As we watch the circus surrounding the multiple, uncorroborated (some completely without credibility) allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a sexual miscreant in high school and college, a lot of pundits have claimed that questioning his accusers would keep victims of sexual assault from coming forward.
Is this true?
It’s difficult to say. Many self-reported surveys have asked why women who claim they were sexually assaulted didn’t come forward, and many say it was because they were afraid they wouldn’t be believed. But these are women claiming they were sexually assaulted, so we don’t know whether they actually were sexually assaulted or are perhaps reinterpreting non-sexual assaults as sexual assaults (two people can have different interpretations of the same encounter, and memories can be corrupted).
It certainly makes sense that a fear of not being believed could keep someone from coming forward, and we have apparently done a poor job of showing alleged victims that unless they are proven to have lied, they will face no consequences if their stories don’t lead anywhere.
One can look at the light or nonexistent consequences for those who have been proven to have lied. Crystal Mangum, the woman who falsely accused Duke Lacrosse players of rape, was not charged with a false accusation. Jackie Coakley, the woman who lied about being gang-raped by fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia, faced no discipline or investigation from the school after her story fell apart.
False accusers often receive relatively light sentences. Joanna Newberry claimed she was sexually assaulted in a basement bathroom at a library at Lindenwood University. She received two years of probation and was expelled from the university. Sacred Heart University student Nikki Yovino was sentenced to one year in prison after falsely accusing two football players of rape, but it is doubtful she will serve that full term. Nicole Marie Hosmer, who claimed she was kidnapped by a man who attempted to rape her, was sentenced to 50 hours of community service and fined more than $500 in court fees. The list goes on.
Occasionally, false accusers do pay a price – if they’re sued in civil court. Col. David “Wil” Riggins sued his accuser, Susan Shannon, for defamation and she was ordered to pay $8.4 million for her false accusation, though that number is likely to be reduced.
But stories of false accusers being punished don’t get the national attention that accusations themselves get. Of course, there are other, non-legal punishments for someone not being believed, such as isolation from friends and gossip.
I’ll offer an alternative theory on what hurts victims of sexual assault — the clearly obviously false claim that no woman would lie about sexual assault. Anyone can hear that claim — made by lawmakers and activists — and know on its face that it’s false. By telling us that we must “start by believing” accusers (they say victims or survivors, but what they mean are accusers) when we know not every accusation is true, makes people question the loudest voices on the issue and question accusers.
Pretending false accusations don’t happen, when they clearly do, makes people less likely to believe accusations. Being told to believe accusations without any evidence — even shaky, uncorroborated, and impossible allegations — cuts to the core of Americans’ understanding of justice and common sense.
True victims are not served when obvious false accusers are held up as heroes and unpunished, making everyone believe the next accusation a little less.