The tyranny of the anecdote: Irrational fear of false rape accusations based on one-off stories trumpeted by media

I’ve noticed a discomforting trend lately among women I know who identify as feminists but deny rape culture because… wait for it… they have sons. Sons who might one day be falsely accused of rape… That’s where it gets really weird.

I’ve seen this happen with alarming regularity in comment threads and online forums ever since it came to light that the UVA rape story was unsubstantiated. These women seem irrationally worried about it. They could instead be worried their sons will be hit by lightning or get run over by a train, but those things seem farfetched — kind of like the true likelihood of a false rape accusation. Considering both the percentage of all rape accusations that are false, and the real numbers of false accusations per year across the male population, the odds that any given man will be falsely accused of rape are comparable to the odds he will be falsely accused of holding up his local 7-Eleven.

What seems true is that, if these women had daughters instead of sons, they would not deny rape culture. And I don’t understand why the gender of children should impair a mother’s critical thinking skills.

If you are the mother of a son and are worried that your son will be falsely accused of rape, your time would be much better spent worrying that your son will be fairly accused of rape, because the odds are far greater that he will actually be a rapist than be falsely identified as one. The low incidence of false rape claims is extremely similar to the low incidence of false reporting of all other crimes, such as mugging claims or identity theft claims, and we do not hear anyone thrashing and screaming about all the people unjustly ensnared by other people who lie about thievery, and the need to roll back the penalties for such crimes due to all the false reporting. No. Only the crime of rape is widely subjected to the tyranny of the anecdote.

If you are a feminist woman who understands logic and statistics, you have no reason to suddenly put your brain on power save because you have given birth to one or more male children and read the Rolling Stone article about the UVA gang rape or any of a handful of other similar stories that always lead to feeding frenzy in the media, elevating everyone’s sense of how often false reports actually occur. It is similar to the way many parents have the same kind of crazily elevated sense of how often stranger danger occurs and no longer let their kids out of their sight.

There is something mothers of boys should fear, but it requires first that your son be black. See, if you have a black son, you should fear that he might be racially profiled and then shot by cops or a gun-toting white guy “standing his ground.” Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is a real and common injustice that faces black men. But please do not behave as if your son of any race is in grave danger of a false rape accusation and life behind bars, as though it’s happening all the time. Do your homework and read some valid statistics instead of sensationalized media stories about a handful of actual false rape reports, or rape reports that are maligned as false when there is no proof that is the case. Maybe also avoid the propaganda of men’s rights activists. There. Problem solved. Fears averted.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant, and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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