The Sexist

Sexual Assault and Hoping It’s Not True

After the sexual assault allegation against Al Gore surfaced last month, a friend told me: "I hope it's not true." I don't. Here's why:

No one wants to believe that gender-based violence—like sexual assault and domestic abuse—happens. And so, friends hope it's not true. Neighbors hope it's not true. Classmates hope it's not true. Parents hope it's not true. Football fans hope it's not true. Liberals hope it's not true. Anonymous Internet commenters hope it's not true. People who happen to be attending a wrestling tournament at Seneca Valley High School hope it's not true. Reporters hope it's not true: The Frisky's coverage of the recent domestic abuse allegations against "Family Matters" star Jaleel White included the line, "We certainly hope this report is untrue."

To draw from one of the few "Lost" principles applicable to sexual assault reporting: Whatever happened, happened. Either a sexual assault occurred, or it didn't. The only thing "hoping" can influence is whose account is supported after the fact. Commentators have hoped it's not true for the alleged perpetrator's sake and for the alleged victim's sake—as if any amount of hoping could erase a sexual assault—but "hoping" never helps a victim. It only helps an onlooker who doesn't want to believe that bad things happen—and a perpetrator who benefits from the assumption that they don't.

Victims of sexual assault frequently report being victimized twice. "That day in court was the day I fully understood the concept of being raped twice—first during the act and then later during the court proceedings," Latoya Peterson writes in "The Not-Rape Epidemic." But hoping it's not true functions well outside the legal burden of proof. It works to shut victims down before any evidence is presented, before the crime is reported, even while the assault is still happening—Gore's alleged victim says that she feared that "if I made dissent with Gore, I could be in danger of being falsely arrested for false allegations of alleged soliciting or even attempted assault in his efforts to do damage control."

When we "hope it's not true," we state our willingness to participate in this re-victimization. We're not hoping that our criminal justice system works to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent. We're hoping that the person who reported the sexual assault is a liar. We're hoping that people who claim to be victims of sexual assault are all lying, that it never really happens. We're hoping, in the end, that bad things do happen—to good men who are victimized by bad women.

Photo via Center for American Progress Action, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Skipper

    Quite a stretch.

    Apparently if a friend is accused of such a crime, you're supposed to say "I hope it's true" or "I hope the criminal justice system works in this case," and not "I hope my friend didn't do it."

    Because if you hope your friend is being wrongly accused, then you're basically raping the victim again.

    Or something.

  • TT

    "We’re hoping that the person who reported the sexual assault is a liar" followed by "We’re hoping that people who claim to be victims of sexual assault are all lying, that it never really happens."

    I don't see how you make that leap.

  • Brigid

    I find "hoping it's not true for the sake of the victim" to be particularly insidious. We wouldn't know about allegations of sexual assault if victims didn't say that sexual assault happened. Anyone who's willing to say that they hope it didn't happen has to believe the victim is lying - or at least question their statements - before they can hope that the allegations are false. It seems irrational and insulting to hope/assume that someone is lying and then claim you're doing it for their sake.

  • Toysoldier

    I don’t see how you make that leap.

    It is quite simple. One must presume that people generally support sexual and physical violence against females and/or generally believe women who report such violence are lying.  While that is a bad faith, biased, conspiratorial position, if one starts from that position then what Hess wrote makes sense. It would explain why Hess rendered male victims invisible, as if male victims either do not count victims, do not exist, or receive support not afforded to female victims. It does, however, explain how Hess concluded that "we’re hoping, in the end, that bad things do happen—to good men who are victimized by bad women." That just sounds like a thinly veiled attack on the numerous innocent men who have been falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned.

  • Reid

    I agree generally with your point, but I'd state it a little differently. Technically there's a difference between "hoping it's not true" and being overly skeptical of the accuser, but I don't think many people are able to do the first without the second.

    I think with cases like Al Gore there is an added wrinkle. If by "hoping it's not true" you are really just being overly skeptical of the accuser, you hurt the overall cause because it appears that you only take the accuser's side when it's politically advantageous. Many women's groups failed that test during the Clinton matter.

  • YonatanB

    plus there is that whole "innocent until proven guilty" malarkey that really gets in the way of being well and truly offended

  • upk

    "Hoping it's not true" means you acknowledge that the accusation is a serious one, that there is a chance it could be true, and that it would drastically lower your opinion of the accused if it turned out to be true.

    It is a more honest and prudent reaction than either dismissing the accuser out of hand or, conversely, saying ha, I knew that guy was a scumbag!

  • Richard

    I'm sure this thread is going to get flooded, but I'll comment as well.

    I think the broad point goes back to one of the really tough issues with rape accusations, that is lying seems to most people to be a more likely crime than rape.

