Opinion //

Her world against his

Interrogating the "he said, she said" sexual assault discourse.

Image Credit: Getty Images

In the past week, against the backdrop of a national conversation about consent, the historic rape allegation against Attorney-General Christian Porter and Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in Parliament House have been splayed across the media. In response to allegations of sexual assault, particularly those unreported or that do not meet evidentiary or criminal thresholds, a specific claim often emerges. This is the idea that believing women without evidence sets a dangerous precedent that anyone can say anything about anyone. 

You hear it in the back of your mind, you say it in front of the press pool, you turn it over in your mind at every sharp headline — now anyone can make a baseless accusation about you. Outside the walls of Parliament House and into the halls of every high school, college, workplace and house party are the projections of men who fear that women they’ve slept with, or even ones they haven’t, can and will say something about them. But what are you actually afraid of? 

The idea that women are incentivised to fabricate an instance of assault and victimisation is tired and should quickly be discarded. The notion that a victim has something to gain from media attention (which is certainly outside the scope of arguments surrounding Porter, given the alleged victim’s death) completely denies the tremendous burden on a woman’s personal life, mental health, and career prospects to identify herself as a victim of trauma, to potentially antagonise often well-established institutions (a corporate workplace, Parliament House, a private boys’ school) and to make it clear in a man’s world that she will not stay silent. Suppose we accept that women do not level these accusations because they have ulterior motives or ‘something to gain’ outside of justice, catharsis, and all they rightfully deserve. In that case, we must also accept it is unintuitive that a woman would make something like this up for the fun of it. This is irrational, unfair, and suggests malice on an alleged victim’s part, which is less plausible than the malice imputed to the accused perpetrator, whose innocence we are expected to presume. 

I believe there is something far more pervasive and pernicious in the minds of young men which belies the claim that women who make such accusations may not be telling the truth. The fear from which it stems is more complex than simply not believing women. If you follow the thread of logic far enough, what it invariably comes down to is that women making these allegations are less likely to be considered to be making things up entirely, but much more likely to be perceived as having remembered their own experience incorrectly. This reflects a key issue within our rape culture, especially concerning assaults in the context of dating, relationships or between people who know one another. Men relate to and remember their sexual experiences differently from the women they have assaulted. This is not because victims change their minds or ‘regret it’ afterwards, but because perpetrators don’t consider their experience through the lens of a woman’s consent, comfort or pleasure. There are obvious nuances based on the nature and severity of each assault which this recognition should never undermine. At the very least, this reflects the importance of comprehensive consent education and continuing the conversation. 

That’s why you don’t believe her, or that’s what you mean when you say that you don’t. You don’t believe how she felt, how she could have felt that way, because that’s not what it was like for you. But it’s neither for you nor me, nor anyone except the survivor, to decide.

The male perspective is foregrounded in representations of sex, cultural conditioning, and even criminal standards, which are based on a legal conception of reasonableness and are the product of an inherently patriarchal system. These same narratives manifest across the spectrum of sexism. Women are blamed for not being able to laugh off sexist jokes. Sexual harassment is a ‘misunderstanding,’ a flirtation, or a compliment rather than at best deeply discomfiting and incredibly damaging behaviour. New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo has levelled such arguments in relation to sexual allegations made against him in the last fortnight. Additionally, there is evidence that many men accused of assault don’t identify themselves within the traditional characterisation of a violent, malicious rapist. Many young men who may disrespect women in more unconscious, casual ways — from objectification to disregard for personal space — scarcely offer themselves or their peers up to the idea of being capable of being a rapist. 

Between the perception of the word rapist and its reality lies the problem. Citing attitudes or actions as unconscious should never excuse the profound damage that they have. Identifying what it means when men fear baseless accusations speaks to a narrower truth about how they perceive sex. This truth exists outside the structures and preconceptions embedded in our culture, and doesn’t in any way mean that they shouldn’t know better. But it should enliven us to understand that the root of the problem is so deep within us that it takes more than the promise or expectation of doing better to make it so. 

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