Is it okay to question the truth of a rape story?

My gut response to that question is a fast and unequivocal, “NEVER!”

I am sure most people reading this feel the same way.

Rape disgusts me. I think rapists should have the death penalty. I think our culture’s attitude towards rape is horribly permissive. I might be biased though. I was raped by two men when I was fourteen. I was too ashamed to report what happened to me, and as far as I know those men are still wandering free to this day, have raped countless other boys, and that makes me pretty sick inside.

Questioning the truthfulness of a rape story is extremely problematic. For starters, who in their right mind would lie about being raped? How horrible is it to subject the victim of a violent and destructive crime to doubt and scrutiny, thus placing the victim on trial? Doesn’t that further play into the “blame the victim” mentality and misogyny-prone culture we live in already? Won’t this decrease the chances that a woman will come forward and report a rape, thus allowing rapists to go free and commit more heinous acts before being caught?

Questioning the truthfulness of a rape story seems to introduce all kinds of terrible problems for what seems like very little benefit.

But then I thought about how our justice system works: Someone is innocent until proven guilty. If people hadn’t been falsely accused of committing a crime in the past, this wouldn’t be a necessary part of our justice system. People do falsely accuse people of committing crimes. Sometimes it is by accident. Sometimes it is on purpose. Would a woman ever falsely accuse someone of raping her?

The U.S. Military has a big bad problem right now with women who have been sexually abused and raped. From my brief four years serving in the U.S. Air Force, I met several women in the military who have been raped by a fellow armed service member. The documentary, Invisible War, tells the story of many women in the military who have suffered silentely for years. In fact, when I was in the military, because of where I was stationed, my base had a particular problem with men being raped by other men (civilian men raping military men with date rape drugs).

So believe me when I tell you, that questioning the truthfulness of a rape story from a fellow service member would normally be the furthest thing from my mind. But that is what happened when I heard Terry’s rape story.

Terry was a fellow Airman in the Air Force. Terry and I were once very close friends. We were both transferred to the same duty station at the same time and very quickly bonded. Eventually we started dating.

When Terry and I started dating, things started moving VERY fast. Terry had what you might call a “healthy sexual appetite.” She started to tell me stories about all the men she had slept with, and she tried to move things with me into a highly charged sexual relationship very quickly. I thought things were moving too fast and asked Terry to slow down a bit. But she never did. So after three weeks of “dating” I asked her to go back to being just friends.

Terry didn’t like being just friends. She started calling me multiple times at all hours of the night to whine to me about our demotion to friendship. She kept begging me to tell her what was wrong with her that I didn’t want to date her anymore. I told her repeatedly there was nothing wrong with her, but I just didn’t think we were very compatible as a couple, but I still valued and appreciated her as a friend. That’s a tough pill to swallow, so I understand Terry’s distress.

Then Terry started stalking me. I was friends with Terry’s roommate, so fortunately, she was able to mitigate this behavior a bit. I eventually had to tell Terry to leave me alone completely. She didn’t. So, I told her that if she didn’t leave me alone, I was going to have to escalate the issue and report her behavior to someone. After telling her this a few times, she eventually got the message and left me alone. Good for her. I wouldn’t want someone to tell me that. So again, that must have been a tough pill for Terry to swallow.

I was never angry with Terry. My bet is that Terry has some issues from her past that have made her incredibly insecure. This might be related to or the cause of her quickness to escalate her relationships sexually. It might not. I’m not here to judge or analyze Terry. I wish we could have remained friends, but we couldn’t and that’s all there was to it.

Terry eventually moved on to another guy and they dated pretty seriously for about a year until he was transferred to another duty station several thousand miles away. Actually, things didn’t look good for Terry and her boyfriend, because unless they got married, it was highly unlikely they would ever be stationed together again. So, right after he got transferred, they got engaged.

Still, it wasn’t surprising to me or anyone else on base that Terry started flirting with another guy on base named Ron. Ron was a pretty quiet and meek guy. He wasn’t extremely outgoing and he didn’t go out of his way to impress people or liven up the scene. He was a pretty all around good guy, and everyone who knew him really liked him. When he and Terry started hanging out, people were worried for Ron because Terry didn’t have the best reputation at this point and they saw his hanging out with Terry as bad news for Ron. After all, she had a fiancé.

