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.