False Allegations of Sexual Assault Leave Shattered Lives in Their Wake
Earlier this month, Donald Trump was awarded the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. president deemed liable for sexual assault. Having pondered writer Jean E. Carroll’s claim, with supporting evidence, that Trump assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in 1996, a Manhattan federal court jury concluded that “Trump committed battery against Carroll when he forcibly raped and groped her.” He was also found guilty of defamation. Carroll was awarded US$5 million for her hardship, but there will be no prison time for Trump, because Carroll’s case was civil, as the criminal statute of limitations had lapsed.
Trump did not even bother showing up for the trial. He calculated that shrugging the trial off as a mere irritation, and continuing to go about his braggadocio business, offered better optics to his base than court-artist drawings, splashed over the nation’s front pages, of him sitting silent and morose under the humiliating barrage of a parade of plaintiff witnesses. If past is prologue with Trump, the verdict won’t greatly affect his political ambitions.
Normally, though, a disturbing number of cases highlight the ease with which even unsupported allegations of sexual assault can bring men down. The Buffalo Bills’ “Punt God” Matt Araiza, for example, endured a “very dark eight months” when his NFL dreams were dashed following an accusation of rape last August against him and two San Diego State university teammates, allegedly at an off-campus party a year previously. The only “proof” was the 17-year-old accuser’s lurid account of a gang rape by the three men that left her bloodied and tearful.
The media bought the story and before long the Bills released Araiza. But then, a few months later, the prosecutor announced the charges were being dropped. Long story short: it was established that Araiza was not present at the party when the alleged rape occurred (which the girl, who lied about her age, had crashed). There were many more holes in the accuser’s story, but the media didn’t have the patience to wait for them to emerge. I suppose one could say Araiza was lucky to re-enter his sport at all—he’s now a free agent—but that is small consolation to a man who lost a glittering prize and the considerable status he had won through merit on the unsupported whim of a conscienceless young woman.
Canada has seen its share of wrongful convictions on the sole basis of a woman’s accusation. One that sheds light on our judicial culture was a “she said-he said” case that in 2015 came before the court of since-retired Justice Marvin Zuker, wherein York University PhD candidate Mustafa Ururyar was convicted of sexually assaulting grad student Mandi Gray, with whom he’d had a casual affair. I read Zuker’s 179-page judgment and was shocked by it. Zuker found that Gray was “the credible witness” and there was “no uncertainty in this court. Ms Gray was raped by the accused.” No uncertainty? No reasonable person who actually read—as I did—the judgment, which included both testimonies, could conclude there was anything but uncertainty. And of the two testimonies, I found Ururyar’s the more consistent and plausible.
Yet Zuker proclaimed (seven times) that Ururyar’s version “never happened.” He went further, reading into Ururyar’s testimony an attitude that was neither enunciated by Ururyar nor supported by objective evidence at trial: “[P]ower, power, power. [Ururyar] was the boss and he loved it.” How would Zuker know what Ururyar was thinking? Apparently from his extensive reading of misandric radical ideologues, feminist icons he referenced in the judgment, such as Susan Brownmiller, who saw all sex in terms of power imbalances, and Catherine MacKinnnon, who said “penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent.”
Fortunately for Ururyar, the bias-drenched judgment was overturned on appeal. But what struck me was that if even one judge sworn to uphold the “reasonable doubt” principle in a criminal court felt free to blithely wander beyond his professional remit and lecture the court about rape myths, victim-blaming, and an inadequate legal system in urgent need of consciousness-raising, his performance speaks to a system in which the bias pendulum, once known to be unfriendly to victims of sexual assault, is now fixed in the opposite direction. No male-biased judge today would dream of flaunting misogynistic influences to reinforce his judgment.
Why is it so difficult for so many people to imagine that men might be telling the truth when they deny having sexually assaulted a woman, but so easy to imagine that no woman would lie when they claim to have been sexually assaulted? Proofs abound that the tendency to lie for gain—material, emotional, reputational—crosses gender lines.
A 2017 report by the U.S. National Institute of Health, “Motives for Filing a False Allegation of Rape,” examined the question in depth. Amongst the motives they found, tested against 57 proven false allegations provided by the National Unit of the Dutch National Police, were: “material gain, alibi, revenge, sympathy, attention, a disturbed mental state, relabeling, or regret.” Interestingly, a full 20 percent of complainants “said they did not know why they filed a false allegation.”
Evidence from England and Wales, with a combined population of 59.6 million people, suggests 3–4 percent of rape allegations are false. (Canada and America’s combined population is about 370 million.) A study by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that, in cases between 2011 and 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape. There may have been many more, but the CPS won’t prosecute if there isn’t enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
That means in England and Wales in one year—35 individual stories with, tangentially, wives, children, parents—perhaps 100 lives shattered. Since then, many hundreds more. They are shamed, shunned. Some are ruined financially. Even after victims of rape allegations are exonerated, the social nightmare may continue, as public suspicion lingers. This is not a figure to ignore as acceptable collateral damage, not even for the worthy goal of encouraging legitimate rape victims to understand they will be accorded respect if they come forward. It wouldn’t be ignored if women were routinely falsely accused of a heinous crime.
The problem would diminish dramatically if exposed false accusers faced stiff consequences, which they presently do not, even though the initial and enduring pain they inflict is arguably comparable to the effect of rape itself.
There is a good reason that bearing false witness was included in the Ten Commandments. It is wicked. Punish those who do it.