The myth of the false accuser

Sarah Armstrong on society’s myopia surrounding false rape accusations.

Artwork by Clare Angel-Auld.

Trigger Warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault.

A man is accused of sexual assault, and his accuser is met with a resounding chorus asserting that she’s an awful liar, after his money, or an attention seeker who regretted her decision after the fact.

It’s a disappointingly repeated scenario, and one which belies Australia’s problems with sexual assault. The trope of the predatory accuser lying to ‘ruin a man’s reputation’ is difficult to combat. It reflects why less than one in three incidents of sexual assault will be reported in a country where 17 per cent of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

Media coverage skews public perceptions by presenting rape as a crime typically committed by clearly deviant, disturbed males who are unknown to the victim. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to view sexual assault by an acquaintance as a ‘proper’ assault. Until we accept that these common depictions are misleading and that there are no visible cues for identifying rapists, it’s going to be a struggle to believe victims if they accuse anyone outside this category.

This urge to accuse rape victims of lying is deplorable. Numerous studies show that false rape accusations are no more common than false accusations regarding other crimes. Despite this, 38 per cent of Australians surveyed in 2013 agreed that often women ‘lead men on’, regret sex, and then lie about rape. Only 59 per cent believe that it’s rare for women to make false accusations. These damning statistics make clear the need to re-evaluate our understanding of rape. Cases dropped for insufficient evidence, or where a victim decides not to complete the gruelling court process, are not the same as false accusations. Absence of a conviction doesn’t mean absence of a crime. Just because some people find it difficult to believe that a friend could have sexually assaulted someone doesn’t mean it should be socially acceptable to blame victims. Finding it easier to rationalise it as a miscommunication or a case of the victim ‘making it up’ rather than a ‘respectable’ person committing rape only shows society’s myopia.

The persistence of the ‘false accuser as prominent social concern’ myth illustrates a lack of awareness. If you took this view at face value, you’d be led to believe that, much like the witch trials in 17th century Salem, women accusing others of crime are met with flocks of sympathetic onlookers who prosecute the accused without evidence and throw away the key. In reality, the rate of sexual assault convictions is abysmally low, survivors of assault often face stigma and lifetime PTSD.

Opening up about sexual violence clearly isn’t pleasant; the ambivalent social attitudes facing victims are abundantly clear. Publicly accusations aren’t something often done on a whim, or for revenge or profit. Research has repeatedly shown that sexual assault, and the judicial process surrounding it, have long-standing impacts on an individual’s mental health. Public understandings of what a survivor looks like, and how they act, are incredibly out of step with psychological realities. Armchair commentators clamouring to discredit victims should take note.

Sexual assault is a gendered crime, and generally considered a woman’s problem (although four per cent of Australian men do face sexual violence). Given that fact, maybe some men believe false accusations are a greater threat to them than sexual violence. However, it’s not a fear borne out in reality. Assuming victims are lying makes it harder for them to come forward, and makes sexual assault harder to prosecute and thus harder to eliminate. Globally, one in 5 women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted; so perpetuating the myth that false accusations are common actively reinforces social hurdles to justice.

Image: Clare Angel-Auld.