From time to time, a story in the news opens up the opportunity to talk about sexual issues in our larger society. In the past, I’ve commented on other news stories involved sex: Forget Josh Duggar: What Ashley Madison’s Client Base Reveals about Husbands; How Parents Can Use This Election to Talk to Their Kids about Sex; Abuse in the Church.
In the past couple of weeks, the accusation made by Christine Blasey Ford that United States Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her during their high school years has been a focus of news, commentary, and conversation. If you have paid attention, you’ve heard a variety of opinions about what should happen next.
I’m not going to add to that conversation, because I personally don’t know what’s true at this point. I don’t feel like I have sufficient evidence to make a determination of what happened or didn’t happen back then.
But that brings me to the question I want to ask today: What should be our response to sexual assault or harassment allegations?
Again, I’m not talking about Kavanaugh/Ford, because I’ll let others work that one out. But this situation gives us a nudge to talking about the issue as a whole. How should we treat such accusations?
Take accusations seriously.
Too often in our past, we, as a society, have been too reluctant to believe accusations, to act on evidence, to support the victim. Whether you personally understand it or not, it can be very difficult for victims of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment to speak up, point the finger, and follow through with pursuing justice.
Most accusations are true. A 2010 analysis of various studies concluded that only 5.9% of rape reports were false. FBI statistics give a rate of 5% false allegations. That means that over 9 times out of 10, when someone says they were raped, that’s exactly what happened. And that doesn’t account for all the sexual assaults that don’t get reported!
Our tendency, therefore, should be to believe an accuser — that is, take the allegation seriously. By taking the attitude that a person will be listened to with an open mind and a charge fully investigated, we encourage victims to come forward, name their assailant, and receive justice and closure. We also cut down on future assaults by weeding out attackers among us.
Refrain from extraneous insults.
What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Had she gone back to his place willingly? Was she “asking for it”? I’m utterly horrified that these are questions that have been asked when a genuine victim of a sexual crime has come forward and told her story! I don’t care if the woman was previously table-dancing naked; if she was raped, she was raped.
We can advise people how to avoid risky situations, but leaving my front door unlocked or even wide open is not an invitation to steal everything inside my home. So let’s not attack the victim for being dressed or behaving in a way that might have been sexually appealing but was not an invitation to be harassed or assaulted.
Likewise, let’s not hurl insults of any and all kinds against the accused without sufficient information. Before we go calling someone a rapist, a liar, and the utter filth of the earth, let’s try to figure out if the event really happened. If you’re not in a court, your opinion doesn’t necessarily have to be “without a reasonable doubt,” but it should pass some standard of knowledge. I wouldn’t call someone a murderer unless I had good reason to believe they pulled the trigger.
Let’s remember there are actual people involved in this situation. Let’s focus on finding out the truth and then determine what justice should be meted out. And extraneous insults don’t help us get at the truth.
Recognize false accusations happen.
Remember the FBI statistics about the likelihood of an accusation being true? It’s still disturbing that, when it comes to rape allegations, 4,400 and 5,100 cases each year were determined to be untrue. And the false report rate for rape was five times higher than for most other offenses. Again, it’s still around 95% likely that a rape occurred, but that 5% of falsehoods affect real people.
The Bible tells us the story of Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt and working at the home of Potiphar, a royal official. Potiphar’s wife wanted Joseph to sleep with her, and when he refused, she falsely accused Joseph of sexual assault.
One day [Joseph] went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.Genesis 39:11-20
Without any investigation, defense, or due process, an innocent man was sent to prison. Scripture is clear that this was an injustice against Joseph, as it would be against anyone accused of a horrendous crime they did not commit.
As much as we want to hold the guilty responsible, we also don’t want to convict the innocent. We have a responsibility to do our best to figure out whether something really did or didn’t happen.
Seek out the truth.
The biggest challenge we often have with harassment/assault allegations is “he said, she said” — meaning no external witnesses can confirm or discredit an accusation.
The Old Testament law established this general standard for determining guilt: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Yet three chapters later appears instructions about rape, including this one:
But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.Deuteronomy 22:25-27
How on earth would a woman alone in the countryside with a rapist have a second witness? She wouldn’t. And yet the Bible clearly states that her attacker should die for his crime against her. Somehow, the Israelites were expected to investigate a claim through other means, judge its veracity, and dole out justice. Perhaps the second “witness” in such cases was corroborating evidence. Similar allegations, physical evidence, or simultaneous reports are all considered in determining the truth of someone’s claim.
When a charge is made, let’s take the accusation seriously, knowing the vast majority of accusations are true; let’s refrain from getting into extraneous stuff that doesn’t illuminate the truth; let’s remember false allegations do get made, and let’s seek truth.
Maybe charges against someone you like are true. Maybe charges made by someone you like aren’t true. We have to be willing to set aside our earthly ideologies and care about what God cares about — truth and justice. If we cannot do that, we are not treating out citizenship in Christ with the honor it deserves. And consequently, not treating others the way we should.