In 2005, former Temple University employee Andrea Constand accused entertainer Bill Cosby of plying her with wine and sedatives, and sexually assaulting her. Cosby’s lawyer called her allegation ‘utterly preposterous’ and ‘plainly bizarre’. Less than a month later, lawyer Tamara Green also accused Cosby of assault.
Over the course of the next ten years, more than 50 women came forward with similar allegations against Cosby. Cosby’s lawyer continued to argue that his client’s female accusers – every single one of them – had lied, and that Cosby was a victim of extortion. In 2015, Cosby filed a countersuit stating that these women had made ‘malicious, opportunistic, and false and defamatory accusations of sexual misconduct against him’.
The implication that women lie about rape isn’t only a defence used by the rich and famous – that is, people like Cosby who might be seen as a ‘natural target’ for these allegations. In general, women are often doubted when they accuse men of assault, not only by law enforcement officers, legal practitioners and media spokespeople, but also by their peers and family members. This isn’t a contemporary phenomenon; the idea that women ‘cry wolf’ is a deeply rooted historical and cultural notion endorsed by Greek mythology and religious texts. Take the mythological character Cassandra. When she refuses the god Apollo’s sexual advances, Apollo punishes her by making sure no-one believes her prophecies anymore. In the biblical tale of Potiphar and his wife, the wife (who remains unnamed) becomes angry when Joseph, a Hebrew slave, rejects her advances. So she tears his loincloth, and tells her husband that Joseph tried to rape her. Both women are presented as dishonest and untrustworthy.
The ‘cry wolf’ myth continues to hold extraordinary power, despite a recent study showing that false reporting of sexual assault only occurs in about 5 per cent of cases. It’s far too common for any woman’s allegation of rape to be coupled with the question but is she lying? In the essay ‘Get Your Hands Off My Sister’, Stephanie Convery discusses how feminism launched a rabid response to the widespread disbelief in women’s allegations of sexual assault:
The suggestion that women are making it up or just ‘looking for attention,’ combined with the high acquittal rate of sexual assault cases, has brought about a kind of activism centred on an unshakeable faith in women’s accusations of sexual assault, and on the public articulation of this position.
Convery warns against this ‘unshakeable faith,’ arguing that any fixed or unquestioning stance becomes problematic in the process of legal justice.
I don’t deny the need – and moral obligation – to scrutinise a claim from all sides, and to be wary of any kind of staunch position. Yet, as Convery herself asserts, women continue to be silenced, discredited and disempowered by the misconception that they lie about rape. If we are to develop better standards of communication, and to find better strategies to achieve legal justice, then we need to dismantle what I believe to be the most damaging and disabling of all rape myths: the idea that women ‘cry wolf’. For someone dealing with the grief, shame and anger after a sexual assault, it can be especially hard when one’s peers and relatives are the ones choosing not to believe them. I know this because I write from the point-of-view of a woman who has not been believed about being raped, and also as someone who chose not to believe another.
Before I describe how I found myself in the paradoxical position of not believing another woman, I feel compelled to unfold the events of my own assault. Perhaps this is my way of seeking that sense of acknowledgement many rape victims crave, rather than following the more societally accepted path of legal retribution. My experience traverses so many rape myths, it’s hardly surprising that most people didn’t believe me.
I knew the man who raped me, although not very well. (Myth number one: sexual assault is committed by strangers.) He was the friend of a French woman, Lola, I’d befriended while living in Münich as a research fellow. I’d recently bought an expensive ‘dirndl’, a traditional German dress with a corset bodice that came with a push-up bra, and I wanted to wear it. (Myth number two: women ask to be sexually assaulted by the way they dress.) I asked Lola if she wanted to go to ‘Springfest’, a smaller, although not entirely tamer, version of Münich’s famous ‘Oktoberfest’. Lola wanted to bring Paulo, her long-term Brazilian boyfriend. I was fine with that, but I did feel a bit like a third wheel. When Lola mentioned that her American friend Josh might be interested in joining us, I jumped on her suggestion. In fact, I grabbed the phone from her as she spoke to him, begging Josh to come along.
When I met him at the fairgrounds, no alarm bells went off – Josh was a nice looking guy in his mid-twenties with an easy smile and shiny brown eyes. Lola had mentioned he was single, but I wasn’t interested. First of all, I was married, but whatever my circumstances, I wasn’t attracted to Josh. Whenever I found myself next to him, I’d politely chat, but never gave any kind of indication of anything more. He also showed no interest, and seemed respectful, friendly, harmless.
As the night wore on, our party of four drifted from bar to bar, getting pink-cheeked and laugh-happy drunk. Perhaps a sensible girl (the kind of girl who doesn’t get raped) would have called a taxi and gone home, but I was having a good time.
It was when we got to the late-night Irish bar that things got a little hazy. I remember being drunk, but still able to recall how many drinks I’d had: six. (Myth three: women who drink too much are asking to be raped). Josh bought the next round, handing me a glass of white wine. I took a couple sips, then placed my glass on a table so I could dance with Lola to a pop song. At some point, at a moment impossible to identify, I remember nothing. Later, when I counted back the hours, I’d realise that I couldn’t account for ten hours of my life; I don’t remember leaving the bar, and I couldn’t explain how I woke up to Josh having sex with me.
There’s a scene in the popular sitcom Big Bang Theory where the show’s female lead Penny wakes up in bed with her ex-boyfriend’s colleague Rajesh. A laugh track plays as the camera trails across a pile of clothes at the end of a bed, then focuses on the sleeping faces of Penny and Rajesh. Penny stirs. She gazes at Rajesh’s hand on her shoulder, squints and turns to face him. ‘Oh god,’ she says, when she realises where she is. She sits up, flustered and confused. ‘Oh god.’ Penny’s voice is so loud, she wakes Rajesh. ‘This never happened, okay?’ she tells him, her face full of regret. Rajesh nods; the audience laughs.
I’ve seen this scene before, played out in other sitcoms and romantic comedies – a man and woman wake up in bed, look at each other in a moment of sheer terror, and say something like, ‘Did we? Or didn’t we?’ This is what happens, right? You get drunk – too drunk to remember what you did last night – and wake up in a stranger’s, or worse, a friend’s bed. You’re a bit embarrassed afterwards, but no harm done, right?
But what if Penny had been drunk the night before, too drunk to give Rajesh her consent? Or what if Rajesh had drugged her? How would the scene play out?
When I woke up in that strange, queen-sized bed I had not asked to spend the night in, I felt confused, fuzzy-headed, achy. Later, I’d piece together my symptoms to suspect that Josh had slipped a ‘roofie’ into my wine. But I didn’t barrage him with questions I wished I’d asked. Instead I used every ounce of my physical strength to push him off me and get out of the bed. My mind almost wanted to believe I’d willingly gone home with him, that we’d had consensual, albeit absent-minded, sex. But nothing in my memory (or lack thereof) supported this idea. I found the scattered pieces of my dirndl, and caught a taxi back to my rented room on the other side of the city. Josh didn’t stop me – he’d just lay in his bed, watching me with a seemingly detached gaze, his arms folded behind his head.
I went into work late the next day, and when I forced my shaking hands to write a message to Lola, I didn’t use the word ‘rape’. I just told her I was angry Josh had taken advantage of me. But I needed her to fill in the gaps. ‘What happened in the Irish bar?’ I asked. Her response was pretty unenlightening: ‘You were drunk, so Josh took you home.’ It was Lola who first used the word ‘rape’, which is interesting, because after our initial conversation, she no longer believed me. She later said, ‘Josh is our friend. He’d never do that. Why would he have given you a drug?’ She started to refer to the incident as ‘bad sex’ and ‘let’s not talk about it.’ Lola now believed I’d lied, perhaps because I was married and felt guilty for being unfaithful. (Myth number four: women lie about being sexually assaulted to seek revenge, or because they feel guilty after a night of regretful sex.)
I was so shaken by Lola’s change of heart, I didn’t tell anyone else while in Münich. Then, when I returned home to Sydney, a card waited on my pillowcase: my husband had written how much he’d missed me, and promised to be a better man. I melted into the warmth of his words, but it was only a matter of time before I told my husband, hoping he’d offer the support I craved. He didn’t. He refused to believe me, and took my words as an admission that I’d cheated on him.