    If a close friend was accused of sexual assault, its pretty easy to believe that someone you do not know lied because A. You do not know or trust them and B. Even if you did trust them their lying seems more likely than the violation your friend would be committing with assault.

    In addition, I think the thing that most frustrates me is actually cases like with Gore where people speculate (including this blog to some extent) about what happened. Frankly, we do not know what happened, so we can only hypothesize based on really sketchy information and some concept of broad trends.

    Finally, I think things get even more complicated when these accusations are made in a political context because it creates a clear ulterior motive for each side to point to. One example besides Gore might be the adultery claims against Nikki Haley in SC, which are interesting for a whole another set of gender reasons.

  • Elise

    With regards to the whole, "I hope it's not true," thing, I think that what we're arguing over is a case of improper wording - "hope" is generally not the term most people seem to want to use here, since most people don't seem to want to accuse her of lying. As in, I believe the victim, but dear god, I WISH she had not been sexually assaulted.

  • Em

    Richard: I think you hit the nail on the head. For some reason, lying seems the more likely crime, even though statistically, that's not the case at all. A huge chunk of sexual assaults go unreported, whereas a very small fraction of cases turn out to be false accustions. in fact, you're as likely to be falsly accused of rape as of robbery or murder or any other crime. Why such a focus on rape?

    I'd say because it's an issue that effects mostly men, and it's threatening as a possibility. There's also tons of people (I'm talkin' to you, trolls!) that pass around false information that basically, all women are lying bitches and cry rape to seek revenge. Which is ridiculous.

    What does any woman get out of lying about a sexual assault? Shamed through the media, shamed through the courts and law enforcement, having her sexual history examined. AND, if it's a famous person, particularly an athlete, she'll also get called a dirty hooker bitch on national TV and death threats. What girl wouldn't want all that?

    I'm not saying false accusations don't happen. I'm not saying that there aren't crazy women and vindictive women who would do such a thing. But I AM saying that the majority of rape victims don't fall into those categories, and it's a double standard, because people who accuse someone of say, arsony or robbery, don't get the same amount of scrutiny.

  • Worst Column Ever


    So far off it's sad. I do hope it's not true and she's a lying piece of extortionist garbage. Because if, IF, it's true...he's a sack of exploitationist garbage.

  • Emily H.

    I agree with upk's point -- many of the people who say "I hope it's not true are also saying, implicitly, that they'll be willing to believe it IS true when they see the appropriate evidence, and that they will have to drastically revise their opinion of the accused accordingly. Which they don't want to do, especially when the accused is a public figure they like.

    If anyone had asked me, I would have said I "hoped" the Al Gore allegations weren't true. Not because I feel that way about all rape allegations, but because I've been used to thinking of Gore as overall a political good guy, what the the environmentalism & such. It creates cognitive dissonance to think of him as very ethical in some ways, very bad & unprincipled in others. (Although of course, that might be the truth given the mysterious complexities of human nature.)

    But, your point is well taken. Since the accuser says it DID happen, wishing for it not to have happened means wishing for her to be a liar.

  • Stewart

    I enjoy reading these columns but often believe that they would benefit from an application of the principle developed by the Franciscan friar William of Ockham which states that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity", or as it is popularly known, "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one."
    When someone says that they "hope" an allegation of criminal conduct is not true (and I don't know why this has to limited to sexual assaults), it's usually not because they want or presume the victim to be a liar; it's because of the damage the truth of the allegation will do to their perception of the accused. I "hoped" that the allegations about Michael Vick's dogfighting enterprise were not true because I did not want to see another example of a black professional athlete throwing his career away by engaging in criminal conduct, not because I thought the police were lying about the case against him.

  • Kit-Kat

    If I was to say, "I hope it's not true," I think my meaning would be encapsulated by upk's post (no. 7). If someone I respect/trust/admire/love is accused of rape or sexual assault, I would not mean "I hope the accuser is a big liar," but "This is a serious accusation, which contradicts what I thought I knew of this person's character." I would mean, "I am upset by the thought that my friend raped someone, because rape is a terrible crime, and I would not be friends with someone I believed to be capable of that." Depending on the circumstances, I might mean that I hoped the accuser had misidentified her attacker and that she was not raped by my friend. It would mean, "I wish it wasn't true."

    I don't, in general, hope that rape accusations are false, because every false accusation gets trumpeted around as evidence that all rape accusations are false; but I would admit to some cognitive dissonance in the case of an accusation against someone close to me. "I hope it's not true" would mean "I want it not to be true because I do not want my friend to have raped someone." It's one thing to say that one should generally believe women who claim they were raped because false accusations are the exception, not the norm; but it's another to automatically take the word of a stranger against the word and character of a friend or loved one. I think that finding out that your friend raped someone would be a hard thing to deal with, and "I hope it's not true" could just be a sign that it is taking time to process some difficult information.