Now keep in mind, this base was a small base in a small town. Everything that everyone did was in a fishbowl and under constant scrutiny. One Friday evening, Ron and Terry went to a small gathering at the house of one of my friends – a married military couple. Terry and Ron slept over at the friend’s house. And apparently after everyone else had gone to sleep that night, Terry and Ron had sex.

The next day, nothing seemed amiss. Terry and Ron were extra cute and cuddly. They went to a move that afternoon. They went to a bar together later that night. I saw the two of them together at the bar – they were laughing it up and having a good time. On Sunday, they spent a romantic evening at the beach. They were seen by friends holding hands, cuddling, and everything else a young couple in love does.

There was just one problem. Terry still had a fiancé 3,000 miles away. By Monday night, word had already gotten around to Terry’s fiancé that she was carrying out a very public affair with Ron. He called Terry on the phone and was furious. Terry’s roommate overheard some of the conversation – the sobbing, negotiating and “I’m so sorry!” pleas.

She didn’t intentionally eavesdrop on the conversation, so she didn’t hear much and she doesn’t know how things took the turn they eventually did. But, boy did they take a turn.

A few hours later, the Military Police were at Ron’s place arresting him. You see, somehow during her conversation with her fiancé, Terry decided that that Ron had raped her. At first, when her roommate asked her about it, Terry said that she didn’t want to report Ron because he was such a nice guy, but her fiancé made her and said he was going to dump her if he didn’t. That story eventually changed – I’ll get to that in a minute.

So, Ron ended up getting court marshaled. And the couple whose house they stayed over that night were the alleged crime took place were dragged into things for possibly being enablers and having carnal knowledge.

No one on base believed that Ron had raped Terry. There was not substantial evidence to convict him of rape. If there was, he would have been sentenced to prison time in the military and discharged at the end of his sentence. It is much easier to be convicted of a crime in military courts than in civilian courts. And after he got out, he would have been likely prosecuted by civilian courts and served another prison sentence.

You see, military members who commit crimes get “double jeopardy.” They are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and after the military is done with them, they are subject to prosecution under the local, state, or federal statutes. It is unfair, but that’s just how it works.

But this didn’t happen to Ron. The civilian authorities wouldn’t even touch the case. However, the military had to do something about the situation, and they were in a tough spot because they already had a lot of bad P.R. generating about blaming victims and ignoring rape pleas. So, Ron was given a dishonorable discharge. And the couple whose house Terry and Ron slept over at were administratively punished and pulled out of their promotion cycle.

Terry and her fiancé eventually got married. Less than a year into it, they filed for divorce because Terry was allegedly having an affair with another man, this time a civilian.

If a rape had actually occurred, then I would say that everyone got off pretty lightly. But I have a very hard time believing that a rape occurred. This is partly because of all the circumstances surrounding the ordeal and my personal knowledge of the kind of person Terry is. But that alone wouldn’t be enough to make me doubt, actually.

I mostly don’t believe that Terry was raped because Terry herself eventually confided in her roommate while the court marshal was underway and told her that Ron hadn’t actually raped her. She said she didn’t know how to undo what she had started. When the roommate tried reporting this to our commander, he told her that it wouldn’t go anywhere unless Terry reported it to him directly because it was hearsay evidence and Terry would probably just deny it – since at this point Terry would face serious charges for making false statements. Terry’s roommate never spoke to Terry again and soon moved out.

If a rape had not occurred, then I would say that really sucks for Ron and the couple who got in trouble. It affected their careers in the military – and probably has had far reaching effects for Ron for his entire life. His dishonorable discharge will stick with him for many years which makes it extremely hard for him to ever find a job. Even though he can eventually appeal and have the discharge reduced to “general” – anything less than an honorable discharge from the military is considered a blight on your record. And it is something that most potential employers require you disclose. Ron is screwed for life. If he’s a rapist, then sure, he deserves the chair. If he’s not though – that is pretty unfair.

This leads me to my original question: Is it okay to question the truthfulness of a rape story?

