The Soapbox: Rape Doesn’t Have To Meet The Legal Standard To Have Happened

I’m on the advice panel for I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, a blog where adult victims of sexual assault share their stories in the hope of helping younger girls. I do believe people, automatically, when they tell me they’ve been raped. Why wouldn’t I? When I give advice, I try to focus on what the victims can do to validate themselves, to get some stability back in their lives, to show their bodies respect, to get some perspective on the psychological effects of trauma — just like everyone else on the panel does. We don’t jump to “BURN YOUR RAPIST TO THE GROUND! DESTROY HIM!” The fate of the accused is not the point of the blog; it’s the fate of the victim that matters to us.

I’ve encouraged victims to decide whether or not they want to go to the police. I present both options — the option of reporting and the option of not reporting — because both are valid choices. Reporting rape and trying to go through with an investigation can put a victim under scrutiny that can interfere with their ability to cope with the trauma. It’s not always worth it, particularly if the victim is in a situation in which they simply cannot provide substantial evidence. A lack of evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that the victim doesn’t need support so that they can heal.

I will take the bet that they are telling the truth and attempting to act in the best interest of their physical and mental well-being over the bet that they’re lying for “attention and sympathy” or a “vendetta” every time.

Cathy Young, writing for Slate, and several other critics of modern feminism, have been on a roll with the insistence that a victim must be able to meet the legal standard of evidence for their claim to be taken seriously. Well, no — for their accusation to be taken seriously, because they imply that every time a woman “falsely” considers herself to be raped (they’re only talking about women, not male rape victims who might be lying), she’s also specifically naming her victim and attempting to get legal recourse. It’s not that she’s trying to process the fact that she feels violated, it’s not that she’s trying to find ways to cope with that feeling, it’s not that she’s trying to take care of herself, it’s necessarily, every time, that she’s trying to take injurious action against a man.

I care about what happens to people who are accused of rape — falsely or not. When I was raped in 2013, I took “too long” — 10 days, and those are the investigator’s words — to report my rape because I was trying to weigh the consequences of reporting and seeking a formal charge: My rapist had a family. I know what happens to people when they’re put on the sex offender registry. I had to ask myself whether his kids wouldn’t benefit more from their dad not being a registered sex offender than I would from having him go to jail. It was only when it became clear that he was spreading really vicious rumors about me that I decided I had to report or continue to be victimized. For taking the time to think about it, and trying to take a principled stand on the horrific flaws of sex offender laws, I was badgered by the investigator and it was insinuated that I was lying.

But to me, caring about the fate of people who are falsely accused of rape and caring about the fate of people who claim to have been raped are not mutually exclusive. I bias my thinking more toward victims because no matter how you cut the numbers, rape happens more often than false rape accusations. And because, frankly, the social consequences of rape are at least equivalent to the social consequences of a false rape accusation, and the psychological consequences are greater.

And I don’t knee-jerk to the conclusion that by saying “I was raped, what do I do?” a woman, or a man, or anyone, is necessarily trying to harm someone else’s reputation or have them incarcerated. My assumption, based on my experience as a victim, is that they are trying to not feel broken, powerless and ashamed. My experience is that when a woman does name her victim, it’s usually after quite a lot of thinking about it, and it’s usually a principled stand, a way of drawing attention to unacceptable patterns of behavior, not a way to get him put in jail.

I don’t know where this idea comes from that feminists believe that no woman ever lies. I don’t know why the assumption keeps getting perpetuated that feminists don’t believe that men are never raped or that false reporting doesn’t exist. Citing a few impassioned articles doesn’t cut it to make a trend out of it. And most of all, I don’t know why it’s “radical” to extend compassion to other people. It’s not my job, as a human being, to determine the veracity of someone’s pain; it’s just my job to make sure they’re going to be all right.