The recent incident at Hofstra University, in which a student claimed that she was gang-raped in a men's room, has reignited the ongoing and often bitter debate about false accusations of rape. Are false rape charges a serious problem exacerbated by feminist claims that women don't lie about rape? Or is the issue being blown out of proportion to discredit feminists and cast doubt on the credibility of rape victims? Should women who bring false accusations be prosecuted or treated as troubled people who need help?
The Hofstra incident seems to be a classic case of a woman "crying rape" after consensual sex was followed by regrets. The woman said she was lured to a bathroom during a fraternity party, tied to a toilet stall with a rope and raped by five men. The men were arrested and briefly jailed before one of them produced a cell phone video filmed during the encounter, showing consensual sex. Confronted with the video, the woman recanted.
Many feminists argue that the problem of false accusations is so minuscule that to discuss it extensively is a harmful distraction from the far more serious problem of rape. On the other side are men's-rights activists, claiming that false accusations are as much of a scourge as rape itself.
In the 1970s, the feminist anti-rape movement championed the credibility of women for a good reason: At the time, the belief that rape charges are often made up out of vindictiveness or hysteria often caused victims to be treated as if they were the criminals. Unfortunately, rigid feminist dogma replaced one set of prejudices with another. Law professor Catharine MacKinnon has written that "feminism is built on believing women's accounts of sexual use and abuse by men."
Building a belief system around believing someone's claims on the basis of gender is a sure prescription for bias. In 2006, when several members of the men's lacrosse team at Duke University were charged with raping a stripper at a team party, many feminist commentators, such as New England School of Law professor and former prosecutor Wendy Murphy, insisted on a presumption of guilt toward the accused men, despite indications that the story could be a hoax. The men were eventually exonerated.
FBI statistics show that about 9 percent of rape reports are "unfounded" - that is, dismissed without charges being filed. This usually happens when the accuser recants or when her story is contradicted by evidence. Some studies put the rate of false accusations at one in four or even higher. While no one knows the true figures, it is clear that the problem is real and its consequences can be devastating. The lacrosse players at Duke lived through a yearlong legal nightmare and were publicly branded as rapists. False accusations have sent men to prison for months or even years.
Yet some of the commentary on the Hofstra case has shown more sympathy to the accuser than the falsely accused men. On Slate, Emily Bazelon writes, "Let's agree that something disturbing happened to that 18-year-old woman at Hofstra. Something she feels awful about."
The assumption is that a drunken sexual encounter in a bathroom is something that "happens" to a woman, and if she "feels awful" when she sobers up and has regrets, she deserves a measure of support and understanding. (In fact, the woman's false accusation may have been less a reaction to guilt and shame than an attempt to conceal her escapades from her boyfriend, who saw her immediately afterward.)
Meanwhile, some are expressing harsh judgment of the men for engaging in group sex in a bathroom and filming it. This is not attractive behavior, to be sure. Yet we always have been told that rape victims don't need to be angels or models of chastity to deserve support. Surely the same should apply to men who are falsely accused.
To recognize that some women wrongly accuse men of rape is not anti-female, any more than recognizing that some men rape women is anti-male. There is power in a charge as uniquely damaging as rape, and women are no less likely than men to abuse the power they have. To recognize this fact is not "backlash" but basic fairness.