As part of writing extreme gender-degradation and non-consent erotica in a responsible manner, I try to regularly touch base with real-life consent, safety, respect and sexual health through a series of Reality Check articles. You can find other articles by using the “search” function on this site to look for “Reality Check”.
When people tell you they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, believe them.
The things I say in this article are extensively backed by evidence, by research, and by the lived experience of survivors, support workers, and experts in the field. But I’m also writing from personal expertise. In my (former) day job I spent two decades working adjacent to the criminal investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. I speak from personal experience of the police process, the court process, and the policy work underpinning legislation.
I thought about writing the version of this article that includes all the citations to the research, but it’s not hard to find if you’re genuinely interested in learning, and I’ve got to assume that you came here for straight-talk about difficult subjects, not an academic essay, so I’m leaving that to one side.
In this article I’m talking about people who tell other people they’ve been sexually assaulted. It applies to conversations between friends, it applies to statements to the media, it applies to complaints to police, it applies to workplace complaints, and it applies to civil proceedings in court.
The one and ONLY exception I’m making here is that I’m not talking about complaints in family law proceedings – not because those complaints aren’t overwhelming truthful, but just because it’s a more complex area, and varies dramatically between different legal jurisdictions, and engaging with it is going to unnecessarily complicate the overwhelming truth of the things I’m saying.
One last significant note: my experience is in a jurisdiction where the complainants were overwhelmingly white, and the accused were overwhelmingly white. Racial bias *is* a thing, and I’m not in a position to say much about it here, other than to say that while what I’m saying here is true, it does intersect in meaningful ways with systemic biases against people of colour – both as accusers, and accused.
People do not make sexual assault allegations for fun or profit
They just don’t. It is neither fun nor profitable to make these allegations. It is, in fact, intensely stressful, damaging to one’s mental health, and is (unfortunately, but realistically) likely to have impacts on a complainant’s professional career and reputation. The vast majority of sexual assault complainants pay a personal and financial cost for making these allegations, which they pay because their allegations are *true* and *worth making*.
The trope of the complainant who makes allegations for attention or to sell their story is entirely mythical. It is not borne out by real experience of complainants. Even high profile complainants who may secure paid interviews from media regarding their stories rarely receive a lot of money – certainly not enough to compensate for the costs of being a complainant or the public harassment that complainants receive.
Sexual assault allegations are overwhelmingly truthful
Studies of rates of false sexual assault reporting generally suggest figures of 4 to 5% – but this is the rate of fales reports *to police*, as identified *by police*, and depending on the study can conflate “maliciously false” with “mistaken in key aspects”, “unable to be prosecuted”, “truthful but not a crime under local law” or “victim chose not to cooperate with prosecution”.
This 4 to 5% have inherently already been weeded out by the time a case makes its way to court.
In my two decades of experience with hundreds of cases, including police interviews and criminal trials, I only saw one accused who I thought was wholly innocent – and even then, I believed the complainant had been sexually assaulted, but that she had the wrong guy.
Men are victims too
I’m not going to dwell on this, but the fact I’m often referring to female victims should not be taken to imply that men are not the victims of sexual assault. They are, and in high numbers – particularly gay men, or men who are children or under the age of 18 – though not exclusively. And everything I’m saying here applies equally to victims who are men.
“Not guilty” does not mean “innocent”
It is exceptionally hard to prosecute a sexual assault matter to conviction. The nature of sexual assaults means that there are few witnesses other than the complainant, and little evidence other than the complainant’s testimony. It is hard for even an intelligent, good-faith jury to exclude the possibility of innocence in many trials, meaning that many trials end in a verdict of “not guilty”.
However, in most jurisdictions (including the US, England and Australia), “not guilty” merely means “not proved”. It doesn’t mean the accused is innocent. It means the court couldn’t be certain enough of guilt to justify criminal sanctions.
That’s as it should be. There *should* be strong limits and protections on the state using its power to sanction, jail, or in some cases execute people. There are many ways the court process can be improved, but it’s generally appropriate that conviction should require overwhelming certainty.
But you’re not a court
You, personally, are not a court. You don’t have the power to send anyone to jail. You’re not a being of overwhelming power whose action must be checked by a complicated and ironclad set of balances.
You’re a human, and you’re allowed to make up your own mind. You don’t have to say “innocent until proven guilty”. You can weigh up for yourself the likelihood of guilt, come to your own conclusion, and make sensible decisions around it.
It is NOT HARD to avoid being accused of sexual assault. People do it every day. We can expect people to live to a standard where not only will they never be *convicted* of sexual assault, they’ll never even be accused of it.
The rights of an accused do not outweigh the rights of victims
Yes, it’s possible a person may be entirely falsely accused of sexual assault, having done literally nothing wrong. (Although, again, this would be a thing so exceptional as to be highly remarkable.)
That doesn’t mean people should be placed at risk because of it. Let’s say you run an organisation with male and female members, and a man in your organisation is accused of sexual assault. You may be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s weigh up the consequences.
If you kick him out of your organisation, and he’s innocent, he has lost access to an organisation in which membership was only ever a privilege, not a right.
If you don’t kick him out, and he’s guilty (which, again, is likely to be the case), you’ve given a sexual predator continuing access to the other people in your organisation, endorsing him by association, and possibly (likely) facilitating more sexual assaults upon your members.
Preserving a privilege of an accused should never come at the cost of risking the safety of victims.
