The false rape accusation as witchcraft

One of the primary sources for my devil research is the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual that became one of the first best-sellers of the early print era. As I’ve worked through its theological logic in a couple different courses, I’ve come to see a basic underlying structure to the bewildering array of accusations against witches. The pattern is that feminine sexuality is something unruly and powerful, and if women are allowed to control it themselves, they will use it to dominate men and destroy men’s sexual agency. This is what is going on with the classification of midwives as witches, as well as the frequent claims that witches cause male impotence — indeed, at the most extreme, the text allows that witches can make the male member seem to disappear (though thankfully for us men, this is a mere illusion and the member remains intact through God’s grace).

Much contemporary anti-feminism follows the same underlying logic: if women are allowed to control their sexuality, they will use it to dominate and destroy men. Sometimes the power attributed to women is still quite literally supernatural in scope, as in the claim that legalized abortion will allow women to destroy the white race. The most insidious application of this logic, however, is in the myth of the false rape accusation, which the news media, television drama, and many individual men are deepy invested in. The woman in this myth is an evil creature indeed, seducing a well-meaning man and then using her sexuality as a weapon to ruin the man’s life and reputation.

In real life, of course, a woman would have to be insane to use a rape accusation as a power play, given how hugely tilted the American justice system is toward the accused in cases of sexual assault — and how complicit the media is with the campaign of character assassination that the defense conducts against every accuser. As with all ideological myths, however, the myth of the malicious rape accusation is not about real women at all, but rather about justifying the existing power structure. It’s a kind of preemptive strike, as though they’re saying, “Look at what would happen if we did take rape accusations seriously and gave women the benefit of the doubt! All hell would break loose!”

7 Responses to “The false rape accusation as witchcraft”

  1. David Says:

    What do we make of rape accusations that are manifestly false, like the Virginia case reported by Rolling Stone? Should we see this as an attempted power play by someone who feels she has no power?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s not clear to me that her accusation is false.

  3. WT Says:

    What do you mean by “myth”? Are you saying it is a myth that rape accusations are ever false? Because false rape accusations do happen, for sure. Sometimes a woman is embarrassed to admit that an encounter was consensual (see http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2009/09/smeary_lines.html). Sometimes a woman is seeking revenge (see http://www.wfmz.com/news/news-regional-berks/Local/reading-police-woman-makes-false-rape-claim-to-get-revenge-on-exboyfriend/27791550). Or sometimes, women (being human beings) are subject to mental illness (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/nyregion/24freed.html?_r=0).

    Perhaps by “myth” you meant some quantification of the rate of false claims — it would be a “myth,” for example, if someone claimed half of rape claims are false.

    Keep in mind, lots of actual rapes do go unreported, but it is also possible (and likely) that a non-negligible number of reported rapes are false for all the reasons above.

  4. WT Says:

    (Comment in moderation above).

    Three more thoughts:

    1) In the Hofstra case that I linked, several young black men were in the middle of being railroaded for a horrible rape, except that one of them had used his phone to film it, and it turned out that the woman was lying through her teeth about it having been a rape — she just wanted to avoid embarrassment at having had consensual sex with several guys. This brings to mind the long history of false sexual accusations against young black men.

    2) It is clear, of course, that there ARE lots of rapes that go unreported, that there are many men who mistreat women in ways that fall short of rape, that the system could be friendlier to women in many ways. It is also clear, though, that progressives shouldn’t go so far in the direction of opposing rape that they put women on a pedestal and assume that women are all angels in white dresses who would never ever lie or exaggerate or aim for revenge or be mentally ill. Nor should progressives blithely act as if they prefer a world where young black men can be thrown in jail on almost no evidence (where, ironically, they will face a far higher likelihood of rape than most women do).

    3) Keep in mind the possible paradox here: as difficult as the system makes it for genuine rape victims to be believed and to prosecute their cases, this could have the ironic effect of raising the percentage of rape claims that are false. (Not the raw number, the percentage). That is, when the system makes it hard for rape victims to go forward, the women who do go forward are more likely to be among the mentally ill, or among those who are seeking advantage in some domestic dispute, etc. After all, women in those groups are more likely than actual rape victims to be willing to navigate the current system — they haven’t suffered through the actual trauma of rape, and they see the system as one in which their mere word is enough to disrupt a child custody dispute or get revenge on a guy they dislike. So what I’m saying is that if the system were friendlier to actual rape victims, the number of reported rapes would go up, but the percentage of false claims would likely fall as a proportion of the total number of claims.

    I don’t know that this is true — it’s just conjecture — but the real world is probably more nuanced and complicated than “rape culture is a lie!” versus “no, rape victims would never lie!”

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No one here is positing that easy dichotomy. What I’m referring to as the “myth” is the notion that false accusations are routine and that in fact false accusations far outnumber true ones (which is the impression one would get from watching TV, where it is apparently impossible to portray a true rape accusation on any show other than Law and Order: SVU).

  6. WT Says:

    The original post spoke of “the myth of the malicious rape accusation” — as if such a thing never happens at all — but I join you in disagreeing with the myth as you now define it.


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