Ryan Lochte, false reports, and believing the women

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on social media that they had been robbed. Immediately, messages of concern and support started to pour in. Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Is there anything I can do? Etc, etc.

A similar thing happened on a much larger scale when US Olympian Ryan Lochte claimed he had been mugged in Rio. But leaving aside the legal fine points of whether what happened to Lochte should technically count as robbery, it’s become clear since his initial report that Lochte lied about the incident and painted himself as a victim when he wasn’t one.

‘Believe victims’ is a common refrain among feminist and anti-rape activists. And it’s one that’s commonly misinterpreted, mostly by critics but occasionally by well-meaning allies as well. When anti-rape activists say that we should believe victims, they’re effectively saying that our attitude toward reports of rape shouldn’t be different than our attitude to self-reports of other crimes: the default should be belief, rather than skepticism.

When my friend said they were robbed, they were met with messages of support and condolence and offers of assistance. So was Lochte. Women who say they were raped are often met with questions about whether they are sure it wasn’t consensual, whether they’re remembering things correctly, whether they might’ve been sending mixed messages. The default is very often suspicion.

When anti-rape activists say that our default should be belief, it doesn’t mean that they think we should continue to believe any and all accusations of rape, come what may. The default was to believe Ryan Locthe, but when evidence emerged that he was lying, people revised that belief. ‘Believe victims’ isn’t asking us to confer special epistemic status on people who say they were raped – to treat that testimony as completely unquestionable or inviolable. It’s instead asking us precisely not to confer special epistemic status. Don’t treat an accusation of rape differently than most any other self-report of a crime.* Give the alleged victim the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling the truth.

We have good reason to suppose that false accusations of rape are rare. We also have very good reason to think that there’s massive disincentive against making a false accusation. But we also know that false accusations do happen, and that sometimes people act irrationally. Ryan Locthe had a lot of reasons not to make up an action movie story about getting robbed in Rio, but it still happened. ‘Believe victims’ doesn’t mandate that we ignore the possibility of false accusations; it just treats false accusations as the outlying exception rather than the rule, just as false accusations of robbery are the exception rather than the rule.

But the difference in the cases, of course, is that people will take this one very high profile instance of a false accusation of robbery and remember it as ‘Ryan Lochte lied about robbery’. That Ryan Lochte lied about being mugged in Rio won’t make me any less likely to believe a friend the next time they post about being robbed on social media. We won’t suddenly become suspicious of swimmers generally, or of white men with badly died hair. Ryan Lochte isn’t seen as a representative of anything systematic – he’s just Ryan Lochte. In contrast, we remember high profile instances of false accusations of rape, not as ‘Jane lied about rape’ or ‘Anna lied about rape’ but as ‘women lie about rape’.

*Caveat: we might have good reasons to approach the testimony of rape victims differently, even if we don’t – in epistemic terms – treat their testimony differently. Asking a victim of rape to recount their story over and over and probing that story for details can be extremely traumatizing for a rape victim in a way that it might not be for a robbery victim.

UPDATE: A friend send me a link to this editorial from Anna Rhodes making basically the same point.

7 thoughts on “Ryan Lochte, false reports, and believing the women

  1. I agree with your main point, and would very much like to treat rape accusations like robbery accusations. The big difference I see, though, is in how one approaches the accused.

    I can completely believe my friend who says they were robbed, but still completely support ‘innocent until proven guilty’ regarding the various suspects. In rape accusations the suspect is often named, and supporting the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is usually regarded as disbelieving the victim.

    Do we need to break apart reports of a crime and accusations against particular individuals in order to develop a consistent standard for our responses?

  2. It may well be unclear that “Lochte lied about the incident and painted himself as a victim when he wasn’t one.”


    This, of course, isn’t definitive, but I am surprised how quickly all sorts of people are in assuming they know what, exactly, happened.

    (I saw way more on this than I wanted to – I just wanted to watch some sports, but NBC kept going on and on about it – and there was certainly some “bad American” and “typical boys” stereotyping going on, by the reporters on TV, but also, it seems, by the police.)

  3. I don’t understand the distinction Pat Browne is gesturing at. Is the thought that it’s only OK to ‘completely believe’ my friend if they don’t name their robber? This doesn’t seem to me plausible. At any rate, the presumption of innocence is a legal matter—I think it’d be a mistake to use it to govern our beliefs about our friends’ experiences

  4. I’m trying to wrestle with the situation that seems to arise more and more often nowadays, where we are expected to support actions against people accused of sexual abuse even when they have not been found guilty. I don’t feel the same pressure when someone is accused of robbery. I’m not sure what accounts for that difference.

  5. Someone remarked to me that if one posted something here, one could expect agreement from the audience. I said that one could never expect agreement from a group of philosophers. Since my initial reaction to this post was unqualified agreement, I used it as an example and tried to think of an objection. It seems to me there is one and it is a bit revealing. The objection is that how one would generalize about never trusting such-and-such depends on the classification. Lochte is hardly an ‘ordinary’ swimmer, and one might go on to suggest at least that overpaid athletes might well lie, as might highly visible celebrities.

    The thing these two classifications bring in is a reason to lie, which might be very generally to protect a special status. What’s a bit revealing comes out when we ask if people who generalize over a false rape claim are also considering that all women have a reason to lie. Sadly, they may well. And actually we sometimes hear what these supposed motive to lie are: revenge, money seeking, disguising an affair, getting attentions, and perhaps others.

    I think my objection still supports your contrasting the Lochte case and a rape case, but it means that one might turn to ask why the speaker supposes most women would have such motives, and what evidence is there for that. Special status worth protecting comes along with being a overpaid athlete, but it is at least questionable to suppose any of the motives I’ve mention about women – or a disjunction of them – just goes along with being a woman.

  6. There are a number of problems with this article, but I will focus on two, and they are both related to the idea of “Believe victims.”

    1. By referring to someone as a “victim,” it presupposes that they are a victim. A far better term is “complainant.” This term encompasses those who claim to be victims who are victims and those who claim to be victims who are not victims.

    2. “Believe victims” or “Believe complainants” has a corollary to it if the person accused of rape denies that they committed rape. If the starting point is believe the complainant then it follows that the accused is not believed. The burden of proof switches between the standard in Anglo-American legal systems of innocent until proven guilty to the reverse: guilty until proven innocent. Potentially, “believe complainants” suggests that no trial is needed: a man accused of rape by an accuser should be believed to be a rapist and punished accordingly. Why have a trial?

    However, the author of the article states: “Don’t treat an accusation of rape differently than most any other self-report of a crime.” If this is the case then it suggests that either the burden of proof and presumption of innocence is reversed for all alleged crimes or we retain the same standard that the onus is on the prosecution to prove that the alleged rapist did, in fact, commit rape.

    If the author of this article does wish for the burden of proof to be reversed as it seems to be implied, perhaps they could make that explicit. The author might want to consider the implications of this reversal if they or one of their close friends or family members are accused of a crime.

    While I am discussing the court room, that does not mean to say that someone who telephones the police and alleges that they have been raped should not be listened to with respect and in a sympathetic manner by investigating police officers.

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