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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  • DefenderofThemyscira

    Basically anything where women are the primary victims isn’t really taken seriously. I mean think about it. Rape, prostitution, pornography, domestic violence all affect women primarily yet look at the excuses and the misinformation and the lies and the dismissal of the victims of these crimes. There is so much of it. So much of victim blaming and apologism and trivialisation and even celebrationism is added to it. Victims are even re-raped by the police sometimes which tells me that the police is still a very patriarchal institution and only serves to protect the interests of white men and uphold all the harmful values that are infecting this world and causing the oppression of the marginalized people. It doesn’t surprise me at all that when it comes to female victims there is irresponsibility and neglect and toxic attitudes on the part of the law

  • C.K. Egbert

    It is important to remember a couple of things:

    First the standards of evidence to establish a claim of rape is (a) higher than any other claim that anyone could make about anything else whatsoever, (b) impossible to meet in pretty much every case of rape, (c) our legal and social definitions of rape don’t come close to capturing the phenomena. We expect trauma victims to remember every detail perfectly and back it up with physical evidence. Even with FILMED evidence rape victims can expect to be severely harassed, disbelieved, and their perpetrators to go completely free.

    Second, there is a world of difference between “false” and “unsubstantiated.” False means that they have evidence to demonstrate the claim is not true. Unsubstantiated means that it has not met the standards of evidence in the narrow definition of rape–which is going to be pretty much every case of rape (and of course, men have carefully designed the system to ensure that the standards are impossible to meet in order to ensure that men can rape with impunity). I’m guessing most “false reports” are actually cases in which the claim could not be substantiated or the victim was harassed by the police into retracting her claims.

    • DefenderofThemyscira

      Sometimes I wonder how we will radically restructure the law or make a new system where it becomes easier to hold perpetrators accountable and not let them get away with it. Anyway I think that the false rape accusation exaggeration is a thing to hinder us talking about how sexual violence is a pervasive and prevalent thing. Why else would someone bring it up? To derail the conversation maybe?

      • C.K. Egbert

        I think it’s a definite derail, and a rather ridiculous one. For one thing, I think that the probability of a woman making up an accusation of rape out of purely malicious intent is going to be miniscule to non-existent.

        I think the problem is that the way we think of “due process” is completely wrong-headed; we think of it purely from the perpetrator’s point of view. But that isn’t the only view that matters; a law is useless if it doesn’t provide protection and rectification for victims. So the law needs to be designed with the idea that the victim is going to be treated with respect in the process, the law will actually capture the abuse that the victim suffers, and the victim can reasonably expect her perpetrator to be convicted and punished adequately. That means that lots of things needs to change (the standards of evidence, the way they are investigated, etc.) that takes into account gender dynamics and what we know about trauma.

        But since the law was written by men to protect men’s interest, the only concern in “due process” is making sure that the perpetrators of abuse go free.

  • Ellesar

    I have 2 sons and I can say this has never occurred to me. It seems like a pre-emptive denial – these women are basically preparing themselves for the possibility of their son being accused of rape, and their knee jerk reaction would be that it is false. Obviously I do not want to think that my sons would ever rape, or assault, or harass, or use misogynist language, but how can I say it could never happen?

    I know I have done all I can to instill the respect for all people (and other animals) in my sons, and I hope I am never ripped apart by their actions. I guess that this is what these women are protecting themselves from – if they go into full on denial long before there is even an accusation (and of course there may never be one) then they do not ever have to contemplate that particular distress.

    • Esme

      I am the mother of two sons too. I have had the thought that it would be horrible to find out that my son raped someone, but it never occurred to me to worry that they would be falsely accused. I worry that I might not be able to teach them well enough to treat women and all living things with kindness and respect, but I don’t worry that they will be falsely of rape ever.

      I think you are right that it is a kind of not my Nigel-ism by these mothers. Thinking theirs sons are incapable of doing wrong or of rape and pre-denying that it could happen. I love my sons so much, but when it comes to rape I only worry that they might be victimized by predators as children, and otherwise I worry more that they learn not to do harm despite living in a toxic culture.

