The recent resurgence of sexual abuse allegations against Bill Cosby led to some interesting family discussions at the Thanksgiving table recently. In case you have not been following the news, Bill Cosby has allegedly throughout the course of his career sexually assaulted female coworkers; many have now come forward to make their stories public, and the resulting commotion has led to cancellation of new projects that Cosby had been about to launch, as well as a general tarnishing of his iconic reputation.
One of my cousins (let’s call her Allison) works in a support shelter for survivors of domestic violence, and she and another relative (let’s call him Roger) were arguing over how the public and the media should respond to the many allegations. The crux of the debate came from the fact that so many women have been coming forward all seemingly at once. They certainly couldn’t all be telling the truth, Roger asserted. Certainly some of them were doing it for the fame and/or potential money, he guessed.
Across the table, Allison was making her voice heard. As a daily defender of survivors of domestic violence, she was stressing the importance of supporting the victims through and through; it was not up to us the uninformed public to decide guilt or innocence. By continuing to condone an environment where the public and private motives of victims are questioned, she said, we make it more difficult for survivors to seek and find help. We raise the burden of proof for the victim. We presume guilt before innocence.
Roger replied, “Altruism is great, but this is the real world. The women who come forward and are found later to have lied about it – they ruin it for everybody else.”
That pretty much ended the discussion, and for the sake of everyone’s blood pressure at the table, conversation moved on to lighter topics. But that didn’t mean the issue left my mind. Clearly the conversation continues to trouble me.
The Cosby allegations are not the only allegations of late to be questioned in the public spotlight. Shia LaBeouf’s victimization as part of an art show has led to much debate over whether or not he was raped, whether or not he should have resisted more, and even more sinisterly – whether or not he orchestrated the rape for the purposes of the art show.
On the heels of this story, we have also heard about gang rape allegations at the University of Virginia, and now a backlash because some of the journalism describing the incident might be inaccurate.
What is it about the way we think about, talk about, and engage with domestic violence that systematizes a culture of denying victimhood?
In the aftermath of these three news stories, much of the reporting has focused on who is telling the truth and who is lying. Do the inaccuracies matter? Does it change the fact that these men and women were raped?
Based on the data, an exceedingly small amount of rape allegations are actually false (estimated 2-8% based on here and here). On top of this, most (60%) of sexual assaults will not even be reported, and a staggering majority will not get prosecuted.
By questioning what constitutes “real rape” (a adjective-noun phrase that I cringe to have to type), we send the message that victims have to prove to us that they are “real victims.” We prevent victims from feeling comfortable coming forward, and even give them real incentive not to. Who wants to be publicly shamed like this?
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you believe that Shia LaBeouf [or any other victim] was raped?” Miri Mogilevsky of The Daily Dot asks. Her colleague Lindy West puts it eloquently at The Guardian: “A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’ – or even a good person – for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously.”
What can we do?
First of all, support the victim. It takes a huge effort to come forward. Victims are identifying themselves because they are seeking help. Either help them or refer them to someone who is prepared to help, like your local sexual assault support service center that offers free, confidential help for victims and their friends.
Second of all, recognize that a) rape exists; b) it’s often committed by someone known to the victim; and c) false reporting is just as rare as false reporting of other felonies. Copycat reporting is a unique and relatively uncommon phenomenon, and it should be the last thing on our minds when supporting a victim of rape.
Finally, speak up when you hear rape jokes and other language that creates a hostile environment for survivors. You may not think you know anyone personally who has been raped, but the fact is – you almost definitely do – people just don’t talk about it. By speaking up when you hear someone saying something that belittles rape, you are helping create a supportive environment, even if the person who needs it the most may never acknowledge you for it.