Bearing False Witness in Rape

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One good thing about the UVA rape story — and it may be the only good thing about it — is that it spotlights the disagreement between those who believe that rape accusers’ claims must be examined under the cold light of objective reason and evidence, and those who say rape accusers should be automatically believed.


I’m in that first group. That last group is represented by lawyer Zerlina Maxwell in a Washington Post piece originally titled “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims” (the “automatically” has since been changed to “generally”). Maxwell’s approach is not an isolated instance, either; it is all-too-common in its trashing of rights in the cause of feminism/leftism, and in its disregard of men as generally unworthy of our sympathies as compared to women:

The accused [male] would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.

The cost of disbelieving women, on the other hand, is far steeper. It signals that that women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.

I wonder if Maxwell would hold the same opinion about the innocuous nature of false accusations if a man were to accuse a woman of rape (such things have happened), or if a woman accused another woman of rape, or — well, you get the idea. Which victim class would triumph, the class “women” or “alleged rape victims”?


It may be that Maxwell and those who agree with her have never read Kafka. If they had, they would know that false accusations are exceedingly pernicious and destructive. Or perhaps they are unfamiliar with the importance given them by the Ten Commandments, which warn us against them (in either commandment number eight or nine, depending on your religious affiliation): Thou shalt not bear false witness. Proverbs goes even further:

There are six things that the LORD strongly dislikes, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

The ancients knew that a reputation is a pearl of great price. They also knew that people lie: men and women both, and that false accusations damage both sexes equally and terribly. False accusations can jail an innocent person, but short of that they can still dog a person for life, and can be almost impossible to repair after they have done their poisonous work. As Ray Donovan, Labor secretary under President Reagan,  famously asked after being acquitted of corruption charges, “Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?” There is no such place, not on this earth.


The new line of defense in the UVA rape story is that “Jackie” may have been lying about the rape, but that she was sexually abused in some way by some unspecified group of men that night, and reported it to friends relatively soon after the event. Well, maybe; it’s certainly very possible, and it’s certainly very possible she was abused in some way. But Jackie may be emotionally unstable for other reasons than a sexual assault at school. Some other stressful event may have gotten to her, something connected with going away to college, for example.

Those such as Maxwell, who advocate automatically believing women who say they have been raped when there is little or no corroborative evidence to back up their claims, commonly quote a statistic that only 2% to 8% of rape accusations are false. But actually, that would still constitute a significant number of false accusations. It would mean that somewhere between 1 in 50 and 1 in 12 rape accusations are false; certainly no reason to automatically believe any single accusation of rape in any particular case. But, far more importantly, those who quote the statistic never (at least so far as I’ve been able to find) attempt to explain how those statistics have been derived and whether they seem valid. And that’s because the research that uncovered them is somewhat flawed.


That would be a whole separate essay, or perhaps a book. But for now I’ll just advise the reader to look at this Wiki article, which gives summaries of many of the studies of the incidence of false rape allegations. You’ll find that, in general, they deal with what percentage of rapes that have been reported to police and officially investigated have been ultimately unfounded or judged to be false, and/or how many of the rape accusers have actually been prosecuted for false accusations. This does not even begin to apply to the women who, like Jackie, make accusations and spread rumors but never file a police report or report the rape to any investigating officials. In addition, such research cannot tell us what percentage of false accusations have been successful and are therefore never discovered to be false. That number remains unknown and probably unknowable, and it may be infinitesimal or it may be large.

The Wiki article contains a chart summarizing the research, and it is clear from looking at it that the statistics vary widely, from a low of 1.5% to a high of 90%, with almost every level in between. The majority of the studies found rates to be over 10% (sometimes well over), but there is little question that most of this research features large built-in challenges and cannot be relied on, although that won’t stop those with agendas from quoting it as though it is authoritative.


We simply do not know how many false rape accusations are made. Nor do we know whether Jackie was or is telling the truth, and we should come to no conclusions based on the non-evidence that’s been presented so far. And that’s where it stands for now.



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