  • marv

    ‘If journalists suggest that reflecting a feminist analysis would “politicize” their stories, the obvious question is how ignoring that analysis is not also a political choice.’

  • Marie-Danielle

    I am a mother of two boys, and the thought that either of them might one day commit rape terrifies the hell out of me. I don’t think many mothers imagine that their sons might be capable of something like that, but unfortunately so many are. Even though my kids are little, I try to teach them about consent in ways that they can understand, like stopping what they are doing if the child they are playing with looks uhappy, starts to cry, says they don’t like it, etc. Rather than avoiding dealing with the issue, I think mothes of boys need to address it as soon as possible. No one benefits when we bury our heads in the sand.

    • Thank you for saying that. Fortunately, I do have a lot of friends who have sons who feel exactly as you do and are raising feminist men who respect women. They are not focusing their energy on worrying their sons will be victimized by women. Sadly, I wrote this post because I am seeing too much fearmongering by mothers of sons.

      • Esme

        Yes!! So much yes. Mothers of sons should be very concerned with teaching consent, not false accusations of rape. Ask before touching someone and watch and be sure your actions are not causing distress to others and stop if that happens. My older son is only three and he wants to hug everyone so I am constantly trying to remind him to ask first. And I show him by asking him before hugging, or kissing him.

  • You might want to make an exception for women whose black sons live in societies in which interracial sex is illegal and white women may claim to have been raped in order to avoid going being sent to jail. Oh wait, that situation does not exist any more today, does it? Nowadays police kill black people whether the law allows them to or not, but hey, there are no blatantly racist laws any more, so progress! *Sarcasm*.

    Seriously though, in the 1930s there were notable cases of white women making false rape accusations against black men, but I would argue that the women were coerced into making these accusations, because they were in danger of going to jail if they didn’t make the accusation or were trying to cover up the fact that a more powerful white man had raped or abused them. The “false rape accusation” crowd tries to paint women as manipulative seducers that beg for sex with their eyes or clothes (because those things somehow talk) and then cry rape, because being seen as a victim is fun (even though both liberals and conservatives make it clear that they despise anyone who seems themselve as a victim). This is not what women are actually like. They are not selfless martyrs either, so the threat of jail or furthermore abuse may prompt a false rape accusation, but when that happens it is not the fault of the women, but the fault of broader social forces (usually racism.)

    To be clear, I do not think false rape accusations (against black men or otherwise) are a common phenomenon in the US today, but in times and places where they have occured, there are reasons for them, that are not related to feminism or women being evil manipulators.

    If I were raising a boy (note that I deliberately did not make any references to biological parenthood, since I reject the nuclear family and the view that adults should only care about children who are their biological offspring) I would teach him to stay far away from pornography, excessively violent media in general and college parties, or any other event that sought to be combine excessive drinking with casual sex. That way we would not have to have endless debates about exactly how drunk a women has to be before having sex with her constitutes an act of rape. The hypothetical boy would be the least popular male ever, but that’s the price you have to pay if you want to be a decent human being in a messed up, patriarchal world.

  • Reva

    SHIT I NEEDED THIS SO BAD!I recently got into an argument with a couple of MRAs who were trying to prove that 50%-75% rape/domestic violence cases in India are fake.They also provided some ‘statistics’ and statements by politicians to support their argument.Although there HAVE been a few fake cases glorified by media,50%-75% is utter bullshit.Like,for instance,if there were some 10-15 women claiming to have been raped and only 4 of them actually reported it and 2 or 3 of them turned out to be fake,then that’s obviously 50% or 75% fake REPORTED cases.Do they care about those who haven’t reported it?naaaah.And out of those ‘50%-75% fake cases’ we don’t know how many of them were actually fake or how many of them were said to be fake because there was no evidence or how many victims were forced to take the case back by some powerful men who raped them.Now some people tend to believe that any new rape case is probably fake because of this “75% fake cases” bullshit.This is making it even harder for actual victims to prove it.
    Thanks a lot for this article.The thing about mothers with sons is too true.

