September 25, 2009

“Inconsistencies” in sexual assault disclosures

Posted in Myths, Victim Blaming tagged at 9:42 pm by sacetalks

Debunking sexual assault myths is one of the biggest components of our jobs as public educators at SACE.   One myth is that women are “asking for it” by wearing “provocative” clothing.  Another is that women are to blame for being assaulted if they were drinking at the time.  Yet another is that women often lie about being sexually assaulted.

All myths are devastating to survivors.  The lying myth impacts how people who are sexually assaulted heal from their assault, as it influences whether or not anyone chooses to disclose.  When researching what articles to include in this week’s news summary, I stumbled across this gem: Defence points to inconcistencies.

The article details a sexual assault trial in which a man is prosecuted for allegedly anally penetrating a woman.  The defense is arguing that the woman is lying about the sexual assault, which is not only evident in how she did not fully disclose to police, but in how aspects of her testimony have changed.  For example, when she initially reported the sexual assault, she said that the alleged offender forced her clothes off; now, however, she is saying that the offender told her to take her clothes off.

This idea of “inconsitencies” is something we hear a lot in junior highs and high schools.  The story usually goes something like this: “My friend Michaeal was accused of sexually assaulting someone last year, but I know he would never do anything like that.  Anyway, the woman who accused him is just vindictive and she told conflicting stories anyway!  She told my friend that Michael forced her to have 2 drinks, while she told me she had 5 drinks.  It’s pretty clear she was lying.”

I can see how a lot of people may mistake inconsistancies as lies.  However, we must account for the impact of trauma on an individual’s memory before we dismiss that person’s story as false.

Most of our memories play like movies in our heads: we can remember people and the sequence of events.  Memories of trauma, however, are more like pictures; and just as pictures can get jumbled up in real life, so can memories of trauma.  It’s common for people who have experienced any kind of trauma to mix up their memory of what happened: it’s part of our body’s way of protecting us from the traumatic experience.  This means that inconsistent stories do not indicate that the person in question is lying.  If anything, it indicates that the person may be having a common reaction to trauma.

Please keep in mind that lying about sexual assault is very, very rare.  In fact, FBI statistics show that only 2-3% of all reported sexual assaults are false allegations.  This is the same percentage as any other crime, including robbery and physical assault.  Further still, this 2-3% includes the number of people who recant their stories, which we know happens when survivors don’t want to be interrogated on the stand like the woman in the linked article is.

Sexual assault is a crime that is vastly underreported, not overreported.  Please believe people who disclose – not being believed can have an extremely negative impact on someone’s healing.  And for those survivors who may not have disclosed to anyone yet, or may not have been believed by anyone yet – consider telling someone else if this is something you’d like to talk about.  Please know that our 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 780 423 4102, is always available to you.  And that we believe you.  And it’s not your fault.