Megan McArdle isn’t impressed by the statement from Zerlina Maxwell in the Washington Post: “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.”.
Where to begin with this kind of statement?
For one thing, even an outlandish accusation would not exactly be cost-free; it could be devastating. There would be police interviews, professional questions. As Maxwell blithely notes in the piece, the accused might be suspended from his job. Does he have enough savings to live on until the questions are cleared? Many people don’t. What about the Google results that might live on years after he was cleared? Sure, he can explain them to a prospective girlfriend, employer, or sales prospect. But what if they throw his communication into the circular file before he gets a chance to explain? What about the many folks who will think (encouraged by folks like Maxwell) that the accusation would never have been made if he hadn’t done something to deserve it?
But while the effect on the accused is one major problem with uncritically accepting any accusation of rape, it is not the only problem. There’s another big problem — possibly, an even bigger one: what this does to the credibility of people who are trying to fight rape. And I include not only journalists, but the whole community of activists who have adopted a set of norms perhaps best summed up by the feminist meme “I believe.”
So let’s look at how these sorts of rules are actually being applied to rape victims on campus. Emily Yoffe’s new article on how these cases are being handled is an absolute must-read to understand this landscape. Seriously, go read it right now and come back. I’ll still be here.
What do you see in this article? People are frustrated by rape on campus and want it to stop. Their frustration is righteous, their goal laudable. In the name of this goal, however, they are trying to drive the rate of false negatives down to zero, and causing a lot of real problems for real people who are going through real anguish that goes far beyond weeping in the doctor’s office. The main character is a boy who had sex with a friend. According to his testimony and that of his roommate (who was there, three feet above them in a bunkbed), the sex was entirely consensual, if extremely ill-advised. According to Yoffe, after the girl’s mother found her diary, which “contained descriptions of romantic and sexual experiences, drug use, and drinking,” the mother called the campus and announced that she would be making a complaint against the boy her daughter had sex with. Two years later, after a “judicial” process that offered him little chance to tell his side, much less confront his accuser, he is unable to return to school, or to go anywhere else of similar stature because of the disciplinary action for sexual assault that taints his record.
As I’ve written before, the very nature of rape makes these problems particularly difficult. On campus, especially, sexual assaults usually offer no physical evidence except that of an act that goes on hundreds of times every day, almost always consensually, at those campuses. It involves only two witnesses, both of whom were often intoxicated.