believe Victims rule by examining what could happen in a hypothetical America in which the rule was followed. However, we don't need to be hypothetical, because historically there is a subset of Americans who when accused of sexual assault or rape were as good as convicted: black men, particularly black men in areas where open unbridled racism was the rule.

This is where the "deadly" part of the title begins to show up. Starting in the 1870's and continuing well into the 1900's, mobs of white men were involved in lynching as many as 1 black man a week. In many cases, the victim had done nothing wrong and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, due to a longstanding racist portrayal of black men as sexually ravenous beasts who simultaneously threatened the virtue of white women while being perceived as attractive to them, there were a substantial number of cases in which an alleged sexual transgression by a black man against a white woman would trigger a lynching (for more of this dynamic, see Ida B. Wells' A Red Record). This was all done without trial, and without opportunity for a man so accused to defend himself.

As mob rule and KKK actions became somewhat less acceptable, the exact same dynamic would continue via the judicial system. In 1931, a group of 8 black teenagers that became known as the Scottsboro Boys were accused of raping a white woman. The sheriff involved the National Guard to prevent a lynching. The alleged victims eventually admitted in court that they had not been raped. Nonetheless, the black boys were convicted of rape and executed. Approximately 1/3 of all black men accused of rape were executed prior to 1967.

The good news is that nowadays a rape conviction no longer ends in a hanging. The bad news is that the dynamics involving black men are still very much in play, and while jail time is certainly a less severe penalty than execution, thousands of people die in jail every year, of which hundreds are known cases of homicide or suicide. Black men have been penalized who weren't at the scene of the crime or when the alleged victim states repeatedly and firmly that the sex was consensual. There is also evidence of racial bias in college sexual assault allegations. In one case this author was familiar with, an accusation of rape was made against 2 black collegiate athletes, and even though others at the scene just before it happened testified that she had sought out sex with the men in question and repeatedly refused opportunities to leave the scene, the courts found them not guilty, and the college judicial system found them not guilty, they were still expelled.

The Stigma Problem

As mentioned above, there is still a strong stigma associated with publicly accusing somebody of rape or sexual assault. It is not uncommon for those making the allegations to have their entire sexual history dragged into the public view. Those supporting Always Believe Victims point out that nobody would want that for themselves, and therefor conclude that anyone bringing such allegations must have suffered greatly from the sexual assault in question.

The problem with this argument is that it suggests that if we are to Always Believe Victims, we would also have to either maintain the stigma against bringing an accusation, or be prepared for spurious accusations of sexual assault to be thrown around by those who wish to harm others' lives without any risk of any kind of penalty to themselves. Many sexual assault victims advocates are pushing for the end to the stigma against bringing accusation, quite correctly on the grounds that the stigma penalizes people with genuine cases, and that "the victim was a slut" is an invalid but very common defense against an accusation of sexual assault.

So What To Do

Accusations of sexual assault should be treated in much the same way as other accusations of crime: Gather all available physical evidence. Hear from all witnesses (yes, including the accused). Consider circumstantial information. Take the accusation seriously, by all means.

If the evidence points to any of the following, it is essential to conclude that the accused did not do what they're accused of:

  • The accused was not at the scene of the crime when the crime occurred. For example, someone accused of assaulting someone in Los Angeles could not have done so if they were meeting with someone in their office in San Diego at the time.
  • The accused was physically incapable of doing what they were accused of doing. For example, a paraplegic cannot run after anybody.
  • The accused was mistaken for somebody else. For instance, a stranger rape in which the accusers' identification of their attacker was incorrect, as later determined by DNA evidence.

If the accused makes an argument along these lines, they should be seen as guilty:

  • The person making the accusation is a slut. The reason for this is that someone making this argument is announcing a belief that once a person has agreed to sex with 1 person, they've agreed to sex with everybody. Which means they almost definitely didn't agree to sex with the accused.

This evidence should be seen as very strongly leading towards a conclusion of guilt:

  • More than one person accuses the same person of similar behavior. The vast majority of rapes are committed by serial offenders.
  • Tools that aid in rape / sexual assault are found in the accused's possession. For example, date rape drugs.

This evidence should at least call the accusation into question:

  • The accused lacks the objects that were used during the events as described. For example, if a gun was pulled during the assault, the accused should have a gun somewhere.
  • People other than the accused provide evidence the sex was consensual. For example, if somebody calls their best friend to tell them about the wonderful amazing sex they had, and 3 days later describe the same incident as rape, the about-to-be-former friend's statement certainly matters.

This is going to be imperfect. In cases where the only available evidence is the testimony of a single accuser and the testimony of the accused, it will be nigh-impossible to get it right. It's entirely reasonable due to the stigma issue discussed above to right now believe the single accuser in these kinds of cases.

But what is not reasonable is to assume that there is never a defense against an accusation of sexual assault. And to demand that victims must be believed in the face of substantial evidence against their statements is to damage the credibility of those advocating for people making real accusations.

Further Reading

Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen makes much the same argument as the one presented here. To quote her extensively:

It is a near-religious teaching among many people today that if you are against sexual assault, then you must always believe individuals who say they have been assaulted. Questioning in a particular instance whether a sexual assault occurred violates that principle. Examining evidence and concluding that a particular accuser is not indeed a survivor, or a particular accused is not an assailant, is a sin that reveals that one is a rape denier, or biased in favor of perpetrators.

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