You’re shit at detecting lies
You are. People think they can tell a lie when they see it, but study after study after study has shown that you *can’t*, and all the things that you think are “tells” have no relationship to truthfulness.
Trust me. Military institutions worldwide have spent a LOT of money on researching various forms of “truth detection”, whether psychological, mechanical, chemical, or computerised, and if they haven’t cracked it (and they haven’t) then your “common sense” and “judge of character” is not going to magically figure it out.
It gets worse, because not only are you *particularly* bad at judging the truthfulness of people of different genders, cultures, backgrounds and lived experience to your own, because you simply don’t understand them – but you’re also *particularly* bad at judging the truthfulness of people who *are* like you, because you’re biased to see them as too similar to yourself.
Yes, I know that a large part of the court system is based on the idea that we can judge a witness’ credibility by looking at their face – but it’s superstition. We can’t. Cases are best judged by looking at the objective evidence and comparing it to what we know about the truth of similar cases.
Truthful complainants often present poorly
And here’s why judging the complainant is particularly difficult – because complainants often present poorly. In interviews, statements and court they can often be angry, confused, scattered or otherwise a poor advocate for themselves. They may often contrast poorly with an accused who is calm, collected, and well-presented.
That’s no accident, for three key reasons.
First, vulnerable people are more likely to be victimised. While men and women from all walks of life can be the victims of sexual assault, if you’re poor, homeless or in insecure housing, addicted, have existing mental health conditions, have a police record, have previously been a victim, are queer or trans, are a member of a cultural or ethnic minority, or are disabled, you’re *much* more likely to be a victim – and these groups are also less likely to be able to advocate for themselves and present their stories in a clear, effective, persuasive manner.
Second, sexual assault is traumatising. If a victim didn’t already have a mental health condition prior to a sexual assault, the chances are that they do now. On top of that trauma, making a complaint can be re-traumatising, and intensely stressful – let alone going to court and having the defence say you’re a liar – and these circumstances are unlikely to help a complainant to be their best, most persuasive self.
Thirdly, many accused people do appear to be trustworthy and believable in court. That’s not a coincidence. People who appear trustworthy and believable are more likely to have opportunities to commit assaults. Serial predators are often exceptionally good at presenting themselves to others, being manipulative, and twisting audiences around their fingers. That’s how they do what they do.
A changing story is not evidence of a lie
Often a sexual allegation takes this format: a victim is victimised. At a later time, they talk about it to a friend or family member. They may talk to several. They may talk to a psychologist or counsellor. Eventually they are convinced to talk to police. They give a police interview. Then a supplementary interview. Then they testify in court – maybe two or three times, depending on local procedures.
It is not just common that a story will change between these tellings. It is likely. Memories are shit, and highly mutable, and as time passes we remember new details, or forget other ones – particularly when our focus is drawn to some issues as being important and others as unimportant, as tends to happen in the process of a matter reaching court. People *will* contradict themselves. They will forget to say important things at an early stage, or forget or change important details later.
This does NOT mean they are lying about sexual assault. This is what almost every truthful sexual assault claim looks like. Yes, it is *intensely* inconvenient for the court process, and is a large factor in the relative difficulty of proving these matters to a court standard. But you should NOT take them as evidence that the complainant is lying or has fabricated their story. It’s called “being human”.
A delayed report is not evidence of a lie
Most victims of sexual assault do not immediately report to police. Some can take years – or even decades – to make a report, especially if the abuse happened while they were a child.
Again, this is intensely difficult for the court process, but you are not a court, and it is NOT evidence of a lie. There are many reasons a complainant does not immediately report to police. They may not immediately realise that they are the victim of a crime – a lot of people have messed up ideas about what constitutes “consent”. They may need to process some of their trauma before they can talk about it. They may not trust police. They may fear retribution from their abuser (or their abuser’s friends or family) if they report. They may not want their abuser to go to jail, despite the abuse, for a variety of reasons.
They are not wrong. Making a sexual assault allegation is not fun. It is very stressful. It rarely benefits the complainant – although it certainly DOES benefit the other people an abuser may go on to victimise if not reported. The decision whether to report – and when – is an intensely personal decision for a victim, and it shouldn’t be held against them.
Being sexually active is not evidence of a lie
I wrote a whole article on what consent is, and is not. Go read it. An active sexual history is not consent, and it does not make a person likely to lie about sexual assault.
So why do people even bother to make a complaint?
It’s a good question. Being a sexual assault complainant is shit.
But know this: the overwhelming evidence shows that if a person commits one sexual assault, they will commit more – or have already. If there aren’t other victims already, there will be in the future.
There are some benefits you can get out of reporting your sexual assault – some victims suggest it brings closure, or empowerment, although that’s not the case for everyone.
But the only way we can stop predators is for their victims to be heard. Your testimony will protect others. As I’ve said above, it’s a decision only you can make, and you’re entitled not to be judged if you don’t feel you have the capacity to safely bear that responsibility. But if you can, you should – for the sake of other victims.
Believe complainants. When someone tells you they’ve been assaulted, ask how you can help. Listen to their story. Give them the support they need. And take steps to make the spaces you control safe from their abuser.
We have police. We have courts. They will hopefully do their job. They don’t need you to play amateur detective, or devil’s advocate. No one asked you to do that, and it’s not helpful. Just support and believe victims, and be a decent human.
– All These Roadworks