A False Report: Fighting the Ignorance About Rape Culture

Detail of Walter Langley’s “Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break,” 1894

Imagine you are driving home from work. You’re listening to the radio, tapping your fingers against the steering wheel in time to the music, and you can feel yourself letting go of the tension that you’ve worn around your shoulders since you got stuck in that traffic jam earlier. Now you’ve found an alternative route, and the driving is much easier.

You’re stopped at a red light. You startle when the man clunks his gun on your window, and it feels as if all the blood in your body has fallen into your feet. He’s shouting at you to open your window, gesturing with his weapon and telling you that he will shoot you through the glass if you don’t comply. You obey. He orders you to put the car in park and to exit the vehicle. The whole time he has the gun pointed at you, and he tells you over and over again that he will kill you if you don’t do what he tells you. You imagine never seeing your children or your spouse again. You are desperate to stay alive. As you get out of the car, the man shoves you out of the way, and you watch as he drives away in your car.

You have just been carjacked.

Someone has called the police on your behalf, and the officer transports you down to the station to take your statement. The detective asks whether you knew the carjacker. You tell him “no.” He asks you if perhaps this is just a misunderstanding — had you loaned the car to a friend, but now you regret it and are using the police to get back at them? The detective asks: Did you struggle? Fight back? Didn’t you hand your car over a little too easily? He asks whether you hadn’t wanted to be carjacked — after all, why were you driving your car on that road where there weren’t a lot of other cars? You could have stayed in the traffic jam and been safe, but you had made the choice to be on that deserted street. And why were you alone in the car? Didn’t you realize how dangerous it is to drive by yourself? Weren’t you asking for trouble?

By this time, you feel so humiliated by the detective’s questions that you decide it’s not worth pursuing the charges. Maybe it would be better to just go home, take a hot shower, and try to forget this ever happened.

When you tell the detective that you no longer want to file a police report, he accuses you of having wasted police time, and of lying. He says that you could go to jail for filing a false report, and that if you really had been carjacked, you would have fought back before you gave up your car so easily.

None of this actually happens when people are carjacked. In fact, police advise robbery victims to let the robbers have what they want, rather than risk dying over a piece of property. And yet, a woman reporting a rape in America may find this type of victim-blaming common. I have had these types of stories told to me by students and by friends — stories of being brutalized by a date, a friend, or a stranger only to be treated by law enforcement as somehow complicit in what happened to them.

This is what it is like to live in “rape culture,” in which rape is normalized and minimized. Examples of rape culture include the use of sexual violence as a form of entertainment in films, television, and music videos; song lyrics that tell women “you know you want it,” or which celebrate having sex with underage girls; statements that women who drink too much or wear certain types of clothing are asking to be raped.

Rape culture exists when a survey of young men reveals that one out of three would rape “if they could get away with it.”

Rape culture exists when a rapist like Brock Turner is given six months in jail (and serves only three) after being convicted of dragging an unconscious woman behind a garbage dumpster and raping her. It’s seeing him, even after conviction, still being described as “Stanford swimmer” or “athlete” rather than “convicted rapist.” Or having Turner’s father writing to ask the judge that his son not be punished “for 20 minutes of action.” Or the prevalence of the belief that when college-aged men rape, they are making “youthful mistakes,” for which they should not serve time in jail or lose their scholarships.

Rape culture also thrives when a woman who reports a rape is assumed to be a liar. That women “lie” about rape was codified into law by such jurists as Matthew Hale in the 17th century. The “Hale Warning” — that many women lie about sexual assault — was included in the instructions to juries in the late 20th century. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that a woman who had been scorned might charge her ex-lover with rape. In the 20th century, a lawyer named Wigmore used the new theories of psychology to argue that many rape victims “imagined” the crime.

As Miller and Armstrong demonstrate in A False Report, the idea that women lie about rape results in a miscarriage of justice. The victim was suspected of lying because detectives felt she was too “calm” when relating the details of what happened to her. And the crime that she recounted included actions by the rapist that, to the detectives, didn’t seem right. Because the facts of her rape fell outside the detectives’ previous experiences, and because she didn’t behave in the ways they felt a female victim should act, they didn’t incorporate the new information into their body of understanding. Rather, they used their subjective understanding of how rapists operated to decide that the victim was lying.

As a consequence, the questioning of the victim turned into an interrogation using the “Reed Technique,” a method of questioning that has a long history of producing false confessions, as documented by later exonerations of the accused using DNA evidence. Once the detectives moved forward with a hostile interrogation assuming she was lying, they no longer saw her as a victim. They stopped looking for the rapist, and as the book documents, the decision to do so was disastrous.

Released this week, A False Report provides strong evidence that the attitudes of the police investigating rape charges has an inordinate effect on whether rapists will be apprehended. The belief that “rape victims lie” and “boys will be boys” will perpetuate the terrible statistics that will see one out of six women report rape in her lifetime.

What makes that already high number even more dreadful is that so many women fear the reactions of their families, their partners, and the police that only a small fraction ever report the crime.

This, too, is what it means to live in rape culture.