False accusations vs. the female experience: The sexual violence debate in the online era
Illustration Credit: Alice Kirk

TW: Sexual assault

On the 15th October 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano made a post to Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Overnight, thousands of men, women and non-binary folk across the world responded. #MeToo was soon joined by #YoTambien, #BalanceTonPorc and #QuellaVoltaChe. Social media gave birth to a new movement.

It came a week after Harvey Weinstein was first investigated for sexual misconduct, with 82 women in total eventually coming forward to make claims about the Hollywood producer. Since this watershed moment, the list of celebrities accused of sexual assault has only grown longer.

Most recently, this has included actor Ansel Elgort. A woman came forward on Twitter sharing descriptions of her experiences while she was 17 and Elgort was 20, along with photos of them together and screenshots of predatory messages from Elgort’s “private snapchat”. In the since-deleted post, she explained how she suffered with PTSD and panic attacks after the events, and only now felt able to talk about it because of having therapy. 

Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, a psychology professor and researcher of trauma psychology at the University of Oregon, uses the phrase ‘betrayal trauma’ to describe “when someone you trust and/or someone who has power over you mistreats you.” The word ‘power’ here is particularly notable. What is especially distressing about allegations of sexual misconduct involving celebrities and fans who are minors – as is the case with Elgort – is that there are two significant unequal power dynamics in play. Not only do you have the fact that an adult is engaging in a relationship with someone who is legally still a child, but also the power imbalance that fame brings – which is only further exacerbated by social media.

When you have a man with nearly ten million followers on Instagram and die-hard fans who’ll defend him with comments like “Ansel would never ever hurt a girl. I’d put my kidneys against her word” (over 7,000 likes), it’s not surprising that a woman on Twitter is attacked to the point of deleting her account. One person tweeted in response to the accusations, “I hate this trend… I don’t believe any girl coming out as a victim of some famous person. THEY ARE A LIAR. Just for clout.” Another commented “17? She knew exactly what she was doing.” 

Anti-sexual violence organization RAINN say that over 75% of sexual assault cases are not reported to the police, and fear of backlash like this may further discourage other victims of violence from coming forward. Hence, the power imbalance that exists between celebrities and their accusers becomes a silencing agent

After all, a white man in Hollywood is able to brush almost any kind of scandal under the rug with a splash of money and some good connections. Harvey Weinstein for one utilised several “non-disclosure agreements, monetary pay-offs and legal threats” to suppress the allegations and buy his victims into silence.

 Actress Ashley Judd, the first woman to come forward publicly about Weinstein’s behaviour, spoke in an interview with Time Magazine about the difficulty of having nowhere to “report these experiences.” “Were we supposed to call some fantasy attorney general of moviedom?” 

In the age of social media, victims now do have somewhere to go. While it was several traditional news outlets that broke the first reports of the Weinstein case, the resulting ‘Weinstein Effect’ would likely have not existed on the same scale if it were not for social media. 

Social media has created a platform for victims of abuse and assault to share their stories in an empowering way that was simply not possible before. It creates a space for mass-organisation, allowing movements to be built from a simple hashtag and transform into global protest. The #MuteRKelly hashtag played a key role in creating public pressure that ultimately led to the singer’s arrest and 18 federal charges of sexual abuse. As such, social media can also be used as a tool to flip the power imbalance of celebrity-versus-victim on its head. 

However, with a platform that’s open-to-all of course comes disagreement. It’s an open courtroom of constant debate. Pineapple on pizza? You can argue about that. The best way to make tea? You can argue about that. A more difficult debate that almost always crops up with sexual violence is the debate about false accusations, and more specifically – false rape accusations. 

We’re now talking about the nuances and language of consent in a way that we never have. But more so than ever, there also seems to be an immense amount of fear. To some extent a false rape accusation can indeed ‘ruin a man’s life’. Archie Williams, a black man falsely accused of raping and stabbing a white woman in 1982 spent nearly 37 years in jail.