    And, in this case, although Gore is not even an acquaintance of mine, let alone a friend, the sheer amount of speculation that is zipping around on the internet complicates things. Mostly, I don't really trust the popular media to report well on these things and to make any effort to sort fact from rumor. Sometimes they get it right, but there's a lot of political incentives involved here, and

  • Kit-Kat


    there's a lot of political incentives here, and a lot of incentive for the media to distort and sensationalize and twist things to suit their political views/desire for a story, and I'd like to reserve judgment until I have some sense of what the actual facts are.

  • Emily H.

    Stewart -- I agree that this reaction is more about the accused (public figure we like) than the accuser (person we've never heard of before). But, I think in itself this could be a problem. It's problematic for discussions of rape to revolve around the harm the allegations will do the alleged rapist's life, his career, and so forth, while ignoring the victim. Rape victims are, after all, the people most immediately harmed by rapes, yet issues like false accusation tend to get a disproportionate share of the attention. That's why I think this post is valuable. It's not "multiplying entities" to point out that rape accusations come from real people, & that the alleged rapist's reputation isn't the only thing at stake.

  • Avi

    Let's see if Alligator Gore does any more guest appearances on 30 Rock.

  • Toysoldier

    Emily, there is no disproportionate share of attention paid to false allegations. The vast majority of the media coverage focuses female victims. The coverage that does mention the falsely accused overwhelmingly focuses on rapists who got away with it boys and men who were actually falsely accused. Likewise, the vast majority of the attention in general is paid to female victims. The major flaw in the above post is that Hess fabricates an intricate, conspiratorial explanation for a behavior that already has a simpler explanation: people do not want to believe someone they know, like, or respect would do bad things. Another an explanation is that people so abhor sexual violence against women that they may they may not want to believe someone they know, like, or respect would do it. And so on.

  • kate

    ". . .people so abhor sexual violence against women that they may they may not want to believe someone they know, like, or respect would do it."

    Yes, people so abhor sexual violence against women that it never frakking happens. Oh, wait, they abhor violence against women so much that women's shelters are always well funded. No, people abhor violence against women so much that all rapes are reported, prosecuted and those actually guilty go to jail. And, people abhor violence against women so much that police always treat sexual assault victims kindly and all rape kits get tested and no one would ever consider asking a woman to PAY for her own rape kit.

    So, sure, people abhor violence against women and that's a likely explanation for their absolute DISMISSAL of a woman's story of being assaulted.

  • stranger.

    In my view it has nothing to do with gender or crime,any person who has invested trust and judged a character to be good will hope accusations that would mean there judgments were wrong to be false.

    No one likes finding out some one is not who they believed them to be,the problem would come after the accusations are proved to be correct and an individual denies it but that"s another story.

    Most peoples views will go in one direction with this case as the women involved is trying to make 1 million dollars from it.

  • Toysoldier

    Kate, a person can abhor an act, or at least claim to, without believing the act ever happens, funding organizations that help victims, prosecuting those accused of crimes and making sure the guilty go to jail, treating victims kindly, testing evidence, or ever asking a victim to pay for any of the services they need. Feminists do that all the time to male victims.

    Setting that aside, people do this with every other crime, and the more serious and socially unacceptable the crime, the more likely that reaction will occur. As stranger said, any person who has invested trust and judged a character to be good will hope accusations that would mean there judgments were wrong to be false. Obviously some people, like feminists, might react that way out of abject bias, but in most instances it does seem to be a disbelief that you could get it that wrong. The same response happens in the reverse. People also find it difficult to change their opinions about people proven innocent of crimes, for much the same reason.

    That said, I think we can all admit that a side-effect of hoping a person accused of a crime did not do it is the implication that the person accusing someone of the crime may not be telling the truth. Of course, this also applies to people proclaiming their innocence.

  • Mort

    Just like how feminists hope false allegations aren't true and ignore all evidence to the contrary?

    You seriously expect everyone to not take rape allegations with a grain of salt after high profile cases like the Duke Lacross fiasco, and reports from the U.S. military that false rape allegations from female military personnel range from 20-40%?

    Now, people who file reports of sexual assault should have their reports taken seriously, and they should be treated with respect. But at the same time, so should people accused of it. Just because you're taking the allegation seriously doesn't mean that everything the accuser said should be taken at face value as evidence. You can't expect people to want to burn Gore at the stake just because an allegation has been made, and its morally wrong for you to advocate it.

    How about we settle on this: I hope the truth is revealed and justice is served, you arrogant jack ass.

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  • Pursuit

    It often seems like people hope an allegation is wrong for the wrong reasons. First and foremost they're lying in wait for the verdict that will bolster the pitiful numbers of false rape accusations--thus proving women are all lying bitches out to ruin the lives of "decent" men. Secondly, that the man effected isn't another nail in their (men's) coffin aka that most rapes and sexual assaults are perpetuated by men against women.