The Falsehoods of False Reporting
By: Tim Mousseau
For a human element, I think it is important to note I wrote this before the recent Ford and Kavanaugh testimonies. In light of these, I feel this message still stands. I feel it is important now more than ever to discuss the concept of false reporting. Questions on false reports are becoming more prevalent. I can only imagine this is going to increase after the current climate. After all, after many a program, it is becoming more common for a man to approach me wanting to discuss concerns that by me coming to their campus and talking about sexual violence, it will cause a rise in “false reports.” Generally, these questions are phrased in the perspective of “but what if a partner regrets it later” or “what if someone claims assault for attention.”
There is a lot to unpack in these conversations to understand where these fears stemmed from. In some cases, it is hypothetical and other times it is because they know someone who in their perceptions* was falsely accused either legally or in public.
*(Note, I say perceptions because I do not know the legalities of these cases. When this happens, I work with the individual to process through some of the following pieces and more.)
From this fear of false reports, I often hear three primary pieces. The idea that by making sexual violence a part of the public dialogue, it would cause three concerning outcomes:
- First, once people see how survivors are receiving support from coming forward they would then want this for themselves for attention.
- Second, due to the court of public opinion, it makes easier to accuse people of assault without questions being put forward about these incidents.
- Third, that merely being accused in this day and age is as bad as a prison sentence because it could cost you everything.
Again, discussing these fears with any individual are a lot to unpack. It takes a lot of listening but I provide similar answers to many individuals and know my responses are essential in times of driven media around false allegations, the resurgence of #MeToo, and the state of Title IX.
To address these fears in order.
Survivors do sometimes, but not always, receive support from friends, peers, family, and their communities. Many times, survivors are met with doubt, shame, and blame. It can vary by person, and there is no predictable reaction. Even when a survivor receives a positive response, being a survivor of sexual violence is exceedingly difficult. Especially when it comes to the reporting aspect.
Going public with your story is in no way desirable or profitable. It can cause you to lose those same previously mentioned relationships, can cause shunning in your community, and cost you opportunities. Furthermore, reporting through any system, whether Title IX or to the police is hellacious.
A comparison I provide is imagine the worst moment of your life. Now retell this moment in stark clarity to a stranger as they ask you probing questions and explore your every experience, thought, and emotions during this experience. Be prepared for them to go into the minute details which leads to more questions. Then, retell this again. To more strangers. Be ready to keep reliving this.
Also, be prepared for the public and anyone you know who doubts any part of your story to pick apart or rationalize while also looking into your entirely unrelated behaviors that are also called into doubt. Everything about you will be questioned.
Simply put, survivors do not receive some hidden compensation, emotionally or financially, for their labors. It is not a pleasant experience, and for some, the trauma can be as significant as the act of violence.
These men are correct that the end goal of my work is to make it easier for survivors to come forward. Within better systems.
The current system for survivors reporting is broken. As detailed above, it is often tough to manage for those with the best support circles, let alone those without means or support. I do believe we need to make systems more supportive of survivors in the process of reporting. At the same time, this doesn’t mean diminishing the legitimacy of these systems, i.e., creating “kangaroo courts” as is often parroted. If there is not a good process to report and investigate, it only adds fodder to people who claim this issue is not legitimate. Courts need to have processes.
Processes that are just while supporting the emotional labor of survivors seeking justice. Courts where false myths about rape, violence, or assault do not taint the process and sway the verdict. Processes where District Attorneys are trained to better understand the impact of sexual violence so they will stop letting cases slip or cases where judges give out light sentences for fear of “ruining” the accused’s future.
I do my work because right now the courts don’t often work at either supporting survivors who come forward or persecuting when a case is reported- an estimated 6% of rapists reported face jail time.
The more education we have, the easier it is to help prevent assault and predatory behavior. The better we can support survivors. The better we can root out potential false reports. And with more education, the better juries, judged, and district attorneys will be in understanding how to make informed decisions without many of the perceptions and barriers trials carry with them.
Yes, we should normalize talking about sexual violence. This does not normalize the willingness to engage in it, to allow it, or to make false accusations around it. Information is one of the keys to stopping it.
The fear that a false accusation can ruin a man’s life.
Research shows that only about 1/3 of survivors are likely to report through legal channels. Of these reports, it is estimated 2-8% of all reports to law enforcement are false reports. For the odd 5 to 6 hundred thousand reports per year, the number of false reports is already extremely low. Furthermore, when you look at the actual conviction rate of men who are reported, the number of individuals who are falsely accused of rape who ALSO face any punishment time is a tiny number. Hard to accurately predict but minuscule.
As I discussed this with these men, reminding them I do not know their friends or their cases, we did discuss the fact in all these scenarios, the accused is not convicted. With no jail time, we discussed for him what this meant for these individuals.
Aside from the court of public opinion which for most non-high-profile individuals is often non-existent, there are few repercussions for theses individuals. They are still able to go to their preferred college. They will still be able to get a job at a preferred institution upon graduation as their information does not show up in a database and they have no record.
(Even for high-profile individuals who are widely accused but do not face legal action aside from public opinion, circumstances are often such that they suffer little to no blowback for their actions. Look at Louie C.K. returning to comedy or the fact Matt Lauer is already talking about a comeback. Both well-documented instances where behaviors were admitted to and the result is what? A little bit of lost time in the limelight?)
For most who are accused and do not face jail time, life moves on. I know that for this man, his friend, and those who may be falsely accused this can feel frustrating and unfair. Their life is still affected. I often discuss the mental anguish these men go through at these accusations.
As someone who works to support survivors facing trauma, I have no lack of sympathy on my part for any anguish individuals must face. Again, acknowledging I know nothing of these cases, I do not diminish the way they feel in the case of a fake report. At the same time, I know there are support systems in place to deal with such trauma.
I know this is not always the most reassuring aspect, but it is neither reassuring when I talk with survivors about finding support systems. About how survivors cannot get justice and must go about their life with the trauma they have inherited.
I know there was a lot more these men and I talk about. There are parts of our dialogues I know that can cause friction. I also know it takes time.
Things right now are far from perfect. They are way far off from where we need in preventing sexual violence. They are extremely far from okay in supporting survivors in our communities. Processes do not often work within the current legal system including at times false reporting.
There is work to be done. But just because there is work doesn’t mean we should avoid it or talking about it.
Educating on sexual violence is one of many recourses we have now to make things better in the future. Not talking about it though, isn’t an option.
Learn more about Tim Mousseau and his programs at www.campuspeak.com/speaker/tim-mousseau