Furthermore, there is a long history of white women weaponizing their femininity and their whiteness to make rape or assault claims against Black men. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmet Till was murdered by two white men after a white woman lied about Till harassing her in a grocery store in Mississippi. 

Race and sexual violence have been closely entwined for centuries. During the transatlantic slave trade, rape and sexual assault against enslaved Black women by white enslavers was commonplace. As slavery was repackaged into what we now call the state prison system, sexual violence will continue to disproportionately affect women of colour (only 36% of women in the US identify as women of colour, yet WOC make up nearly 50% of the female prison population). In 35 states it is still legal for a prison officer to have sex with an incarcerated person, despite the unequal power dynamic at play. This deserves to demonstrate why intersectionality is so vital in feminist discourse and anti-sexual violence movements.

The conversation surrounding false accusations is one that absolutely needs to be had. No woman is denying that. “I’m scared of being falsely accused of sexual assault” and “I’m scared of being sexually assaulted” are two realities that can coexist. Sexual violence is a complex topic, and to ignore any facet of the conversation would be ignorant.

However, if a man’s first instinct when a woman comes forward about an experience of sexual assault is to shout over her ‘CLOUT-CHASER’ or spiel off what-about-isms to do with false accusations, that’s when problems arise. See, you might speak about false allegations this and that, but if it came to calling out one of your bros when he gropes a girl on a night out, would you? Will you gladly excuse harassment with “Boys will be boys!” and then in the same breath scream “NOT ALL MEN”? 

Rapists aren’t just evil people lurking in the shadows of empty parking lots. They’re also your friend known as the ‘good guy’ of the group (who’s actually a supreme gaslighter), or the one that has to ask 10 times before a girl gives in to having sex with him. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much fear – because you know that for you to hold rapists accountable it means you’ll have to hold your mates, maybe even yourself, accountable too.

A study by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that only 2-8% of rapes are falsely reported. In fact, if you’re a man, you’re 230 times more likely to be a victim of rape than to be falsely accused of rape.

The reality is that the majority of actual rapists and abusers have not faced charges, still have their buddies and still have their jobs. 

Jeffrey Epstein was a multi-millionaire who was besties with the president of the United States and an English prince. 

Brock Turner, “a Stanford student who raped and assaulted an unconscious female student behind a dumpster at a fraternity party”, was in jail for a shorter amount of time than we have been in quarantine. 

In a devastating contrast, so many victims of violence have been failed. Just this month, Oluwatoyin ‘Toyin’ Salau, a 19 year old Black activist and local community volunteer in Florida, tweeted about her sexual assault before going missing for several days and later being found, brutally raped and murdered.

So-called “cancel culture” (or rather, ‘holding celebrities accountable for their actions’) only lasts as long as the internet allows us to remember. Social media means stories can be spread in an instant across the world, but it also means we lose interest twice as quick. Hashtags become a trend to hop on and soon forget about, and we lose sight of the fact that sexual violence is so much more than what you see online. 

In the US, a survey found that 81% of women have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives, while American men estimated this level to be significantly lower, with an average guess of 44%.

Girls are introduced to sexual harassment at an incredibly young age. It’s now almost an inevitable right of passage – part of the package deal of womanhood. Being catcalled at 10 or 11 is accompanied later in life by bum-grabs on packed trains and waist-squeezes at bars in clubs. Navigating public space as a woman – wherever you are in the world – means constantly being on alert. 

Rape culture and the stigmatisation of female sexuality embeds itself not only into our everyday vocabulary through slut-shaming and ‘locker room banter’, but also into institutions of religion, law, and education. Misogyny and rape culture is in fact so normalized that a man with his own Wikipedia page of sexual misconduct allegations is currently in the White House.

For most women, talking about sexual violence emcompasses so much more than the #MeToo stories from Hollywood. It comes with a whole personal lifetime of dealing with sexual harassment and patriarchal narrative.

