Saturday, 14 January 2012

Rape, false accusations and The Daily Mail

*Trigger warning* This post talks about rape, sexual violence and the lasting impact of those crimes on women's mental and physical health.

There's always been a lot of 'what about the men-ery' when we talk about feminism, particularly when we talk about the issue of violence against women and girls. This conversation has mainly had two angles - the first focusing on how men are victims of rape, sexual assault and intimate partner violence too (from both male and female partners) and the second focuses on false accusations of rape and domestic abuse. And I have a sense that since I started engaging with feminist debate, particularly online, it has been towards the latter that the conversation has become more heavily weighted.

Because I am talking about false accusations, I will be talking in terms of male violence against women and girls. This is not to deny that there are male survivors (or female perpetrators), but because when we talk about false accusations, the conversation is, as far as I can tell, always about women falsely accusing men. I will also mainly be focusing on rape and sexual violence.

It seems to me that now whenever I write about rape and sexual violence, or speak about it, or see or hear any other conversation about it, we are almost immediately confronted with a comment that goes something like this:

'Of course, rape is awful. But let's not forget - a false accusation of rape can ruin a man's life'.

I believe that this response to conversations around rape is not only unhelpful, but completely skews our perceptions about rape and sexual violence. Firstly, because it suggests that false accusations are as common as rape (they're not. Reports differ but on average there are 90,000 rapes in the UK each year according to the Home Office. Only 15% of those rapes will be reported based on 6 year average from the BCS, and between 1-5% of accusations are false.) (  And it suggests that the impact of a false accusation is worse than rape. This response argues that the rape is something that happens once, on one occasion and then is over. Meanwhile, according to our common commenter, the impact of a false accusation goes on, and on, and on. Whilst I'm not denying that the impact is there and must be awful, I will explore more later about why this summing up of the impact of both crimes is problematic.

This response to conversations about violence against women and girls is now so common that it is having a profound impact on the way our media and politicians talk about and approach issues of sexual violence. In 2010, the coalition government tried to pass a law that would give anonymity to those accused of rape, and only those accused of rape. This proposal was completely based on the idea that false accusations could ruin a man's life and was influenced by the perception that false accusations are common and the 'norm' - an assertion based on a belief that more often than not, women lie about rape. The proposal was defeated, but it showed starkly how the belief that women lie is so prevalent and accepted. It was used to suggest a law that would have likely dissuaded women from reporting rape, and could reduce the conviction rate even further from the paltry 6.5% it already is (from incident to conviction). I base this assertion on the fact that by naming an accused rapist such as John Worboys, his other victims are more likely or able to come forward. I also base it on the fact that if you are working from a base line that women are likely to be lying, then you are hardly empowering women to come forward and talk to you about what has happened to them.

Another incident involved a lawyer I heard on Radio 4 discussing the cuts to legal aid and the exemption given to domstic abuse survivors (an exemption that isn't really working in practise). He expressed concern that this exemption would encourage 'more false accusations of domestic abuse'. This suggests that there's an engrained belief in our culture that fale accusations against violent men happen off the cuff, 'willy nilly', by irresponsible women looking to save a buck. The actual important debate about how the cuts are impacting women trying to flee violent homes is then forgotten, in favour of another debate around false accusations.

The media plays a big role in the assertion that false accusations are as common (if not more) than rape and in implanting the belief that the majority of rape accusations are false. This appears to be a twist of logic around what being convicted of a crime means. It goes thus - the rape conviction rate is 6.5%. Therefore, the argument opines, every rape that is not convicted must be a false accusation. However, this ignores the fact that a false accusation of rape is also a crime.

Of course I am going to pick on the Daily Mail as they really are the worst offenders when it comes to deliberately misleading their readers over what a false accusation of rape is. When you search for 'falsely accused of rape' on their site, you are greeted with a list of headlines where the word rape is always presented in inverted commas ('rape'; 'sex attack' 'rape victim'), a punctuation device that implies disbelief. Stories where the man has been acquitted are presented as 'cry rape' stories and deemed to be false accusations - even when no-one has been found guilty of that crime ("Cry rape victim's hell: Mr X was found not guilty of raping the woman last year after she claimed he had taken advantage of her while she was too drunk to consent to sex."). When someone has been found guilty of false accusations then this story is likely to be printed, despite the fact that the 2,000 rapes that happen each week in the UK rarely make the headlines. This means that there is an over-representation of stories on a rare crime, and a real lack of representation of a far commoner crime. The women who make false accusations are vilified and "face public shaming" (as one headline put it) far more than the men who rape (I don't agree with vilification BTW, I think it 'monsters' people and prevents us from examining and challenging what causes rape - i.e. patriarchy). Meanwhile, editorial from Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn and Peter Hitchens repeat and perpetuate the myth that most claims of rape are false, stating that unless a rape is by a stranger, and accompanied with additional physical violence or weapon, then they are incidents where the woman regrets consensual sex the next day.

