LOUISE O'NEILL: Why don’t we trust women?

A couple of years ago, my father called me into the living room because he wanted to show me something on the television, writes Louise O’Neill

He was watching the news and there was a rather lengthy account of a woman convicted of a false rape claim. “The media is giving this more airtime than they would if she actually had been raped,” he said, shaking his head. “And she’s received a longer sentence than most rapists will ever see.”

I am reminded of that conversation whenever news breaks of sporting professionals being accused of rape, and I am unlucky enough to read the comments sections under the online reports. “It’s just some bunny boiler making a false allegation.” “I refuse to believe that sporting professionals would even think of doing such a thing... we’ve heard similar cases dismissed before, sounds like some woman looking for a large payoff.”

“Young professional sporting careers could be in ruins due to greed and I don’t believe the allegations for a second.”

“Thankfully it’s innocent until proven guilty.”

In my novel, Asking For It, the main character says of her rapists — “They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.” And that is the line that most victims will quote when they email to share their story with me. And while “innocent until proven guilty” is an important tenant of our legal system and exists to ensure all citizens will receive a fair trial, it is important to acknowledge that it is not infallible. Receiving a not-guilty verdict in a rape case is not automatically the same thing as being innocent. It does not mean that the jury thinks the victim is lying.

Often, it just means that they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had committed the crime. In this country, only one in four victims of sexual violence report the crime. Of those one in four who report, only 10% will end up in court. Even getting to court is a huge achievement because it means that the DPP has decided that there is enough evidence to prosecute the case, and that is unfortunately still too rare. Of that 10% who end up in court, less than 5% of cases will see a conviction. Do you honestly believe that the other 95% of alleged victims were lying?

Whenever I do an event, I brace myself for the inevitable question about false rape claims. It’s striking to see how prevalent this idea is, how effectively it has permeated our national consciousness. In fact, statistics would suggest that the rate of false rape claims are similar to the rates of any other false allegations of crime — they hover at around 8%. Of course, what is different about rape and sexual violence is that when you examine the statistics more closely, many victims withdraw their claims due to intimidation, pressure from family or friends, or as a result of social stigma. Experts believe that the true rate of false claims is probably 3% and could be lower. Think about that. 97 out of 100 times, if a victim says that they have been raped or sexually abused — they are more than likely telling the truth. So, why do we think that false rape claims are so common? When you consider the difficulty in getting a perpetrator prosecuted, let alone convicted, why would someone pretend that they had been raped? Why would they face the insidious shaming that most victims are forced to endure? Revenge, perhaps, some people say. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Again, the idea of the ‘bunny boiler’ is rooted in our cultural language, despite the fact that 87% of stalkers are male and 62% of those are former husbands and boyfriends. Every day in the US three or more women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends, but sure, let’s make jokes about women getting all ‘crazy’ because some dude wouldn’t call her back after they had sex.

Or maybe, as has been suggested, women ‘cry rape’ because they want a payout. They intend to blackmail a famous comedian or sports star into a huge financial settlement. In this country, as the journalist, Carl Kinsella told me, “you don’t get a ‘payoff’ if somebody is found guilty of raping you. You’re not suing them for raping you. You’re not even the one who decides to press charges. You tell the police what happens and if they believe you, they press charges. Then the prosecutor has to believe that they’re likely to win a case beyond a reasonable doubt to bring the case to court. Long story short, if the police believe the victim and the prosecutor believes a victim, what excuse do you have to disbelieve them?”

I have enormous sympathy for innocent people who have been accused of sexual violence. The men and women who make false rape claims are clearly vulnerable and unwell, but I doubt that is much comfort for those they have accused. However, it would be a grave mistake to believe that this happens on a frequent basis for that is yet another barrier preventing real victims from coming forward and reporting.

‘I am afraid,’ some people tell me, ‘I am afraid that my father or my
husband or my son or my brother or my boyfriend will be falsely accused of raping someone and their lives will be ruined.’ To be blunt — if your father or your husband or your son or your brother doesn’t rape someone, then they should be fine. Maybe you should be more concerned that if they do rape someone, they will probably get away with it. Maybe you should be more concerned with the fact that one in four women will experience sexual
violence in their lifetime and never see any justice. “But I wasn’t in the room, was I?” I hear you ask. “How am I supposed to know what happened?”

You’re right. You were not in the room and neither was I. But isn’t it
interesting that your first reaction was to assume that the woman must be lying? Why don’t we trust women?


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