While it is still possible that Terry was raped, it is unlikely that she was. Terry, for all her problems, wasn’t the worst person I’ve ever met. If Terry was willing to lie about being raped to cover up getting caught cheating – to the point of ruining three other people’s careers, how many other people out there are willing to lie about being raped?

This is a dangerous question to ask, because, like I pointed out before, it plays right into our “permissive/enabling rape culture.” Questioning the truthfulness of anyone’s rape story is dangerous and can be damaging. It can realistically have the unintended consequence of enabling more rapes. Still, chances are, there are people out there who are lying about being raped. And those lies are ruining the lives of other people.

Is there anything we can do about it? How can we be sensitive to victims, create a safe and responsive environment where rapes are reported more often, and put rapists in prison where they belong if we are also second guessing the truthfulness of any rape story? I don’t know. I wish I did, but I just don’t. In my gut, I want to say, tough luck to all the victims of false accusations out there – we err on the side of rape victims. But that still leaves my gut feeling pretty wrenched.

I read a letter in an advice column, CaptainAwkward.com, that recently brought all these questions back to my mind. The columnist had titled the letter and her response, “My friend, the rapist.”

The letter is brief, and only a few details are given. You can read the full column here.

The story is that a letter writer has made friends with her roommate’s work buddy and finds out that he is part of a group she has distanced herself from (reasons are not given). She mentions that some of the women in that group she strongly dislikes (again, reasons are not given) and that one of them approached her and told her that this guy she has been hanging out with raped her and behaved inappropriately towards another woman.

Alcohol was allegedly involved, so the letter writer goes on to explain that while she has never seen this man “out of control” when drinking, she has noticed that he acts inappropriately when he drinks – to the point that she has even confronted him about it. Other than that, the letter writer explains he is an all around good guy.

She then asks Captain Awkward whether she should cut this guy off as a friend, approach him about it, or what she should do.

Captain Awkward’s response was similar to my response at first. She opened by saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t even be a little bit nice about this. Your friend is a rapist!”

She then goes into chastising the letter writer for justify the rape as okay because it happened to someone she didn’t like. She did suggest that she talk to the guy about the situation before cutting him off completely, though. However, responding to some comments to her column, Captain Awkward went back and edited that and said the having that conversation itself might not even be worth it. She also reinforced that this man’s acting inappropriate when drinking is further proof that he must be a rapist.

The comments to the column are all along the same thread and many were much harsher. People were just piling on with the whole, “It doesn’t matter how nice this guy is to you, he’s a rapist!” theme as well as the, “How awful that you are minimizing this guy’s rape because it happened to someone you don’t like.”

I wasn’t entirely sure why people were getting onto the letter writer for that particular detail, so I decided to go back and re-read the original letter to figure out what I had missed. It did seem that people were just jumping to the conclusion that the letter writer was “justifying” a rape because she “didn’t like” the victim. Yes, she mentioned previously that she didn’t like the victim (which appeared to be justification for why she didn’t hang out with that group anymore), but she didn’t seem to indicate that this was at all a reason for why she was okay with the guy raping her. In fact, as far as I could tell, she never said she was “okay” with the guy raping someone at all. She just seemed perplexed about the appropriate way to not be okay with it. So maybe Captain Awkward and the other commenters were being a bit unfair on that point. But that is when I noticed another important detail I hadn’t seen before and it gave me pause.

The assumption that this guy is a rapist is based on two pieces of evidence: The word of this woman in a group that letter writer has disassociated herself from and strongly dislikes and the fact that the guy gets too fresh with women when he drinks. Without the first piece of evidence, the drinking issue would describe tens of thousands of people – men and women – who embarassingly hit on people when they’re drunk and wouldn’t mean much on its own.

So the entire conclusion that this man is a rapist really relies on the testimony of this one woman. Now again, not many back story details are given, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Why has this woman gone out of her way to tell this other woman who has shunned her group and strongly dislikes her that this guy she is hanging out with raped her? And if she is so willing to share this fact, why is this guy still part of that group if he raped someone in it?

Now, I am perfectly aware that guys who rape women often remain part of the group. But this is usually because the rape victim doesn’t report the rape. Or it is because she does and no one believes her or makes excuses for the guy.

