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The Noble Lie, Feminist Style

False accusations of rape are more common than you think.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Yet the “women don’t lie” dogma is entrenched in popular culture. False accusations of rape are virtually nonexistent in films or in television crime shows, and male victims of rape hoaxes such as the three Duke University students accused of raping stripper Crystal Gail Mangum in 2006 are unlikely to be featured in sympathetic TV movies of the week. To some extent, this dogma has also gained a strong foothold in the legal system. When Congress passed the 1994 Violence Against Women Act expanding federal protections for rape complainants, congressional reports justifying the legislation cited statistics on the low rate of convictions in rape cases—based on the assumption that every rape report was true and every man accused was guilty. 

The old biases against victims have given way to new ones that often stack the deck against the accused: Under rape shield laws, it is often difficult to introduce even relevant information that challenges the credibility of the accuser, including a history of making dubious or outright false accusations. 

In a much-publicized 1998 case in New York, Columbia University graduate student Oliver Jovanovic was found guilty of assaulting and sexually abusing Barnard College student Jamie Rzucek in an encounter that he claimed involved consensual bondage. Email messages from Rzucek to Jovanovic in which she professed interest in sadomasochism and discussed engaging in such activities with another man were ruled inadmissible by the trial judge. The conviction was eventually overturned on appeal on the grounds that Jovanovic was not allowed to present an adequate defense—but not until he had spent 20 months in prison and suffered an assault from another inmate. (Rzucek was denounced as a habitual liar by some members of her own family.) Feminists deplored the reversal of the case as a blow to victims.

No one knows how many men spend time in prison after being falsely accused of rape and either convicted or held without bail. In 1985, a Maryland woman named Kathryn Tucci was sentenced to a $150 fine and 1,000 hours of community service for a false rape charge that put her former boyfriend, Mark Bowles, behind bars for over a year on a charge that she later told the Washington Post stemmed from unrelated “traumatic events.” In 1996, Los Angeles police officer Harris Scott Mintz spent five months in jail after being accused of rape by two different women: first a resident of the neighborhood he patrolled, then his own wife. Eventually, Mrs. Mintz admitted that she’d made up the story because she was angry at her husband over the first charge. Then the original case fell apart after Mintz’s attorneys discovered that the woman had told an ex-roommate she had concocted the charge to sue the county and that she had tried a similar hoax before.

Even without prolonged imprisonment, an accusation and arrest can be costly. Just ask the three Duke students—Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann, and David Evans—who had to leave school and were vilified in the national media because of Mangum’s rape hoax.

The Duke saga made it abundantly clear that feminist orthodoxy on rape is radically hostile to basic principles of justice. Former sex crimes prosecutor and law professor Wendy Murphy, who emerged as a leading TV commentator on the case with frequent appearances on CNN, Fox News, and other channels, repeatedly referred to the accused men as “rapists” on the air. On one occasion, she fumed: “I’m really tired of people suggesting that you’re somehow un-American if you don’t respect the presumption of innocence, because you know what that sounds like to a victim? Presumption you’re a liar.” 

Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, who reportedly bragged in a recorded conversation with a jailed drug dealer about the money she hoped to reap from the case, may well be the victim of a sexual assault. But Strauss-Kahn, however unappealing his behavior in even the most favorable version of the events, may also be the victim of a devastating hoax who no more “deserved it” than a promiscuous woman deserves to be raped. And, just as Strauss-Kahn’s high status does not mean he is innocent, the woman’s underprivileged status as a Guinean immigrant does not mean she is telling the truth. Nor does her “credible,” distraught demeanor reported by the police constitute proof: In virtually every known rape hoax, the false accuser was described at some point as “very credible.” 

In 2004, discussing another highly publicized sexual assault case involving basketball star Kobe Bryant, Murphy decried misogynistic myths about rape accusers—“that women are mentally ill and vindictive.” But the fact is that some women do make false claims of rape, for these and other reasons, just as some men commit rape because they are mentally ill or violent sociopaths. 

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