Civil Liberties

Duke Lacrosse. Jackie. Mattress Girl. The Hunting Ground. We Won't Get Fooled Again?

High-profile rape accusations keep collapsing. Here's why.



Over at The Washington Post, former Reason writer Radley Balko wonders why so many high-profile campus rape stories unravel when scrutinized. He specifically mentions the Duke lacrosse case, Rolling Stone's Jackie, Emma Sulkowicz, and Willingham/Winston, one of the most important alleged rapes in The Hunting Ground documentary. In two of these cases, the purported victims are proven liars, and in the other two, the victims look increasingly untrustworthy in light of new information.

The stories do not represent some random sampling of high-profile rape accusations; it is indeed the case that many of flashiest, headline-grabbing rape stories are later shown to be fraudulent.

This does not mean that all, or half, or a quarter, or even 10 percent of reported rapes are false. In fact, no one knows how many reported rapes are false, and educated guesses range from 1 percent to 40 percent. But if one only considers rape reports that become headline news, and are treated as representative of an epidemic of campus sexual assault, the rate of falsehood certainly seems higher.

So why is that the case? Balko has some worthwhile thoughts:

One possibility is that the nascent anti-campus rape movement isn't as seasoned as the activist groups to whom we've become accustomed. We're used to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (or if you're familiar with it, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm) who are incredibly meticulous about vetting their poster cases. This is an unfortunate reality of successful activism: You must be very careful when choosing your victims. But there's a big difference between always picking good cases and this uncanny record of picking bad ones. So this explanation isn't quite satisfying.

A second explanation could just be that the cases that fell apart are the ones we remember — or, we remember them because they fell apart. There may be some truth to this. Exoneration stories certainly capture the public's attention. But the Duke lacrosse case and the Rolling Stone story were huge national news well before skeptics began poking holes in the accusers' stories. In fact, the earliest skeptics in these cases faced quite a bit of scorn and derision. In the case of Sulkowicz, the consensus is still probably in her favor, although the story looks much different now than when it was first reported. In the "Hunting Ground" story, Yoffe just posted her investigation today, so this explanation clearly doesn't apply.

A third possibility… there's a strong desire to find the "emblematic" case, one that checks off all the right boxes — a sympathetic victim, a privileged attacker, an indifferent administration, and so on. Real life doesn't usually produce such clean-cut cases. So there may be an urge to bend stories to make them more sympathetic, more universal and more likely to generate outrage. Probably more to the point, this desire to seek out the perfect poster case may also make activists and their sympathizers in the press more credulous and less willing to ask questions when a story that appears to fit the bill does come along, as Jackie's story did. For activists and sympathetic journalists alike, there's a strong incentive to want to see a promising story (i.e. "promising" in terms of its potential to generate change) in the most favorable light, and with that, a proclivity to overlook the red flags.

Another possibility merges these two points: The alleged victims most eager to generate publicity for their stories may be the those most likely to say what activists or journalists in search of a good story want to hear. This means the stories most likely to be heard are those most in need of skepticism — and those least likely to get it. That's a conflation of incentives that's almost guaranteed to produce bad results.

Finally, it may be that activists deliberately seek out and champion the ambiguous cases to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. This is pretty common among ideologues.

I think all these things are factors in the above cases, to varying degrees.

Duke lacrosse and Rolling Stone stand out as cases where a deeply disturbed person invented a story and found advocates to tell it: Crystal Mangum had her unscrupulous prosecutor, and Jackie had her gullible magazine journalist. The advocates, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong and Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, were beholden to strong ideological and institutional incentives that pushed them to embrace the fabulists. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, it did occur to Erdely that she should press Jackie for more details, but when none came, she surrendered.

The mattress girl and Hunting Ground cases are different. Unlike Mangum or Jackie, there's no evidence that alleged victims Emma Sulkowicz and Kamilah Willingham were deranged or unreliable people, apart from their questionable rape accusations. Whereas Jackie and Mangum both believed—or claimed to believe—that they had been raped immediately after the incidents, Sulkowicz and Willingham needed time to come to terms with what had happened to them and decide that it was criminal.

To be clear, these two cases are not exactly alike. While recent events have given us less reason to trust Sulkowicz, I would still say that her situation is ambiguous (not in the legal sense—Paul Nungesser was cleared), because nothing has definitively discredited her claims. Willingham's accusation, on the other hand, is hard to believe at all, given this report by Slate's Emily Yoffe.

In any case, my point is that both Sulkowicz and Willingham gradually came to see themselves as victims, then survivors, then crusaders. And it seems to me that George Will's heavily criticized point about victimhood conferring privilege might have something to do with that, given the national attention being paid to the issue of sexual assault on campuses, the enormous pressure colleges face to accommodate alleged victims, and the frequently absurd legal regime that actively encourages people to consider that they are victims. Sexual assault survivors get to meet with U.S. senators. There are jobs waiting for them at the White House. There are reporters waiting to uncritically report their stories and hail their antics as courageous displays of inner strength. These are not necessarily bad things: survivors of sexual assault should be accommodated by their universities. Reporters should take their accusations seriously. Policymakers should consider whether there is anything they can do (there is!). But some students who endured uncomfortable sexual encounters that fell short of rape might feel the urge to reinterpret their experiences in a different light—one that rewards them with the (deserved) privileges of victimhood.

As uncomfortable as that contention may be for everyone (me included) who wants to treat victims of rape with the respect and seriousness they deserve, it seems very likely to me that this is exactly what happened with Willingham. Her encounter with Brandon Winston unfolded under the willful influence of alcohol and cocaine, drugs that lower inhibition and allow people to do things they wouldn't otherwise consider. But in the sober light of day, whatever happened between Willingham, Winston, and Willingham's friend no longer seemed like such a great idea. Over time, this regretted experience became something else—and Willingham became an activist, a spokesperson, and eventually, the subject of a major documentary.

It's understandable, but unfortunate from an advocacy standpoint, that "always believe the victims" has become the mantra of anti-rape crusaders. If activists actually want to persuade universities and the criminal justice system to mitigate campus rape, they need to consider their biases and do a better job vetting the people they put on a pedestal. The lesson of Aesop's fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," is not that the threat of wolves is imagined, but rather that the behavior of the boy gives everyone the false and dangerous impression that there are no wolves.