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Art by Sarah Engel

What They’re Not Telling You About False Sexual Assault Accusations

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 This past year, every teenager’s Twitter feed has been overflowing with sexual assault and rape accusations – especially toward the Hollywood elite. Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal in October 2017, people of all ages and genders have been sharing their traumatic experiences of sexual violence across social media. With help from the #MeToo movement, actors, producers and musicians to name a few have been revealed to be sexual predators. As a result, we’ve seen careers and personal lives ravaged by allegations of sexual harassment and violence. Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Nev Shulman and Aziz Ansari are among the accused, and whose careers have suffered as a result. Weinstein was let go from his entertainment company, and Lauer and Spacey were released from their television contracts. Not to say that some of these individuals were undeserving of the backlash and consequences they received, but there is room for discussion as to whether or not all of the aforementioned people suffered prematurely.

In light of the collateral damage that often comes with the allegations, baseless accusations of sexual assault against other celebrities have also been spanning social media. Most notably, star of MTV’s Catfish, Nev Shulman, was accused of sexual assault in May. Schulman denied the claims, but the show was suspended. Upon a later investigation, the claims were deemed not credible by MTV, and the show has since been reinstated. Teens on social media were quick to respond.

But false accusations of rape and sexual assault are not confined only to the entertainment industry. Professional athletes, CEOs and anyone in a position of authority are more likely to be falsely accused of sexual assault. In recent years, we’ve seen Brian Banks, former Atlanta Falcons linebacker, who in 2002 was accused of rape, served five years in prison and five years on parole, but was later exonerated when his accuser admitted she lied about being assaulted. Though his accuser’s motives were never revealed, it was clearly a case of someone taking advantage of Banks’ authority. I spoke with Lawrence Zimmerman, an Atlanta-based criminal justice lawyer who represents those under investigation of sexual assault. He commented: “A false allegation of a sexual nature is the most devastating allegation. They will lose their job immediately and the punishments are severe.” Sharah Hutson, an Atlanta teen, described seeing these false accusations on her Instagram feed, and the implications that come with that: “When I see those accusations it’s really scary to watch how that person gets immediately cut from their friend circle. Accountability and call-out culture online are kind of fuzzy and weird to me.”

Georgia Tech has also been the subject of controversy recently, when two lawsuits were filed against Tech President Bud Peterson and other administrators by students who maintained they were unfairly forced to leave Tech after being accused of sexual assault. But an attempt at balance – Bill 51 being filed in the Georgia House of Representatives – may be doing more harm than good. Essentially, the bill prevents Georgia schools from investigating sexual assault claims unless police are involved. In effect, though, sexual assault victims are being denied their right to decide whether or not their experience is public record. This directly impacts current and perspective Georgia college students in taking away this right.

Rupkatha, an Atlanta teen who works with the Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV), stated that “there’s already a huge misconception that most reported assaults are false, which is why people report most rape statistics as overblown. Because of the negative stigma associated with reporting sexual assault, a lot of times when you discuss statistics related to assault on college campuses, people will say that most of them are false accusations because people want attention, when in reality that’s not the truth.”

False accusations like Banks’ and Schulman’s take not only an emotional and financial toll on those accused, but also work to discredit actual survivors of rape and sexual assault. Zimmerman also stated that “False accusations are terrible for true victims. It makes everyone question whether or not a “victim” is really a victim. Those who level false accusations also cause damage to those who are truly abused because it puts their credibility in question.” Similarly, Rupkatha expressed that “There’s always going to be an exception to any rule, unfortunately… It’s just insulting and insensitive and rude to use such a gory and traumatizing situation to glorify yourself or gain some kind of upper-level advantage. I don’t think it’s right to say that all falsely reported sexual assaults are to glorify somebody’s image either, but they take away from the victim’s credibility regardless of intention. “

Another factor that plays a role in the culture of false accusations is media. Teens consuming information from movies and TV shows are being influenced by certain portrayals of sexual assault victims. The show “13 Reasons Why,” for example, arguably sensationalizes the sexual assault of teens and, in depicting an unsuccessful trial of a rapist, furthers negative notions about survivors speaking out. On the other hand, Rupkatha mentioned how she appreciated representation in today’s media.

“Fortunately, in the past decade, we’ve gotten a lot more exposure regarding taboo topics like sexual assault,” she says. “There are alot of ‘True American Crime Stories’ that don’t just discuss sexual assault against women but also against men.”

Sharah, also recalled an article they’d recently read online that described the mental health of false accusers in a degrading way. She says, “It made me really scared and anxious that people were writing about this in that manner.”

Rupkatha also stated, “This is the age where people are first experiencing intimate relationships and learning what consent means, and unfortunately in our schools right now, because of the current administration, sexual education has been defunded. I think we’re obviously the demographic that’s affected the most, and with more exposure from media, we’re learning more about this, but I wish our schools would teach us.”

Despite all of these false accusations, it’s worth noting the fact that, according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, only about 2-8% of all rape and sexual assault charges are proven to be false. This minority of accusations heavily distracts from the stories of actual victims of rape and sexual violence. In Rupkatha’s own words, “Theoretically, we shouldn’t let that small percentage affect the stories of millions of other people who’ve actually been affected by sexual assault. Just destigmatizing this idea of reporting sexual assault and discussing consent more would definitely impact us beneficially.”

Sarah, 17, is a rising senior at Atlanta International School and a mac and cheese enthusiast.

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