However, in this story, the victim is perfectly willing to report to rape – and to the unlikeliest of people. She apparently hasn’t reported the rape to the police. She apparently hasn’t reported the rape to any sympathetic friends who would help separate her from this guy. Instead, she has reported this rape to someone who doesn’t like her and has made obvious choices to not be friends with her and distance herself from her. Isn’t that a little strange?

I responded to the column with my concerns. I relayed a brief synopsis of the story about my former friend who probably falsely reported a rape, and I stated that that it seemed a tad bit fishy that this woman was willing to approach the letter writer and disclose that she was raped by this guy, but she hasn’t done anything to report the guy or distance him or herself from the social group. I suggested that there was reason enough for the letter writer to doubt this woman’s report and that before doing anything, she might want to verify the story from another source.

And my suggestion was simply for this reason: You don’t have to hurt this woman or tell her that you don’t believe her, but if everyone who is told that a person raped someone else responds with a no-questions-asked ostracizing of that person, then that hands a tremendous amount of power to those who are willing to lie about such things. And it is quite possible that there are people out there who are lying about those kind of things. Probably not very often, but frequency doesn’t matter, does it? A lie is a lie.

I am pretty sure that my comments will not be posted by the moderator of the column. The reason is because shortly after, the columnist made a completely new post that said she was taking a break from moderating the large number of responses coming into her blog and that “If you’re a first time commenter and you are one of these people, your comments will show up approximately never.”

The “one of these people” part linked to another blog called The Pervocracy and a post titled, The People You Meet When You Write About Rape.

The first “of these people” type listed is:

Mr. What About The Men
“The real problem here is all these false rape accusations that are destroying our society! 90 million men are falsely accused of rape every second! A woman just has to sort of mumble a word starting with ‘r’ and a man instantly gets a life sentence! There are no instances on record of a woman actually being raped!”

The author of The Pervocracy blog, Cliff Pervocracy, replied to Captain Awkward’s blog and said, “I’m moderating too, FYI, people who post anything about “misandry” or “false accusations” at that link…

I share the annoyance of Cliff Pervocarcy and Captain Awkward at the type of people who go around complaining all these aleged rapes being lies and how men are the real victims of “misandrists” who are “falsely reporting” rapes left and right. That’s a pretty disgustingly inappropriate response in my opinion too.

But I am a little disappointed that I have probably been pigeon holed into that extremist category and my comments have been stricken from the record. I’m a victim of rape myself. I’ve seen firsthand false reporting of rape ruin people’s lives. I wasn’t rude or disrespectful in my comments.

I understand the desire to keep discussion civil and not letting your blog get trolled by all the “Men are the victims” assholes out there. But my comments weren’t even close to that extreme and I believe, provide a healthy perspective that needs to be heard. That perspective is, “Hey, something about this rape story this woman told you seems fishy and it might be worth double checking on before you go around broadcasting he is a rapist and judging him accordingly.”

I don’t know what it is like to manage a wildly popular and well read blog, so I probably don’t see things from the perspective of Captain Awkward and Cliff Pervocracy. It seems like they are just censoring everyone who doesn’t completely agree with them, but I could be wrong and even if I’m not, they might have some very good reasons for that which I will never understand because I am likely never going to have to deal with as many readers as they do.

But something just feels wrong about the whole situation. The beauty of the internet and blogs in particular is that it makes it easier for people to share different ideas and perspectives on a variety of topics – even super controversial and sensitive ones such as rape.

My remarks were in no way insensitive or extreme and I think they provided a valuable insight to anyone who read the column and perhaps even the original letter writer. But they seem to have been pigeonholed as “too controversial” simply because I wasn’t parroting the popular reaction to the letter writer that the columnist had decided was the only socially acceptable reaction.

And I feel like that might be a disservice to the readers of her column and to the person she is trying to help with her advice.

Is it okay to question the truthfulness of a rape story?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. But I think it is a discussion worth having. Maybe if people were willing to come out of their comfort zones and have a civil and polite discussion about it without censoring everyone who doesn’t agree with their predefined narrative, people like me might be able to better understand an answer to that question. And everyone will be better off. And our society’s “inappropriate rape culture” will be a little less permissive, a little more educated and informed, and much wiser and sensitive in how we handle these type of situations.

What do you think?

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