February 7, 2013

The Myth of False Allegations

Posted in Myths, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming at 8:28 pm by sacetalks

As a public educator at SACE, one of the most important aspects of my job is myth busting. There are countless myths out there about sexual assault. These myths are incredibly harmful because they typically blame survivors and excuse offenders, which contribute to an environment where sexual assault is not only allowed, but tacitly condoned.

The myth that I want to address today is the myth that people who ‘claim’ to have experienced a sexual assault are often lying about it, supposedly because they regret a one night stand, or wish to vengefully defame a former partner. This myth actually has a lot of different aspects and hashing out all of them would make this post cumbersomely long, so today I am going to specifically focus on clearing up some common misunderstandings about reporting and the court process.

First of all, I would like to say that sexual assault is a VERY under-reported crime. In Canada, we know that only 1/10 sexual assaults are reported to the police. Of that fraction, only 1/10 proceed to court, and of that fraction only 1/3 result in a successful conviction. This gives sexual assault an overall conviction rate of 0.33%!

Also, the process of reporting is not simple. It involves a lot more than just going the police station, making a one-time report, and washing your hands of the matter. Sexual assault is a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute, and I don’t just mean for the Crown. It’s also an extremely emotionally taxing experience for the survivor who often has to spend two years of his or her life in and out of court, having to see that offender over and over, being interrogated by defense lawyers, family, friends and the prosecutor. It is not a fun process and no one in their right mind undertakes such an ordeal for petty or trivial purposes.

On the subject of the court process, I would like to clear up two common misconceptions I often hear that are related to the myth that people frequently lie about being sexually assaulted: The belief that if a sexual assault is reported and it does not go to court, then that means the survivor was lying and the police knew she or he was lying; and the belief that if a sexual assault does go to court but does not result in a conviction, then that means the accused was ‘innocent’ and the survivor was lying.

Our legal system works in the favor of the defendant. By that, I mean that all the benefit of the doubt is given to the defendant. Our system is designed this way because it would be very bad for everyone if it was easy to convict people of crimes they did not commit. Most of the time this is a good thing – we all want to be protected from the possibility of being punished for something we are not guilty of. Unfortunately, the flip side of this judicial design is that victims of crime (or rather, their legal counsel) bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused victimized them in exactly the way they claim. I should be clear that survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the court system are by no means personally responsible for proving anything – that is solely the responsibility of the Crown prosecutor. I am just trying to illustrate the practical implications of a legal system that prioritizes preventing unlawful conviction over delivering justice to victims of crime.

Because of the nature of sexual assault, it is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a third party exactly what happened. This is because sexual assault is something that does not generally happen in the presence of witnesses who can corroborate the accounts. It is also difficult to prove because the issue is not whether or not sexual contact occurred – that can sometimes be confirmed with medical tests, but whether there was consent.

When a sexual assault is reported to the police, the police pass that information along to the Crown prosecutor who assesses the likelihood of that case resulting in a conviction in court – i.e. how likely is it that the sexual assault can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Crown deems that it is unlikely that the sexual assault can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, generally because of an understandable lack of evidence and witnesses, then the case will not proceed to court. That does not mean either the police or the Crown does not believe that survivor. It just means that sexual assault is a difficult crime to prosecute, and because our legal system prioritizes protecting people from unlawful conviction over providing justice to victims of crime (and I am not passing judgment on that priority), the burden of proof is too great for that particular situation.

Similarly, if a case does proceed to court but the accused is found to be ‘not guilty’, this does not mean the accused is ‘innocent’. It means that there was not enough evidence to verify the survivor’s account beyond a reasonable doubt. It may be that the judge, the jury, and the lawyers are quite convinced that the accused is in fact guilty, but if there is room for any reasonable doubt, than that benefit of that doubt is always given to the accused. Of course, it is also possible that someone who is found to be ‘not guilty’ at their trial is in fact totally innocent, but the point I am trying to make is that ‘not guilty’ and ‘innocent’ are not the same thing and courts are not in the business of determining ‘innocence’.

Another reason we know that it is rare for someone to lie about being sexually assaulted is because police statistics consistently show that, of those sexual assaults that are reported (and remember, only 1/10 are reported), only 2-3% turn out to be false allegations. This is actually slightly lower than false reporting for other crimes such as breaking and entering, or auto theft, but when someone says their car was stolen; people don’t ask “Are you sure? Are you sure you didn’t just lend it out and now you regret it?” While this statistic does show that it is possible for someone to be falsely accused of committing sexual assault and this does sometimes happen, it also shows the disproportionate level of concern society holds for what is actually an exceptionally rare occurrence.

When we believe these myths and put all of our focus and scrutiny on the survivor by doubting her or him, we are not only failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, but we are also neglecting to appreciate the incredible courage it takes for a person to come forward and share an experience of sexual violence. Telling anyone about sexual assault, especially the police or the courts, takes a tremendous amount of strength, and these survivors should be commended and admired for their resiliency.

Next time anyone hears this myth crop up, perhaps in conversation or in a movie or on the news, I encourage them to take a moment with those nearby and do some myth busting. The only focus that should be placed on the actions of the survivor is the utmost respect for the amazing strength and resourcefulness they have displayed in refusing to stay silent.

– Steph


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