[Editor’s note: Opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of 8forty. If you have been a victim of sexual assault, tell someone. In Canada, you can visit the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres to find a rape crisis or women’s centre in your province. Children and teenagers can call the Kids Help Phone or call 1‑800‑668‑6868 to talk to a counsellor. In the US, you can call RAINN at 800-656-4673.]
Over the past decade, a viral movement has taken place that has removed or cancelled various celebrities and powerful individuals for alleged sex crimes. Though the majority of these people have rightfully seen justice, there has been some discourse that innocent people could be caught up in the social media firestorm. What have journalists said in response? An article by ABC says that you “can stop worrying about false rape allegations” due to the fact that they are rare, and a clinical psychologist said that anxiety surrounding a false accusation is not a bad thing. Although lying about physical or sexual assault is rare, are false accusations truly being taken seriously?
In early October 2017, the New York Times published an article that detailed multiple decades of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Over eighty women from the film industry had come forward to talk about their experiences with the now-disgraced film producer. In March of 2020, Weinstein was found guilty of rape in the third degree and a criminal sexual act, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Justice was finally served.
The Me Too movement had its start in early 2006 on Myspace which was the largest social media platform during the mid to to late 2000s. It was originally used as a phrase by sexual harassment survivor and activist, Tarana Burke. The purpose of the Me Too movement voiced by Burke is to amplify the voices of sexual assault victims and show strength through solidarity in numbers. The movement also highlights the sheer amount of sexual assault incidents, especially in workplaces. After the Weinstein allegations, Me Too went viral with millions of people using the phrase on social media and sharing their own experiences of harrassment, sexual assault and rape.
The impact of Me Too has been felt throughout society. Educators have Sexual education is a much bigger focus in schools and consent is being reinforced as necessary in sexual circumstances. In an analysis in 2018 of two hundred men in power who were implicated by the New York Times, nearly half of their replacements were women. In the USA gymnastics sex abuse scandal, numerous people such as Larry Nassar, the former national doctor for the gymnastics team, were found guilty of several counts of sexual assault of a child. Me Too has led women feeling more comfortable in coming forth with their stories, which may be behind a sharp rise in reported sexual assaults. But what happens when an innocent person is caught in the crossfire?
In 2006, three members of the Duke Lacrosse Team were accused of rape by a woman they supposedly had hired as a strippper for a frat party. It went on to become known as the Duke Lacrosse Case, and was widely reported throughout the U.S. and had long lasting repercussions. The case also sparked wide public discussion of racism and sexism, due to the woman, Crystal Mangum being Black and all three of the men accused being White.
But by April of the following year, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges laid upon the three lacrosse members, declaring them innocent. Evidence in the case indicated that the three members had nothing to do with the incident, such as there being a lack of DNA evidence even though a rape kit was administered only hours after the alleged rape took place. Magnum also changed her story numerous times, initially claiming that she had been raped by twenty men and then changing it to only three. The photo identification process was also severely flawed, as Mangum was shown only members of the Duke Lacrosse team, and was asked if she remembered any of them. Defense attorney’s described this as a “multiple-choice test in which there were no wrong answers.”
When the accusations were published on the news, Duke students were allegedly threatened and the University president made a school-wide email that warned of gang violence against students. School professor Houston Baker harassed members of the Duke team, calling them “hooligans” and “rapists.”
An anonymous Duke lacrosse player reflected on his experiences for the ESPN documentary, Fantastic Lies: “Not a month goes by when I am not reminded of the damage those accusations have had on my reputation and the public’s perception of my character. Sometimes only time can heal wounds.”
False accusations can be devastating when they happen. People’s jobs can be lost and reputations can be tarnished. However, the Duke lacrosse members families’ were wealthy and could stand up for themselves. What happens when someone who isn’t so fortunate is targeted?
In October of 2017, freelance writer Mike Tunision was added to a Google Doc called the Shitty Media Men list, which was a collection of unvetted allegations from anonymous individuals. Tunision was fairly successful, having worked for the Washington Post and having a book published by HarperCollins. However, work soon dried up after being accused of stalking, harassment, and physical intimidation by a person he doesn’t even know. “There’s an impossible burden of proof on me. How am I supposed to prove that I didn’t do X from a person I can’t identify? It’s literally impossible.”
Though false accusations are extremely damaging when they occur, it is important to know the rate at which they are made. According to an FBI report of 1996 statistics, the number of unfounded rapes — those found to be false after an investigation — was 8%. A widely cited academic study estimates that between 2% and 10% of rape allegations are false. Most of those false reports never reach the stage where anyone knows that they have been accused. Sexual assault, is also massively underreported, with around 80% of cases not being reported to law enforcement. Victims are often scared to report that they have been sexually assaulted or don’t even realize they were victims until many years later. Therefore, it is important to teach people the importance of coming forward immediately so devices such as a rape kit can be used to collect proof of a sexual crime.
The Me Too movement has led to numerous celebrities and people of power being canceled but has also changed society in some negative ways. False accusations need to be taken seriously, just as victims of assault need to be heard. When someone is accused, we shouldn’t rush to conclusions that that person is guilty or that the accuser is lying. What we need is due process that ensures innocent people aren’t harmed by a court of public opinion eager to feel as though it is doing justice, but without having all the facts. In our legal system, the legal burden of proof is innocent until proven guilty. But in the way we discuss sexual assault among ourselves, some seem to take the opposite approach.
Cover Image: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels