media coverage of the felony sexual assault charge leveled at basketball
star Kobe Bryant includes an element that has been rarely introduced into
public discussion in recent years: Commentators are openly speculating on
whether the accusation is false. Could the woman be lying?
And yet, whenever an unwitnessed crime is alleged, such speculation is valid.
This is especially true if the allegation of crime is not unambiguously backed
up by physical evidence. In a "he said/she said" scenario, the credibility
of the accuser is key. This is why Western jurisprudence recognizes the right
of the accused to face his or her accuser and ask questions in a court of
Our society has long acknowledged the existence of false accusations. In
Biblical times, "bearing false witness" was recognized as a practice prevalent
enough to be delineated as one of only 10 overriding social rules. The
Ninth Commandment reads, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
In the Common Law tradition, upon which American jurisprudence draws heavily,
the prevalence of false accusations contributed to "the presumption of innocence."
The definition of this legal term is: "The indictment or formal charge against
any person is not evidence of guilt. Indeed, the person is presumed by the
law to be innocent."
Why? Because, in almost any circumstance, a certain percentage of people
will lie. They will do so for a variety of motives. Sometimes there is a
clear advantage to lying: for example, to gain money or the custody of children.
In his forthcoming biography Politicians, Partisans and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News,
Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson discusses another motive that underlies
some false accusations. In 2001, a woman he had never met alleged he had
raped her in Louisville, a city he had never visited. After $14,000 in legal
bills, Carlson discovered that the woman had a chronic mental disorder. He
decided not to sue for redress since it would further link his name with
the word "rape."
Carlson even hesitated to speak out in his tell-all book because "the stigma
of being accused of that kind of crime is so strong." Fortunately, he thought
it taught a valuable lesson: "I always assumed, like every other journalist
does, that all sex scandals are rooted in the truth, period. You may not
have done precisely what you're accused of, but you did something." From
bitter experience, he now knows differently.
Even charges that are later revealed to be false can devastate the accused.
Consider journalist John Fund, who was arrested on charges of domestic violence
and publicly excoriated for sexual misconduct. The charges were later dropped.
Columnist Eric Alterman recently published an article
entitled "Who Framed John Fund?" There, Alterman chronicled the false accusations
that haunt Fund. Once a high-profile presence on the Wall Street Journal's
editorial page and a frequent television commentator, Fund now writes for
the WSJ's far less prestigious Opinionjournal.com and is rarely on TV.
On his Web site, Fund posted a notarized affidavit from his accuser, stating,
"Mr. Fund has not been abusive to me contrary to what I said in reports to
the Jersey City police." He has also posted the transcript of a deposition
in which she testifies under oath that she has "borderline personality disorder."
Nevertheless, it is not clear whether Fund's career will recover.
How prevalent is the false reporting of sexual assault? Estimates vary widely.
According to much-cited feminist statistics, two percent of all reports are false. Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will
(1975), for example, claims that false accusations in New York City dropped
to that level after police departments began using policewomen to interview
alleged victims. Elsewhere, the two percent figure appears without citation
or with a vague attribution to "FBI" sources.
According to a study
conducted by Eugene Kanin of Purdue University, the correct figure may rise
to the 40 percent range. Kanin examined 109 rape complaints registered in
a Midwestern city from 1978 to 1987. Of these, 45 were ultimately classified
by the police as "false." Also based on police records, Kanin determined
that 50 percent of the rapes reported at two major universities were "false."
Studies and statistics often vary and for legitimate reasons. For example,
they may examine different populations. But such a dramatic variance -- two
percent to 50 percent -- raises the question of whether political interests
are at work.
It is understandable why some feminists might wish to understate the incidence
of false reporting. In the '50s, women who reported sexual assault or domestic
violence were dismissed. To acknowledge false reports as a real problem might
undercut the gains made toward taking women seriously.
But if the charge against Kobe Bryant is proven false, a backlash against
women reporting violence may occur. Bryant is accused of a crime that, under
Colorado law, carries a prison term of four years to life or probation for
20 years to life. The highest level of evidence and credible testimony should
be required before ruining a man's life in that manner.
Feminists should demand such a high level of proof. Otherwise, it is the
man who appears to be the victim no matter how many times the accusation
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research
fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Her new book is Liberty for
Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century. Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.