“Why Now?”: Myths About False Accusations & The Importance Of Believing All Women

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With the influx of sexual harassment claims and rape accusations flying through the air at warp speed lately, there has been many asking “why now?”. It’s a fair question — why all of the sudden does every day feel so congested with accusations and horrific stories? Every since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a creep extraordinaire, many women have come forward about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment both in the entertainment industry and beyond. But for every supportive, encouraging voice there have been those questioning the authenticity of these claims. The “why now?” questions are usually followed by some claim that false rape accusations do happen and people are bandwagoning to “get their ten seconds.”

And while it’s true that false rape allegations do happen, many don’t know the truth about false accusations and how rare they truly are. Because they are so exceedingly rare, it’s ever the more important to believe all women who come forward, no matter what, so that we can stop perpetuating a culture where women are afraid to come forward for a fear of not being believed. Letting the fear of false accusations cloud judgment is a scary trend, and contributes to a false narrative that encourages a system where rapists don’t even face consequences for their crimes.

We’ve seen condemnations of dangerous men, but also support of the accused based on personal feelings or admiration (ahem — “teen heartthrobs” Nick Carter and Ed Westwick in particular). And when you mix feelings with fact in a way that questions a woman’s claims and extends her trauma, you hurt all victims.

The tipping point

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Those “why now?” questions can be answered pretty succinctly: we’ve hit a tipping point. Loud, and recognizable, voices have spoken out and made themselves known causing an avalanche. When high-profile women such as Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, the world listened. They watched and believed eagerly. A big enough community of support for those women made victims who felt previously silenced feel comfortable enough to finally speak out. Sexual assault and harassment have gone unreported for so long that the allegations have been building up for decades.

Social media has been huge in making this possible, also. The #MeToo movement made some very specific harassment cases relevant to all women as they recant their horror stories and support one another. This campaign has made it very clear to everyone that gender-based violence is not rare — in fact, it’s likely much higher than the enormous one-in-five statistic that had been circulating for years. Sexual harassment, in particular, is sadly an everyday way of life for just about every single woman navigating the world. Being able to share those experiences can be eye-opening for many — mostly men — who don’t realize the impact of their actions (or those unregulated actions of their male friends) on women.

The truth about false rape accusations

A prevalent thread among many in light of all of the accusations as of late is the idea that they’re disingenuous because they’re happening all at once. But how often to false rape reports really happen? Well, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only between 2%-10% of rape accusations are false. This number diminishes even more when you take into consideration how many rapes and acts of sexual violence go unreported. That same resource center concludes about 63% of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police in this country.

Additionally, many of the cases that are deemed “false” by police precincts can be attributed to things that may not necessarily mean that the rape didn’t occur. It could be that the victim decided not to cooperate or sufficient evidence couldn’t be found i.e. “he said she said” is all they have. When you put it this way, the percentage we’re actually working with is almost guaranteed to be even lower.

The truth is that rape accusations are rare — but rapes are not. Women are raped every single day in this country and most of those rapists will not face any consequences. Just because you haven’t seen or heard about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that it hasn’t happened to many of the people you interact with every day. So the next time someone alleges some of these rape accusations floating around the media must be false, remind them of how truly unlikely that is. Because of our culture, it might be tough to ever take someone’s word for something no matter what, but it’s because of our culture that we must force ourselves too — even when it’s tough.

The Dunham-Lauer conundrum

Sure, false accusations happen, but that is no reason not to believe all women. Recently Lena Dunham came under fire again for defending a writer friend of hers accused of rape. She alleged that the accuser was part of that small percentage reporting something false. Obviously this is problematic. What Dunham did here is what we’re all inclined to do when it’s someone we know being accused: defend them without having a second thought of the accuser.

But the issue is people are always going to be inclined to protect the people they love despite the fact that they may be guilty. And by defending the alleged rapist, you’re saying that the person who accused them is a liar — bringing the believability of all women down a notch.

It’s our natural inclination to believe people we know over those we do not, and when it comes to celebrities, we tend to form a one-sided bond with them that makes us feel like we know them — this leading to another conundrum. After Nick Carter was accused of rape by another celebrity in the band, Dream, many were quick to defend their favorite boy bander. For ’90s kids strictly on the Backstreet Boys side of the BSB v. NSYNC debate, it seemed impossible that the “As Long As You Love Me” singer could possibly be capable of the actions Melissa Schuman described. But that can be so damaging to not only Melissa but any other victim who reads those comments and fears the reactions will be the same if she comes forward.

Just because someone seems nice on TV has no bearing on the things they may do behind the scenes. We can’t defend one and condemn another based on personal bias — it’s how all women lose.

Dunham got one thing right in her eventual apology. “Until we are all believed, none of us will be believed,” she said. And it’s true. In a world where men wield most of the power, we owe it to women to hear their voices and believe their stories. Make it “innocent until proven guilty” for the powerless, in this case, the victims. We are not the judges or the jury. The fact of the matter is that coming forward about anything so sensitive is hard. Which is why so many don’t come forward. Don’t make the ones that do feel like they shouldn’t have.

There is still work to be done

While it’s been amazing to see the strength in so many women coming forward, there is a big issue here. This whole “tipping point” is the product of rich, beautiful, white women coming forward about sexual harassers, assailants, and rapists. And most of the things that have been in the media have been about rich, powerful, and recognizable men committing this heinous acts. But here’s the thing: this happens everywhere in every single workplace; in every single community.

It’s great that the world is becoming more supportive and taking aim at predators, but it needs to happen beyond Hollywood. It needs to happen in factories and office buildings. In retail settings and gyms. And it has to be intersectional. This is not something reserved for the rich and privileged. Women of all races and nationalities are impacted by predatory men every damn day, and oftentimes we’re so distracted by other things we forget to listen to them.