'a woman is encouraged to claim she has been raped when, for example, with the benefit of hindsight, she may become aggrieved about what she voluntarily allowed to happen, particularly when she was rather the worse for wear.'  - Melanie Phillips

'[if the] women had met a man in a Tiki Bar on St Lucia, got off her head on rum punch and invited him back to her hotel room for a drunken tumble. The following morning, through her hungover haze, she was consumed by self-loathing. Would she be entitled to cry ‘rape’? There's a world of difference between a violent sexual assault at the hands of a complete stranger, or gang of strangers, and a subsequently regretted,  alcohol-induced one-night stand...That’s not how the self-appointed Boadiceas of feminism see it.' Richard Littlejohn (proving that once again, he doesn't understand anything or use correct grammar!)

'Of course all rapes are bad. But some rapes are worse than others. The extension of rape, to cover any situation where a woman says she has been raped, is a huge difficulty for a fair legal system that relies on actual evidence before deciding guilt.' Peter Hitchens

So what we have here is a constant drip feed of two narratives. One, that rape isn't very common because most rapes are consensual sex where the woman regrets it in the morning (there's also a lot of slut shaming in this narrative around women who have consensual sex). And two, false accusations of rape are very common and they ruin men's lives.

Because these two narratives are now so much a part of our cultural conversation around rape, I find increasingly as a feminist I have to caveat every conversation around sexual violence with a 'and of course, false accusations happen and are awful too'. But it's time to reframe the conversation. Yes, let's talk about false accusations but let's not conflate the crime with rape.

As I said earlier, the dialogue we usually get around false accusations and rape is that being falsely accused ruins lives. As Melanie P puts it:

'the fact [is] that men who are cleared of rape still leave court with their reputations trashed, even though the evidence against them may have been tenuous in the extreme.'

I'm not denying that the impact of a false accusation must be awful, although let's not forget that some men who are accused of rape or assualt (or even found guilty!) still manage to carry on with their lives, careers, stardom reputation intact (and enhanced). Chris Brown, Tyson, Polanski, DSK, Assange anyone? I am not here to mitigate the horrible impact of being falsely accused of a crime though, the impact it would have on career, family, relationships, mental health - all of this is of course awful and those falsely accused require support and justice.

However, I find that when people comment on the impact of a false accusation, I always hear this eery silence around the impact of rape, domestic abuse and sexual assault. As I said earlier, it seems that there's an idea that rape happens, one night, one day, and that's the end of it. It's horrible when it happens, but then it's over. Meanwhile, a false accusation goes through the courts and drags on and on. And it's because this idea is so offensive and so palpably untrue that I feel we need to shift the dialogue. So that when we talk about rape, the impact of that crime is not silenced by a discussion about the impact of another, unrelated crime.

Rape doesn't just happen and that's it. A woman may be raped many times. She may be left with post traumatic stress disorder, an STD or infection, physical injury, nightmares, depression, an unwanted pregnancy. She may be judged by her community, or left infertile by infection. In a country where abortion is illegal (which includes Northern Ireland) she may have a child. A quick search on Google of 'suicide rates of rape victims' produces a South Carolina study on mental health of rape survivors that found:
  • 31% of rape survivors developed PTSD
  • Rape survivors were 6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD than women who hadn't been raped
  • 30% of rape survivors had experienced at least one major depressive episode (compared to 10% of women who hadn't been raped)
  • 33% of rape survivors said they had suicidal thoughts (compared to 8% of women who hadn't been raped). According to, 13% of rape survivors attempt suicide.

The counselling directory ( believe that the emotional cost of domestic abuse costs employers and the state £23 billion per year.

What I am trying to illustrate with these statistics and studies is that when we talk about rape and false accusations, we're not talking about a crime that happens and then is over, against a crime that has a lasting impact. Both crimes have lasting impact and, I would argue, the physical and mental health impact of rape on survivors is likely to be far greater than that of false accusations. And because rape is far more common, this impact is happening to women you know, right now. These crimes are not the same, they are not analogous and let's stop talking about them as if they are.

Let's talk about rape. And let's talk about false accusations. But let's stop prioritising one narrative so that survivors seeking support and justice are confronted with proposed laws that harm their case, and jurors and judges and politicians fed on a diet of Daily Mail articles refuse to believe rape happens that often in the first place.

BTW, this is worth reading:

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