We Need Harsher Penalties For False Rape Accusers

False Rape Accusations Hurt Real Rape Victims

by Avens O’Brien

A UK woman, age 23, has pleaded guilty to a charge of perverting the course of justice this week. What did she do? In late 2013, she allegedly made a false rape claim. Sentencing isn’t until this June, but she could face jail time.

Now, I don’t know how the UK treats alleged rapists or alleged rape victims in comparison to how the US does, but according to some sources, the UK is tremendously aggressive in bringing charges upon women who’ve allegedly falsely reported a rape – 109 women have been prosecuted in the past five years, and 98 of them with “perverting the course of justice”, a severe charge with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

As a feminist who advocates that rape be taken seriously, my initial reaction to this is positive.

Women (and men) who falsely claim rape damage the credibility of real rape victims, reducing the chances that they’ll be taken seriously. They also destroy lives – a person (most often male) who is accused of rape in this country is tarnished immediately by the claim. Even if a man were to have friends and family who stood by him in his claim of innocence, that doesn’t stop the horrific reality that his name, reputation and life will be thrown into immediate suspicion, and in many cases, presumption of his guilt.

False accusations send innocent people to prison. The Innocence Project is one organization that seeks to correct these miscarriages of justice.

The importance of not sending innocent people to prison is paramount, our prison-industrial complex benefits from such things as overreaching drug laws and carceral feminism, now adding zero-tolerance and a presumption of guilt is not improving justice, but destroying the very concept of it.

Now for numbers:

  • It is predicted that between 2% and 8% of rape claims are false. There are studies that peg that number even higher.
  • Other studies state that only 2% of rapes end in conviction in which the alleged rapist serves prison time.
  • On top of that you have studies that suggest as many as 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault (though there is some disagreement on that statistic), and others suggesting that approximately 6% of men are rapists, which indicates repeat offenders.
  • Also confusing the issue is the fact that rape is not exclusively the act of male perpetrators on female victims, as continued studies are coming out on other incidents of rape. Not to mention that there are numerous definitions of rape and sexual assault, which may vary by state and country.

With all these percentages and definitions floating around, there’s an awful lot to process, and people are understandably confused. In the meantime, the solution still seems to be well-intended but badly worded laws, that I fear may only miscarry justice further.

The FBI reported 85,598 rapes in 2010. If each of those rapes were committed by a different person (not likely), we’d be looking at maybe 1,700 convicted rapists serving prison time. If only 2% of those reported rapes were falsehoods, that another 1,700 people fighting for their reputations and freedom. We have no idea what percentage of rape claims that end in conviction happen to have been false, but two things we need to recognize are that some do, and regardless of conviction, alleged rapists lives can be ruined by accusations themselves. All along we must also continue to be sensitive to the fact that more than 85,000 people are victims of rape, and that this horrific crime can irreparably destroy lives and potentially carry lifelong trauma.

So yes, I generally think that we need to be very unforgiving towards those who would dare falsely accuse, and this case in the UK, along with the 109 others, feels like a step in the right direction.

However, there is another side to this. A Pittsburgh woman named Sara Reedy was robbed and sexually assaulted at gunpoint. When she went to police, she was accused of making the story up, charged with theft (of the money in the till of the store she’d been working in when she was robbed) and false accusation, and was thrown in jail. She was released, and a year later her attacker was caught during another crime and confessed to robbing and assaulting her. Reedy then sued the police for not believing her story, which she detailed in interviews as an uphill battle – they didn’t believe her from the start.

Surely, this is also not a path of justice either.

We live in a society where two realities exist simultaneously: accused rapists are often seen as guilty before evidence or trial, and many rape victims face derision, shaming and disbelief when they come forward as victims of sexual assault, which is why they say so many never come forward. Facing a rape charge is terrifying and expensive. Coming forward as a rape victim is also intimidating and re-traumatizing, particularly if the police don’t immediately take you seriously. Neither side has an easy road, and we do a disservice to the complexity of the issue when we broadly presume all accused to be guilty, or victims to be making things up. Too often people on the outside fall in one of those two camps, and both are guilty of ignoring the realities of the situations.

This issue isn’t black and white. It’s not men against women. Hurting human beings often hurt others in their pursuit of justice, and that is why we need to be careful and cautious as we apply law, something which is supposed to be an objective arbitrator, to these emotional and painful situations. As hostilities increase between those who feel we aren’t doing enough to serve real victims of rape and those who see lives ruined by falsehood, we need to consistently apply our outrage: even one injustice is too many. Of either, right?

I continue to be disappointed that, given the importance we put on rape prevention and how important justice being rightly served is, that my fellow feminists seem to prefer to sweep false accusations under the rug like they don’t matter, and how hostile I find feminists to those who’ve come out as victims of false allegations. This only serves to drive these people away from feminism, and often into the spaces of those hostile to feminist messages. This extremism serves no one, particularly not actual victims of actual crimes.

There needs to be recourse for victims of rape, and there needs to be recourse for victims of false accusations. For that, I’m glad to see this woman potentially facing jail for perverting the course of justice. In an ideal world, the courts are supposedly there to serve justice. That means for everyone.

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