Sometimes, Assault Accusations are False. A Little Awareness is OK
July 13, 2013
The minds behind a crop of new posters displayed around the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton were undoubtedly looking for a reaction. They’re bound to get it, and then some. Hold onto your hats, folks; this might get messy. Riffing off of a successful anti-rape campaign in which men were warned not to “be that guy” (that is, ostensibly, he who commits a sexual assault), these new amended posters warn women not to “be that girl.”
“Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual. Lying about sexual assault = crime,” reads one of the new posters.
“Women who drink are not responsible for their actions, especially when sex is involved.”
Uh huh. I suppose Men’s Rights Edmonton, the group that has claimed responsibility for the posters, decided to forgo the “gentle” approach in delivering its message. Either way, observers have already expressed their outrage over the posters, denouncing the campaign as “shocking,” “offensive” and “sick.”
It’s shocking, all right. And arguably provocative to a fault. After all, Men’s Rights Edmonton could have made the same point without making a parody of an existing anti-rape campaign, a move that will rub salt in the wounds of those already sensitive to the issue. But despite the tactless presentation, the message remains fair: Sometimes, women falsely accuse men of rape.
The idea, needless to say, doesn’t make for delicate dinner party conversation. The notion of false accusations is often dismissed by rape-prevention advocates as a complete falsehood. Indeed, speaking with the CBC, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, Karen Smith, was eager to dismiss the message of the new posters as untrue.
“I want to make clear that that is so inaccurate,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen. Nobody would report sexual assault needlessly because it is a grueling process to go through.”
Actually, people would. And they do. Statistics show that false accusations of sexual assaults occur about as frequently as false accusations of other crimes — somewhere between two and four per cent. Granted, two per cent may seem like a paltry figure compared to the number of legitimate claims (and the majority that are left unreported), but to those falsely accused, it is no insignificant matter.
There are countless stories of innocent lives being derailed by illegitimate accusations, including a recent story of a woman who made five false rape accusations in the past few years. One of the most high-profile cases, however, is that of Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brian Banks. Banks was poised to attend the University of Southern California in 2002 on a football scholarship when a classmate, Wanetta Gibson, accused him of sexual assault. Faced with the prospect of more than 40 years in prison, Banks took a plea and spent five years in jail. Fortunately, Banks was eventually able to clear his name, but there are undoubtedly other innocent men currently serving time for assaults they didn’t commit. The new posters around Edmonton inadvertently bring attention to their plight.
Still, there are those who will claim that discussion of false accusations will further poison the climate of “rape culture,” wherein victims are blamed for the actions of their attackers. It’s a possibility. But there’s also another sort of “rape culture” whereby any sort of critical analysis of an accusation is immediately rejected as “victim blaming.” The mere question of the legitimacy of a claim, in other words, is illegitimate.
The concept proved itself in April when Postmedia’s Christie Blatchford wrote about the tragic case of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, who committed suicide after months of bullying stemming from an alleged gang rape. In her report, Blatchford detailed the prosecutorial challenges that had faced investigators looking at the alleged rape, which included conflicting reports from Parsons, an ambiguous photo of the scene and an eyewitness account that the sex may have been consensual. While the merit of these claims are, indeed, debatable, the mere mention of their consideration was enough to incite public fury. Blatchford was called a traitor to women, a rape-apologist and a slut-shamer — the takeaway being that any and all accusations of assault must be treated as fact, no questions asked.
But sometimes, we need to ask questions. To do so, of course, is not to blame the victim, but to afford due process to those accused of wrongdoing. A little awareness of the challenges facing those who have been falsely accused is not a bad thing. Indeed, sometimes women do, in fact, allege assault when no actual crime has been committed. The new posters in Edmonton (however crudely) remind us of that.