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False rape charges hurt real victims

By Wendy McElroy
web posted July 28, 2003

The media coverage of the felony sexual assault charge leveled at basketball star Kobe Bryant includes an element that has been rarely introduced into public discussion in recent years: Commentators are openly speculating on whether the accusation is false. Could the woman be lying?

Is Bryant the victim or the victimizer?
Is Bryant the victim or the victimizer?

And yet, whenever an unwitnessed crime is alleged, such speculation is valid. This is especially true if the allegation of crime is not unambiguously backed up by physical evidence. In a "he said/she said" scenario, the credibility of the accuser is key. This is why Western jurisprudence recognizes the right of the accused to face his or her accuser and ask questions in a court of law.

Our society has long acknowledged the existence of false accusations . In Biblical times, "bearing false witness" was recognized as a practice prevalent enough to be delineated as one of only 10 overriding social rules: the Ninth Commandment reads, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

In the Common Law tradition , upon which American jurisprudence draws heavily, the prevalence of false accusations contributed to "the presumption of innocence." The definition of this legal term is: "The indictment or formal charge against any person is not evidence of guilt. Indeed, the person is presumed by the law to be innocent."

Why? Because, in almost any circumstance, a certain percentage of people will lie. They will do so for a variety of motives. Sometimes there is a clear advantage to lying: for example, to gain money or the custody of children.

In his forthcoming biography Politicians, Partisans and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson discusses another motive that underlies some false accusations. In 2001, a woman he had never met alleged he had raped her in Louisville, a city he had never visited. After $14,000 in defensive legal bills, Carlson discovered that the woman had a chronic mental disorder. He decided not to sue for redress since it would further link his name with the word "rape."

Carlson even hesitated to speak out in his tell-all book because "the stigma of being accused of that kind of crime is so strong." Fortunately, he thought it taught a valuable lesson: "I always assumed, like every other journalist does, that all sex scandals are rooted in the truth, period. You may not have done precisely what you're accused of, but you did something." From bitter experience, he now knows differently.

Even charges that are later revealed to be false can devastate the accused. Consider journalist John Fund , who was arrested on charges of domestic violence and publicly excoriated for sexual misconduct. The charges were later dropped.

Columnist Eric Alterman recently published an article entitled "Who Framed John Fund?" There, Alterman chronicled the false accusations that haunt Fund. Once a high-profile presence on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and a frequent television commentator, Fund now writes for the WSJ's far less prestigious Opinionjournal.com and is rarely on TV.

On his Web site, Fund posted a notarized affidavit from his accuser, stating, "Mr. Fund has not been abusive to me contrary to what I said in reports to the Jersey City police." He has also posted the transcript of a deposition in which she testifies under oath that she has "borderline personality disorder." Nevertheless, it is not clear whether Fund's career will recover.

How prevalent is the false reporting of sexual assault? Estimates vary widely.

According to much-cited feminist statistics, two percent of all reports are false. Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will (1975), for example, claims that false accusations in New York City dropped to that level after police departments began using policewomen to interview alleged victims. Elsewhere, the two percent figure appears without citation or with a vague attribution to "FBI" sources.

According to a study conducted by Eugene Kanin of Purdue University, the correct figure may rise to the 40 percent range. Kanin examined 109 rape complaints registered in a Midwestern city from 1978 to 1987. Of these, 45 were ultimately classified by the police as "false." Also based on police records, Kanin determined that 50 percent of the rapes reported at two major universities were "false."

Studies and statistics often vary and for legitimate reasons. For example, they may examine different populations. But such a dramatic variance -- two percent to 50 percent -- raises the question of whether political interests are at work.

It is understandable why some feminists might wish to understate the incidence of false reporting. In the '50s, women who reported sexual assault or domestic violence were dismissed. To acknowledge false reports as a real problem might undercut the gains made toward taking women seriously.

But if the charge against Kobe Bryant is proven false, a backlash against women reporting violence may occur. Bryant is accused of a crime that, under Colorado law, carries a prison term of four years to life or probation for 20 years to life. The highest level of evidence and credible testimony should be required before ruining a man's life in that manner.

Feminists should demand such a high level of proof. Otherwise, it is the man who appears to be the victim no matter how many times the accusation is repeated.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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