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Sep 21, 2009
You’ve probably heard that a woman at Hofstra University accused a group of men of raping her, and then, a few days later, recanted her accusation. I’m not going to repeat the things people are saying about this young woman. Suffice it to say they’re not kind.
For my part, my heart sank when I heard she’d recanted. I felt worry for everyone involved, and I also knew that anytime someone appears to have lied about a rape accusation, it’s used forever to discredit any woman who dares to speak up about being raped. This case has already proved no different.
I hardly want to draw more attention to the story, but so much bile has been spilled and there are a few things that need to be said. Four, to be precise:
1) Anything that exists gets lied about sometimes. The fact that someone may have lied about being raped proves nothing except that human beings occasionally lie. What we know about rape reporting is that, of rapes that are reported to the police, somewhere between 2-8% turn out to be false or are recanted. And that’s to say nothing of the vast majority of rapes, which are never reported to the police at all.
2) Did you notice how I just said "turn out to be false or are recanted"? Let’s not confuse the two.
There’s a widespread assumption that recanting an accusation means that you’re admitting you lied. But in reality, lots of victims recant not because they made it up, but because they come to the unfortunate realization that it will cost them more, emotionally, to pursue justice than to let it go. We’ll probably never now what happened in this case, but it’s entirely possible that she was threatened by the accused perpetrators or their associates, interrogated by the police about her sexual history or what she might have done to "provoke" the attack, or blamed and slandered by the media or people in her community. All of these things happen all too often to rape victims who speak out. Let’s not ignore the possibility that they happened here.
3) Why is this an international story, featured in the New York Times and sent out over the AP wires, when somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 young women will be actually raped on college campuses this year? Why does our culture and our media insist on broadcasting the rare instance of a false or recanted accusation, and largely ignoring the actual public health crisis that’s threatening a yet another generation of girls? (I wrote all about this crisis and what we should be doing about it last week in The American Prospect.)
4) Honestly, this case just makes me so sad. I think it’s highly likely that something bad happened that night, whether or not she literally consented. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening if all the parties had engaged in direct sexual communication and sought enthusiastic, affirmative consent – not just lack of protest. For me, this whole mess just demonstrates how badly we need a real sea-change in how we talk about and view sex in our culture.
Here’s where a conclusion should go, but this column has none. Because this case has none. And this crisis has none. At least none so far. But we’re working on it. Right?