  • amongster

    Great piece! I recently read an article that states that false rape reports rarely entail accusations anyway. So those rare women who make up rape don’t do it to get a real man behind bars but to get attention and sympathy.
    Not surprising that men and their apologists blow up this kind of story to pretend like men are in danger.

  • Derrington

    I would say that mothers who take their sons side over women or the truth are not feminists. Its like saying im not a racist but i worry that my son will be beat up by black people. Ive met plenty women sexists and they are just as dangerous as male sexists. My own half sister is one and went along with false rape accusations about me and our father in order to discredit me as a witness to his violence against my mother. You cannot be prepared to lie about women as a group or individually to protect men and be a feminist.

    • Wilful ignorance is powerful in both sexes on the harm that men can cause, especially in families, it seems there’s a form of “conflict of interest” which compels women to defend abusive men at the expense of other women and of girls but that so many can do it when it is against their own interests is a bit of a riddle because although I can’t excuse this, I can at least understand the rationale driving parents of sons [but no daughters] to be wilfully ignorant if it transpires one of their sons harms a woman in a sexual crime that gets reported. What I struggle to fathom most is what it is that drives parents (especially the mothers) to actively teach *both* their sons and daughters that false rape accusations are the fear. It’s like they may as well just throw their daughter under the bus and have done with it, if they are to be indoctrinating them with that memo! The logic is even more irrational when we consider the statistical reality too: A male has a higher chance of being raped by another man himself, than of being falsely accused of rape by a woman.

  • My ethics teacher is hell-bent on proving that women lie/exaggerate a lot when it comes to rape. It’s mind-boggling, really. In a class with 20 people, 17 of which are women*, she announces her rather negative view on women in no uncertain manner. Otherwise, she’s a towering intellect, insightful, humorous, a committed teacher, but when it comes to the topic of men/women/feminism she descends to MRA levels of thought. Strangely enough, she doesn’t get any resistance, not even from the women in the room.

    Sadly, her opinion on women and rape is hardly a rarity, not even in our “enlightened” Germany. There is a lot of resentment pretty much against any woman with influence that has the temerity to voice an opinion publicly, and it’s much worse for survivors of rape. No matter the outcome of a specific case, she will be vilified and put under general suspicion. And to make things even worse, our most prominent newspapers (DIE ZEIT, SZ, FAZ etc.) frequently publish articles about how society discriminates against boys and men or about how pornography/prostitution is really not That Bad (feminists are just exaggerating, as usual).

    *I don’t know but I’ve always found the general/learning atmosphere to be nothing short of excellent when there are a lot more women than men in a classroom. All that testosterone poisoning certainly has its effects.

  • Hanna

    The author doesn’t understand why mothers of boys have issue with some feminists who believe that men are born rapists and inherently evil abusers?
    Well from my experience with some radical feminists is that they want so badly to believe men are evil that they literally shut them out of their lives and actually have very little experience knowing men. I knew a few women from my feminist studies days that felt this way until they had boys.
    Judging from the comments on these articles there are more than a few separatists that comment regularly. They think men are evil yet some say they avoid them like the plague. Bigotry in infuriating to me. Do you women feel good knowing you are very sexist?

    • esme

      Where did anyone on this thread say all men are born evil? Also, the article is about irrational fear of rape accusations, so I am not sure why you think she was questioning anything else. Are you trolling or something making up things that the article and commenters on the article didn’t say? Can you address the actual topic of discussion?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yeah, sorry. Like if we thought men were innately ‘evil’ we wouldn’t be doing feminism… Which is to say we believe masculinity is socialized and harmful and unnecessary. Not biological or ‘natural’. You should talk to the evopsych folks if you wanna talk innate gender characteristics (i.e. that men are naturally violent or rapey).

  • Fanny

    I just met two female acquaintances who agree on the fact that rape and “some” prostitution was terrible, but they thought that Swedish rape laws were BAD cause “the police always believe the woman” and so “a lot” of poor guys are going to jail for nothing. And about prostitution, well a “woman could say that the john is bad and call the police even if it’s not true and keep the money”. Soooooo awful !! Pooooor men !

    Then I told them about my attempted rape last year. They felt really sorry for me. But I just feel sick.

    • Meghan Murphy

      oh yuck