Are Children Supposed To Document Their Abuse?

Given the statistics surrounding sexual abuse and the persistence of false rape accusation myths, maybe we should teach our children how to gather evidence of their assaults, says Soraya Chemaly.

Dylan Farrow published an open letter on Saturday in which she publicly addressed, for the first time, her accusations that Woody Allen sexually abused her when she was a child. Within hours there were sloppy responses calling into doubt the veracity of her testimony. 

In the midst of the many conversations that were generated online, I saw this tweet by Zerlina Maxwell, which sums up the core of our problem with rape: “Testimony is evidence. Stop saying there is no evidence. #dylanfarrow

Given the statistics surrounding sexual abuse and the persistence of false rape accusation myths, maybe we should teach our children, particularly our girl children, how to gather evidence of their assaults.

As I wrote in an earlier post here, How We Teach Our Children That Women Are Liars,” this is what a 14-year-old French girl had to do in November. She went to her school counselor and then the police to explain that her father was raping her. She asked for help and was told she needed “hard evidence.” So, she videotaped her next assault. After he was arrested, his attorney explained, “He insists that these acts did not stretch back further than three or four months. His daughter says longer. But everyone should be very careful in what they say.” Because, really, even despite her seeking help, her detailed recitations, her fearlessly filming her father’s attack, you really can’t believe what the girl says, can you?  

If an 11-year-old girl told an adult that her father took out a Craigslist ad to find someone to beat and rape her while he watched, as recently actually occurred, would she have had to provide videotape after the fact if it hadn’t otherwise been discovered? What if a girl had been in the showers with serial abuser Jerry Sandusky? It is very likely that people would have contorted themselves to blame her, as they did the 11-year-old Texas girl gang-raped by more than 18 men that same year.

Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of “he said/she said.” But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because “he” is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than “she.”

There is a substantial body of research documenting our preference for thinking of men as more competent and moral. Researchers who studied gendered speech patterns found that people expect different kinds of lies from men and women and that women are considered more trustworthy, unless lies include another person, in which case, confidence in the veracity of what women say plummets.

These beliefs are part of the same fundamental gender schemas that hold men out as more deserving of trust in general. The reason victim-blaming happens and “controversy” can exist in cases like Roman Polanski’s rape of a child is because men, especially but not uniquely, heterosexual white men, are culturally entitled to be believed and admired. We transfer this information to children very early in life.

Three years ago, I listened while a 14-year-old girl in the back seat of my car described how angry she was that her parents had stopped allowing her to walk home alone just because a girl in her neighborhood “claimed she was raped.” When I asked her if there was any reason to think the girl’s story was not true, she said, “Girls lie about rape all the time.” She didn’t know the girl; she just assumed she was lying. I pulled the car over so I could talk to the girls about assumptions, who gets to be believed, and how culture portrays women. Fun times with Mom.

Mothers, of course, are often the problem. In Farrow’s case, there is no end of demonizing her mother, Mia Farrow, as a psychotic, vengeful woman who, in 1992, trumped up charges during a custody battle in the wake of Allen’s affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. This weekend, Allen’s representatives issued this statement: “At the time, a thorough investigation was conducted by court appointed independent experts. The experts concluded there was no credible evidence of molestation; that Dylan Farrow had an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality; and that Dylan Farrow had likely been coached by her mother Mia Farrow. No charges were ever filed.”

Celebrities called out in Farrow’s letter for supporting Allen have also responded, more or less all in the same vein: This is a private family matter. No one will ever be able to prove one way or another what Allen did or did not do to Farrrow.

But it’s not a private family matter. It’s a public, systemic one.

That everyone “knows” girls and women lie about sexual assault is a dangerous and enduring myth. A survey of college students revealed that the majority believed up to 50% of their female peers lie when they allege rape, despite wide-scale evidence and multi-country studies that show the incidence of false rape reports to be in the 2%-8% range. Yes, there are false claims, but they occur in roughly the same numbers as false claims for other crimes. As the Equality for Women’s Charles Clymer pointed out recently, based on FBI and Department of Justice information, “The odds of the average straight man (the target group overwhelmingly concerned with this) in the U.S. being accused of rape are 2.7 million to 1.”

The chances of actually being sexually assaulted?

Much of our research is categorized in these binaries, but studies of LGBTQ communities, show numbers are even higher for non-binary, non-gender conforming people, with studied rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence as high as 50%

When victims come forward they almost always face massive resistance, public criticism, are often threatened by their assailants and re-traumatized by having to recount their assaults repeatedly. In public, it runs the gamut from random celebrities, like Stephen King tweeting about Farrow’s “bitchery” to newspapers creating “spiteful woman” narratives. 

While male victims face similar responses and are often not believed, as evidenced particularly by reports of military rapes, distrust of women isn’t limited to myths about allegations of sexual assault but includes doubts about their competence and credibility in the workplace, in courts, by law enforcement, in doctors’ offices, and in our political system. As Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in 2012, an entire political party’s agenda is being pursued under a rubric that women cannot be trusted and need “permission slips” and “waiting periods.” The pervasive message that women are untrustworthy liars is atomized in our culture.

When you stop and think about the overwhelming incidence of the sexual abuse of women and children and what it means in terms of our culture, it is staggering. Just over 42% of female rape victims are first raped before they turn 18, 29.9% between the ages of 11 and 17, and 12.3% of female victims and 27.8% of male victims are raped when are 10 or younger. It is highly unlikely that these are stranger rapes and highly likely that these are trusted adults. 

This is what Mia Fontaine calls “America’s Incest Problem.” Only 3 out of every 100 perpetrators are ever convicted and imprisoned but their victims suffer lifelong consequences, not the least of which is the realization that society chooses not to believe them. When the aggressor is an adult with authority, like a parent, the psychological effects are amplified and uniquely devastating

In case it’s not clear, I don’t actually think we should be teaching children to film their abuse. However, given these realities, it’s a sad truth that it would make our relentless unwillingness to look this problem in the eye much, much harder.  

It is long past the time that Woody Allen can be charged in this case. The prosecutor at the time believed there was probable cause, but declined to press charges in order not to expose Farrow “to possible harm.” If there is a ray of hope, it is that Farrow wrote her letter and that it is a source of strength for others who’ve experienced what she has. The hashtag #believedylanfarrow means a great deal to millions of sexual assault survivors who understand what it takes to come forward publicly. 

In the end, you have to decide, as Salon‘s Roxane Gay said yesterday, if you’d rather be mistaken believing her, or believing him. Or, as Aaron Bady put it in The New Inquiry, “Until it is proven otherwise, beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s important to extend the presumption of innocence to Dylan Farrow, and presume that she is not guilty of the crime of lying about what Woody Allen did to her.”

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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