It comes with being wolf-whistled at as a child in school uniform. 

It comes with being taught from a young age that men are naturally free sexual beings and girls are not. That historically, girls who were not virgins before marriage were considered used, dirty and unclean. 

It comes with being called a ‘slag’ or a ‘slut’ for enjoying casual sex, and then a minute later being called ‘frigid’ if you don’t welcome a man’s advances. 

It comes with being sexualised in the street by strangers and being told to take it as a compliment because you’re socialized into thinking that the main goal of a woman’s life is to earn validation from men and pander to the ‘male gaze’

It comes with not only being sexualised in the street, but also in the classroom, as teachers tell you to cover up so as not to ‘distract’ the male staff.

It comes with knowing that if you’re raped there’s no point going to the police because they either won’t believe you or they’ll shrug their shoulders and say there’s nothing they can do.

It comes with knowing that even if you did go to the police and they did believe you, the judge might not. The judge might say “When a woman says no she doesn’t always mean it” (Judge Raymond Dean, 1990) or “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” (Judge Robin Camp, 2016) or “The victim in this case, although she wasn’t necessarily willing, she didn’t put up a fight” (Judge Derek Johnson, 2008). 

If you’re a Black woman, it comes with being viewed as more aggressive than your white female friends, and being branded with the ‘Strong Black Woman’ archetype, which means you’re less likely to be believed as a victim of sexual violence. It comes with having a higher chance of being sex trafficked, too. 

If you’re a woman who is transgender, it comes with being sexually fetishised while also being told you have to work to prove your femininity to the world. And it comes with having a one in two chance of being sexually abused or assaulted at some point in your lifetime.

It comes with not having world-wide bodily autonomy, for someone else decides what you can and can’t do with your sexual organs.

It comes with seeing women like you being objectified daily on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, where different sizes and shapes of women’s bodies go in and out of fashion like clothes, and you’re seen by men first as a sexual thing and then as a person.

It comes with preparing yourself for some kind of harassment every time you go out in public, and basing what you wear and the routes you travel around minimising your chance of being sexually assaulted.

It comes with growing up in a world where rape culture is so normalized that you don’t even realise until years later that you’ve been sexually assaulted.  And it comes with knowing that if a man were to rape you and film it, it could be uploaded to a porn site for other men to watch and enjoy for free. 

But through all this, god forbid you react with any kind of emotion – because then you’re just being a bitch.

When a woman’s experiences of sexual violence are dismissed in lieu of devil’s advocacy or debate, it only adds to pain and trauma that was already there. It silences someone who has been taught since childhood to silence herself in order to make men feel more comfortable. To not take up too much space.

We are still teaching girls that it is up to them to prevent themselves from being harassed or raped, rather than educating boys about consent, communication and empathy. A 17-year-old girl should have “known better” than to allow herself to be assaulted, while a 17-year-old boy is free to make sexist jokes under the guise that he hasn’t quite matured yet.

Out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 of the perpetrators will walk free, and 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female.  This is overwhelmingly a feminist issue. But as long as the system continues to fail women, it will fail men too – because that other 9% also matters. Feminist issues aren’t just female issues – they’re every-single-person-EVER issues. So if you’re a guy who says “But what about male rape victims?” – I have some news for you – you should be a feminist.

A study in 1986 by UCLA researcher Neil Malamuth found that 30% of college men would commit rape if they could be sure of getting away with it. And when the word ‘rape’ was replaced with ‘force a woman into having sex’, 58% said they would do so.

In the three-and-a-half decades since that study I’m not sure exactly how much has changed. But if those college men now have families of their own, and they’re raising their sons on the same set of values they had back in 1986, truthfully I don’t have much optimism.

We still have such a long way to go, both in terms of creating institutional reform to support victims of sexual violence and dismantling the normalized wide-spread misogyny that runs rampant in our day-to-day lives. Men – we need you with us. #MeToo is just the beginning.