Fast forward four years. After working up the courage to leave what had become a toxic marriage, and surviving a couple tumultuous years living in friends’ spare rooms, I landed on my feet. I graduated with my PhD, moved back to the United States, and got funding to work on a creative audio storytelling project. This project was a long-term dream of mine, and I got a tremendous amount of pleasure researching potential subjects and creating a production schedule. The first story I wanted to tell was about a famous activist who’d used eco-terrorism to fight environmental and animal rights battles.
The night before my trip, I told my friend Ben about my plans. Then he told me something that landed an unexpected punch in the gut: his friend Melissa had accused this famous activist of raping her. Ben forwarded me an emotional statement she’d posted on Facebook that was steeped in survivor advocacy language – ‘trigger alert’, ‘you’re stronger than this’, ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’. While I knew this language was meant to be inclusive to rape victims, I initially found it off-putting. But as I read on, her specific details about the alleged assault chilled the skin off my bones.
I spent the next 12 hours agonising over what to do. Should I cancel my trip, even though I’d lose money on the flights, as well as months of hard work? If I did go, would I be putting myself in danger? I chatted to as many friends as I could, hoping someone would give me the right answer. Most thought I should cancel, but one female friend brushed off my concerns. ‘This is a classic example of “he said, she said”,’ she told me. ‘This girl sounds like she’s batshit crazy. If she were really raped, there’d be a police report – not a Facebook post.’ Besides, my friend pointed out, couldn’t I see how this famous activist would be an easy target for these allegations?
Even after everything I’d been through myself, and everything I knew about rape myths, I chose not to believe the woman accusing a man of rape.
I went on the trip, got the story, even stayed in the same hotel room as this man. But my decision haunted me afterwards. I couldn’t come to terms with my own self-contradictions. How could I have so easily dismissed another woman’s rape accusations, when I understood the trauma of not being believed myself? I still don’t have an answer. But one thing I’ve come to understand is that the ‘cry wolf’ myth is more powerful and pervasive than I ever imagined.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we should unconditionally believe another just because we’ve been through a similar experience. That would be an overly simplistic response, as well as a morally irresponsible and naïve one. What I believe is that we need to consider the power of language and the words we use to discuss allegations of sexual assault. The immediate use of dismissive language –‘she’s lying’, ‘she made it up’, ‘that couldn’t have happened’ – can and do impede the extrication of truth, and discourage victims from coming forward.
In a 2014 study, Jacqueline M Wheatcroft and Sandra Walklate recommend an interesting way for campaigners, policy makers and legal practitioners to work past the language of false allegations. The authors suggest approaching sexual assault allegations from a premise of ‘interactional belief’, which is the acceptance that women, as a whole, do not lie. It’s only from this premise, they argue, that a meaningful and constructive rapport can be formed between parties, which can lead to better pathways to the truth, as well as successful resolutions of cases.
This theory seems especially useful for investigative interviews that may occur during legal proceedings. An individual may feel anxious during an interview if they have a limited understanding of the legal and criminal justice systems, or if they feel intimidated by the police officer’s or legal practitioner’s position of authority. Then, of course, the individual may fear that the interviewer won’t believe them in the first place. If police and legal representatives approach the interview through the premise of interactional belief, and choose not to allow rape myths to influence or cloud their thinking, this may set the interviewee at ease. That, according to Wheatcroft and Walklate, can lead to the production of stronger narratives and constructions of truth. ‘[I]t is difficult to engage in any meaningful rapport and create the appropriate atmosphere of trusted and trusting within the context of disbelief in which myth and stereotype flourish,’ they write. ‘Thus a benchmark is set premised firmly on interactional belief rather than disbelief for the successful resolution of a case.’
While daily life is decidedly different to what happens in the police station or courthouse, the concept of interactional belief can still play a pivotal role in our interactions with peers, friends and family members. If a woman comes to us to say that she’s been raped, we have a better chance of understanding the truth if we choose to believe her. By creating a supportive climate, we may learn more specific details about what happened, and enable ourselves to make educated and informed judgments of the situation. We also position ourselves to better give support to victims. If we choose not to believe her, the conversation will likely come to a halt, and the truth may remain buried in the chests of those who want nothing more than to be believed.
* Names in this essay have been changed.
Image: ‘Smoking’ / flickr