Who Gets Hurt When a Rape Charge is False
October 5, 2005
The lie began when Lauren Weedman was in her first year at DePaul University’s Theatre School.
She was at a party and feeling lost, once a big fish in her high school pond and now a little fish in a huge drama school ocean. Body-image woes also were making her insecure. Seeking some attention, she called an ex-boyfriend.
She told him she felt fat. He told her to “stop obsessing.” Then she told him she had been mugged. That didn’t move him.
Next, for reasons Weedman will question the rest of her life, she told him she had been raped. That got his attention–and that of her roommate, who had overheard Weedman’s part of the conversation.
In a first-person article titled “I lied about being raped” in Glamour magazine’s July issue, Weedman outed her lie nationally, recounting how word of her “rape” spread across campus, drawing sympathy from her friends and bringing her the attention she craved.
Soon the lie grew bigger, and the whole charade spiraled out of her control. To lie about rape is unusual, but false reports do happen, as Weedman’s case shows.
According to FBI statistics, about 6 percent of rape reports turn out not to be true. And, truth be told, the consequences of such a lie create many victims. “Why would you invite that hurt into your life?” said Annie Nelson, 27, a sexual assault survivor who lives in New York City. What Weedman did was “rape herself of dignity, true and healthy relationships and positive self-esteem,” said Nelson, who was asked to read the Glamour article for this story. Further, Nelson said, Weedman’s story reinforces the contention that women generally don’t lie about being raped because “once you lie, it keeps impacting and reimpacting you.”
Women who lie about being raped make it harder for rape survivors to come forward, victims rights activists say. Lying about rape “calls the integrity and believability of real victims into question and makes it harder to convince the jury to put away real rapists,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington, D.C.
Underreporting is a problem
Others see underreporting, not false reporting of rape, as a major problem, said Anne Ream, who founded Voices and Faces Project, a Chicago-based non-profit initiative for sexual violence survivors. In 15 years of work, Ream has not knowingly encountered one case of false reporting but has “met hundreds of women who have never reported their assaults to authorities, or to their families and loved ones, because they feared they would encounter victim-blaming and disbelief.” (In fact, over the last four years, only 44.7 percent of rapes were even reported, according to RAINN calculations based on U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey data.)
And although a woman who makes a false rape report may be a victim of her own imagination, the real victims, some say, are those who get falsely accused not only of a crime they didn’t commit but a crime that never was committed in the first place. “Anyone who would concoct lies about actually being raped is in need of another kind of help,” said Charlotte Pierce-Baker, a professor of English and women’s studies at Duke University who wrote “Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape.” Raped in 1981 when two men broke into her Philadelphia home, Pierce-Baker emphasized that rape-lies harm men who might be wrongly accused. “With a `rape-lie,'” Pierce-Baker wrote in an e-mail interview, “everyone is damaged.”
Lesley Barton, 40, of Glenview, was raped four years ago by an acquaintance after she accepted a drink from him at a bar. While she was semiconscious, he drove her to the salon he owned and raped her on a tanning bed. Afraid to tell her ailing and elderly parents, Barton waited a week before reporting the assault to the police. By then, it was too late to test for evidence of any date rape drug in her system. (The attacker was eventually charged with misdemeanor assault, getting probation but not jail time, Barton said.)
Fabricated stories about rape “perpetuate the belief that a woman would lie about something so horrific,” Barton said. “It’s devastating what rape does to you, your life, your identity. … You’re ashamed, you’re mortified. And then to have this fear that if [you] were to report it, [you] would be disbelieved.”
Motivations to lie
Berkowitz, the RAINN president, sees three reasons a woman would make up a story of being raped: money, revenge and fear. Money comes into play most often in celebrity cases. Revenge can figure into a nasty breakup, and fear can motivate a woman who is afraid her parents will find out she has been sexually active or is pregnant. Other reasons include mental instability, or as in Weedman’s case, a desire for attention.
Although reported rapes remain below 50 percent, experts think women today feel more empowered about coming forward. In the last four years, Justice Department data show, the number of rapes being reported has risen.