Don’t Always Believe the Victim

Reader Response to “Don’t Marry Career Women” – Don’t Always Believe the Victim

Don’t Always Believe the Victim
Regular Contributor
on Wednesday 01 November 2006
by Wendy McElroy

Two recent news stories differ in significant details but share a common message: false accusations of sexual abuse kill innocent people and devastate lives. The stories reveal the terrible human cost imposed by the often heard demand, ‘always believe the victim’. In these cases, the accuser should have been asked for more evidence.

Item One: A sailor kidnapped and killed a Marine corporal because a woman in whom he was romantically interested implicated the Marine in a gang rape that never happened.

Item Two: After learning from his wife that their 2-year-old daughter had been molested by a neighbor, a father stabbed the accused man to death. Police later determined no sexual assault had occurred.

Both men have been arrested for murder. The sailor has pleaded ‘guilty’; the father, whom police found covered by the dead man’s blood with the murder weapon nearby, has pleaded ‘not guilty’.

The stories differ in significant ways. For example, the sailor’s girlfriend admits to inventing the rape. Despite questions about whether a 2-year-old could coherently make the accusation, the girl’s mother insists that her daughter said the neighbor “put it” on her belly and her nose…”He comes to me in the starry nights.”

In short, the first woman lied; the second may have been mistaken. Lies and mistakes are common causes of false accusations. But even if the causal factor differs, both stories highlight the need for accusations to be weighed and investigated by an unbiased third party before they are acted upon.

The stories share other common elements. Two innocent men are dead. The lives of two others are destroyed. No charges have been brought against the women although police are examining the possibility that the mother knowingly filed a false police report.

Those who committed the murders properly bear the brunt of legal and moral responsibility. But anyone who spreads a false or mistaken accusation must assume some responsibility for its fall-out, if only on a moral level. And society should realize that the death of two innocent men is the logical and predictable consequence of the demand to always believe the ‘victim.’

It is natural for a man to believe his girlfriend and vice versa; it is natural for parents to believe a child. But acting to punish another person solely on the basis of belief literally kills innocent people.

For ten years, I have argued that both the law and society have embraced a fundamentally wrong approach to accusations of sexual abuse. The approach reverses the presumption of innocence and assumes that an accused is guilty until proven innocent. It also includes giving false accusers a ‘free pass’; that is, until recently, it was rare for those who filed false reports to be punished by law.

The issue of false accusations is often debated in terms of statistics and studies with ad hominem attacks punctuating the exchange.

When a sympathetic face emerges, it is usually that of the ‘victim’ or of a hypothetical future victim who ‘will be discouraged from speaking out’ if society demands evidence before rendering belief. Only now, in debacles like the Duke rape case, have people started to look instead into the faces of those being destroyed by accusations.

No one wants real victims to suffer one moment longer or to repeat their stories one time more than justice requires. But real victims are not threatened by a demand for evidence. And, as difficult as it may be for lovers and parents who believe accusations, they must realize that acting on a mistaken belief has life-and-death consequences.

Two responses I commonly receive when asking for evidence before believing an accusation of sexual assault are: “you are only concerned with men’s rights” – men being the presumed perpetrators; and, “you don’t care if victims are discouraged from speaking out.” (As a woman who has been raped, the latter has a bitter irony.)

The first charge is easily dispelled. Consider the two preceding stories. The name of the Marine who was murdered was Justin L. Huff, age 23. He was the husband of Rebecca Huff and the father of five-month-old Justin, who carries the name of a dad he will never see. The last text message on murdered Huff’s cell phone came from Rebecca: “I love you and I miss you very much.”

The name of the neighbor who was stabbed to death in his own bed was Barry James. James’ 87-year-old blind mother, for whom he cared, found the blood-soaked body of her son.

Those who demand automatic acceptance of accusations may harden their hearts against a murdered father and loving son. But they are also turning away from Rebecca Huff and James’ mother. Are they not women?

The second charge is that punishing faux victims will discourage real ones from speaking. That’s an odd loop of logic. It is equivalent to saying that exposing lies discourages the truth or stamping out fraud reduces honesty.

The opposite is true. Women (and men) are brutally victimized every day. If victims get a reputation as being liars or careless about evidence, then instead of receiving automatic belief, they will be automatically dismissed.

Both responses are wrong. Accusations are deadly serious and they destroy lives. There is a necessary line between ‘believing a victim’ and acting against the perpetrator. Those who argue for believing accusations without hard evidence are helping to erase that line. In doing so, they do not defend victims. They create them.

11-04-2006 01:34 PM

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