When a woman accuses a man of sexual assault and he denies it, someone is lying. We can believe who we want to believe, but unless we were there in the room, we can’t know for sure that we’re right in supporting either one, no matter what we think we know about a particular case.
However, there are things that we DO know about sexual assault, victim and perpetrator behavior, and false allegations that should inform our first instincts.
We know that most sexual assaults don’t get reported, and the ones that do get reported rarely end up in convictions. We know that the perpetrators—most of whom walk freely among us—can be priests, police officers, teachers, coaches, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. We know that they can be well-respected citizens and trusted servants in our communities.
We know that many victims take years or decades to finally speak about their experiences, due to trauma, guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, intimidation, denial, and dozens of other deeply painful, personal reasons. We know that those who do come forward are re-victimized and put on trial themselves, usually without seeing justice done anyway.
We know that false accusations make up a very small percentage of sexual violence allegations. (Research shows anywhere between 2% and 7%, though the people who make this topic their life’s work say that those numbers are likely overinflated because of inconsistent definitions and criteria.)
Put it all of this together, and we know that men get away with sexual assault more often than not. A LOT more.
In the past few weeks, my social media feeds have been filled with women I know sharing their sexual assault stories. FILLED. Story after story. It’s gut-wrenching, horrifying, heartbreaking—and unfortunately, reality.
You know what my feed hasn’t been filled with? Men sharing story after story of having their lives ruined with false accusations of sexual assault. Why? Because it just doesn’t happen that often. (It does happen, of course. But not nearly as often as actual sexual assault.)
In a court of law, an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Part of what makes sexual assaults challenging to prosecute is that most of the time they take place in private, which makes proof difficult to come by. However, as individuals deciding whom we choose to believe and whom we choose to support, we are not bound by the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. That doesn’t mean we automatically assume everyone accused is guilty, but in a he said/she said situation, based on what we DO know, it’s far FAR more statistically likely that she is telling the truth than not.
This is why believing women should be the default. Considering what we know about sexual assault statistics, it’s the most logical initial response. If allegations are false, an investigation will usually prove it and justice will be done. If they are true, there’s a good chance there will be no justice, but at least the victim will not suffer further by not being believed.
(P.S. Yes, I know that sexual assault victims are not always women and perpetrators are not always men. But again, statistics. Male-on-female sexual violence is by far the most common and there are important gender-equality issues wrapped up in that. However, the same idea applies no matter the gender of the perpetrator or victim. Alleged victims should be believed and supported as our first instinct.)