There’s a long list of things parents worry about: test scores, stranger danger, dirty clothes that never quite make the hamper, lack of calls home. But, in certain circles, there’s a new parental worry topping the list: the false sexual assault allegation.
In the wake of the hearings that ultimately confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a wave of angst swelled on social media, notably under the hashtags ProtectOurBoys and HimToo (both of which have been appropriated from their original uses to connote an anti-MeToo stance). A mom’s HimToo Twitter post claiming that her Navy vet son was afraid to go on “solo dates due to the current climate of false sexual accusations by radical feminists with an axe to grind” went viral, then was quickly denounced by the son in question.
President Donald Trump noted his belief that false sexual assault allegations make it a “very scary time for young men in America.” Donald Trump Jr. told reporters that the MeToo movement made him more afraid for his sons than his daughters. First Lady Melania Trump’s message to people reporting sexual assault: “You need to have really hard evidence.”
A chain of like-minded, amplifying political voices locked on to the narrative, and the dusty old ghost of the girl who cried rape found a scary new life. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have thought we had put the stake through her heart a long time ago. Think again.
“It’s a very powerful lie,” said Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. “And that’s why it recurs so frequently.”
For years, statistics have shown that the incidence of false reports of sexual assault is very low. Studies track it at about 2 to 10 percent of reported assaults, a number that is believed to be inflated due to nonstandardized police terminology used to categorize a report as “false” or “unfounded.”
And, though Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men in the U.S. experience some form of sexual violence involving physical contact, data from the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey estimate that only one-third of sexual assaults are ever reported to police.
That leaves a vast swath of victims sitting silently with their pain — and whittles the percentage of false reports down even further by comparison.
It also means that your son is more likely to be a rapist, or to be sexually victimized, than he is to be falsely accused of sexual assault.
“The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults don’t get spoken of beyond perhaps a few intimate trusted friends of victims,” said Morris Hoffer. “And what that means is there are hundreds of thousands of men who have engaged in sexually violent conduct who have never been accused of that by the people that they hurt.”
Hard to stop worrying
Honestly, if your son victimized someone sexually, chances are he got away with it.
So, why all the worry?
“The broader question behind all this is why do we believe certain stories and not others?” said Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
Slovic, who studies the way we assess risk and apply empathy, said the fear of erroneous sexual assault allegations mirrors the way we choose to believe (or not believe) things like climate change data or reports of genocide.
“Our basic way of responding is through our feelings,” he said. “In ancient times, people didn’t have statistics to guide them. They went on their gut feelings. And that kind of reaction in our brain to let ourselves be guided by our feelings is still with us today. It’s a very sophisticated mechanism, but we can be misled by it.”
The part of our brains that is hard-wired to make lightning-fast assessments of danger based on a flicker of visual information or the hair standing up on the back of our necks — necessary for survival when we lived by hunting, gathering and staying out of the way of things with bigger teeth — is still telling us what to worry about. And it’s highly tied to emotion.
“If the consequences of something happening appear dreadful to you,” he said, “it creates a strong emotional reaction. That kind of blinds you to how likely those things are to occur. Your feelings don’t let you differentiate in terms of how likely it is that you’ll face those consequences.”
The same impulse that compelled you to snatch your son away from a hot stove when he was a toddler might cause you to freak out when imagining that he’d be falsely accused of a crime. The trouble, Slovic said, is that you’re being ruled by a “system in the brain that doesn’t do math. When your emotions are doing the math, they get it wrong.”
Thus, humans are easily misled by a phenomenon known as “probability neglect” — the failure to assess a potential threat in terms of the odds that it will become a reality.
Tribalism a factor
Threat assessment becomes even more complicated in an atmosphere such as today’s political climate, Slovic said.
“The tribal mentality that we’ve developed means it’s very hard to change some of these beliefs,” he said, “because it’s not a matter of facts; it’s wrapped up in our identities. It’s a very hostile world out there, and people band together with like-minded people, and they reinforce each other’s beliefs. That’s true both on the left and the right.”
In other words, when the Trump family articulates a fear of false accusations, people who identify with them will also absorb that fear without much scrutiny.
“People aren’t going around fact-checking,” Slovic said. “They just listen to how it sounds and whether it feels right to them.”
“The way this idea gets thrown around,” said Morris Hoffer, “it’s weaponized anxiety. It’s being invoked as a device to stop people from thinking about the things that are legitimately scary.”
In her view, the fear around false reports isn’t a true worry that “keeps parents up at night,” but rather a potent distraction.
“If you invest your time and energy in this mythological danger of responding to a false accusation, then you don’t have to consider the very real threat that your son might be subjected to a sexual assault. And you don’t have to spend time thinking about the other scary possibilities, such as that your son or husband or other man you care about might be involved in behavior that harms someone.”
She urges parents to open discussions with their children about consent and create an atmosphere that would allow sons and daughters to talk about their own experiences — even experiences of being victimized that they may never have shared.