Retracting Rape Allegations is Not Proof Victims Are Lying

By Kristance Harlow 06/18/17

We blame victims for their victimization and then blame them if they retract their accusations.

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Trauma can cause a rape victim to retract their allegation.

Retracting an abuse allegation is not proof that the abused is lying or that the alleged abuser is innocent. Rape is amongst the most underreported crimes. Victims face enormous obstacles in the aftermath of rape. Not the least of which is deciding whether or not to contact the police. The justice system is designed to be a hostile and foreboding institution, for better or worse. Across the world, victims have reported feeling intimidated by criminal justice systems.

In the United Kingdom, a 2012 court of appeals refused to overturn a controversial criminal conviction. A 29-year-old mother of four, identified publicly only by the name Sarah, had accused her husband of rape and then retracted it.

Sarah’s husband was reportedly very abusive and the domestic violence Sarah was subjected to caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The court conceded that she had retracted her claims under the duress of PTSD, but called her "undoubtedly guilty of a serious crime." The serious crime being retracting a true allegation.

PTSD is common amongst rape victims, with 94 percent of victims experiencing post traumatic symptoms for two weeks following the assault. An estimated 50 percent of victims end up with the disorder. The trauma of sexual assault is so severely damaging that rape victims are more likely to develop PTSD than victims of other kinds of trauma. Trauma specialist Judith Herman explains “The purpose of the rapist is to terrorize, dominate, and humiliate his victim, to render her utterly helpless. Thus rape, by its nature, is intentionally designed to produce psychological trauma.”

At least 2 out of every 3 sexual assaults are not reported to police. Only 18 percent of reports lead to an initial arrest and only 2 percent of reported rapes see the perpetrator incarcerated. Catherine MacKinnon, a law professor, says that “rape, from [the victim’s] point of view, is not prohibited; it is regulated.”

Sarah was sentenced to eight months in jail for “perverting the course of justice” while her husband has yet to face a conviction for being the perpetrator of the acts the courts said were true. She ended up serving 18 days and was put on probation for two years. The allegations of abuse were true and it was her retraction that the law had a problem with. She retains the criminal record, despite having been the victim.

The odds are stacked against rape victims. Convictions of rapists hinge on the existence of physical evidence, which is only obtained through an invasive multi-hour examination which must take place within 120 hours of the assault. In the United States, there is a huge backlog of rape kits that have never been tested. In 2011, Texas revealed that there were 20,000 untested kits sitting in evidence rooms around the state. As of January 2017, there were still thousands waiting to be processed.

Trauma recovery is a process that requires safety and the rebuilding of personal autonomy. Recovering from traumatic events requires supportive social bonds. Most rapes are perpetrated by someone with close ties to the victim, and calling them out publicly can cause turmoil within a family. For people who have PTSD, it is particularly important that the people closest to them provide them with firm boundaries and forgiving empathy. Without these, the psychological problems are likely to be compounded and prolonged. Victim blaming is the opposite of forgiving empathy.

"Were you assertive?" "Did you struggle to get away?" "What were you wearing?" "Did they look creepy?" "Couldn't you tell they wanted to have sex?" "Why did you lead them on?" “Why didn’t you scream for help?”

Women make up the majority of rape victims and there is a long history of rejecting the stories of women who exhibit hysterical behavior, which we now know are symptoms of PTSD. Hysterical neurosis is no longer a medical diagnosis, but it was only eliminated from the DSM in 1980.

Despite the different ways symptoms can manifest, PTSD always affects how the brain accesses and processes memories. Certain aspects of the trauma will remain in the brain as active experiences. People with PTSD can often recall the most minute details of the trauma but may be unable to remember “central events.” Some people will develop the disorder even if they cannot consciously recall the trauma. Other common symptoms include problems regulating moods, difficulty concentrating and learning new things, disproportionate feelings of guilt, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, nightmares, and flashbacks. These memory issues and emotional extremes are cited as evidence that an alleged victim is unreliable.

As far back as 1900 BC in Egypt, writings have been found that describe female hysteria and blame the symptoms on the uterus. A thousand and five hundred years later, Hippocrates believed that hysteria was directly connected to the uterus. A hundred years later, Plato blamed hysteria on a “wandering womb” which he believed would move around the body and interfere with bodily functions like breathing. Hysteria was essentially, as the historian Mark S. Micale explains, “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex.” It took thousands of years to change medical perspectives; prejudicial views about emotional behavior are unlikely to recede into the past in mere decades.

Reporting rape under these conditions can be more harmful than helpful for people dealing with the aftermath of trauma. If an accusation goes public, the pressure on the victim amplifies. The court of public opinion errs on the side of victim blaming and seeks for reasons to disbelieve. The assumption is that the retraction is evidence of a false claim. We blame victims for their victimization and then blame them if they retract their accusations.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.