The accused can be confused about their innocence, too
Recently I met the founder of this website, Alice True, and over dinner and drinks I talked with her a little about my private struggle around Title IX issues. She told me about Save Our Sons, and asked me whether I would write a piece about my situation. I agreed to do so, though I have not until now been comfortable telling this story to any but my closest friends.
Our norms of consent, and of what constitutes good or acceptable sex, have been changing rapidly, as demonstrated, for example, by the affirmative consent codes metastasizing within our education system. We devote a lot of attention to how outsiders view and punish young people who run afoul of these codes, innocent boys being labeled rapists, and so on. But we don’t spend enough time wondering about how these accused students see themselves, and what effects these may have on their own sense of self-worth.
Here is what happened to me. One night during my junior year of college, a friend with whom I’d been hooking up regularly (call her “Corinne”) came to my dorm room and we kissed, and touched, and I performed oral sex. It was not a healthy sexual experience. I was needy, a little boorish, and anxious, and had, without telling Corinne or anyone else, abruptly and foolishly stopped taking the antidepressants that were regulating my mood, since they were also affecting my libido; Corinne, for her part, was struggling to understand and articulate her own needs, rather than merely being there for others all the time.
The result was a sexual experience that was explicitly and verbally consensual, not marred by excess intoxication, but was also clearly much more about pleasing me than mutual pleasure. Over the next few weeks I began to experience regret over how I had treated her; I had heard a lot of conversation about sexual assault on campus (even in 2009, the discourse was simmering on our small, extremely progressive campus) and began to wonder to myself wait a minute – I didn’t rape Corinne, did I? I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my concerns with professors or friends or anyone else on campus; I was worried that if I told anyone, I’d be thrown out of school for sexual assault. So I stayed silent and did not process my fears, though in truth the experience helped me understand what good sex meant to me, and understand the kind of person I wanted to be around those with whom I was intimate. It helped me grow. As for Corinne, she and I remained relatively friendly but never had a sexual experience again.
A year or two later, I was a mess, having experienced a number of emotional shocks of various sorts in quick succession. This included one stemming from having been treated badly by someone with whom I was close. I was having frequent panic attacks and issues with severe dissociation and anger that I had never had before. I was disturbed. And at that point, I became convinced that I must have raped Corinne on that night in 2009, and that that was why I was suddenly experiencing so much grief and incomprehensible pain.
It seemed like cosmic justice, and made a certain amount of sense in my head: because I had felt occluded and guilty about how I had treated Corinne, I had let this other person too far into my life and allowed her to seriously hurt me. (There was some truth to this kind of thinking — not having anyone to confide in about my concerns regarding Corinne left me conflicted and vulnerable to bad treatment by others — but it involved an immense exaggeration of what actually transpired between Corinne and myself.) I became convinced I was a rapist, and began to tell my close friends that that was the case. From my distorted perspective, it felt good to say that; it allowed others to view me as negatively as I viewed myself, allowed them a window through which to understand my misery.
I continued believing that I had sexually assaulted Corinne right up to the moment, three years later, when I actually talked to her about it. By this point, I was a little healthier, and she was a little healthier; we were able to be friends, and I apologized to her for what I felt I had done to her. Her response was clear and emphatic. She told me I had nothing for which to apologize. She told me that nothing had happened that night for which I should feel ashamed. And slowly I began to understand the way I’d been needlessly punishing myself, and began to see myself through a slightly more gracious lens.
I think this story is relevant to the larger conversation about campus issues for two reasons. First, having lobbed a false accusation of sexual assault at myself in this way, I think I have unusual insight into where false accusations come from including the psychological dynamic at play. I do not think most false accusers are manipulative or conniving bitches who are looking to screw men, as some believe; I haven’t got much stomach for that kind of cynicism, honestly. I believe, rather, that in most cases they are just hurt people. As most psychologists can tell you, when you’re really, really hurting, maintaining a tolerance for the ambiguity of life can be extremely hard – and the question of what constitutes consensual or healthy sex is teeming with ambiguity right now. It can feel good and even psychologically necessary to turn that endless complicatedness into a certainty: “Yes, I was raped. Yes, he’s a bad person.”
Recently, I was privy to a fascinating conversation between several incredibly bright lawyers who take cases involving false accusations of sexual assault. They were discussing the possibility of filing defamation suits against accusers, and one of the lawyers opined that winning a defamation case is hard in this context, since his experience was that most false accusers really do believe that they were raped. I agree with him. I think false accusations tend to originate in a feeling of disturbance and pain, rather than malice. When it became clear that the Rolling Stone UVA story was a sham, my immediate reaction was not to feel hatred toward Jackie, but to wonder what on earth she actually had been through in her life that made her feel comfortable weaving a story like that.
The second reason I think this story is germane is that I really wonder about the frequency of students falsely confessing to committing assaults when pressed by Title IX investigators. I know that, if I’d been approached by an investigator in the weeks or months following my encounter with Corinne, I would have been very suggestible, open to the idea that I had done something wrong. I know that, had I been approached in the years following this episode, when I was really hurting, I would have readily volunteered information about my “rape” and what a bad person I was. We are used to thinking about false confessions as something that primarily happen under intense, prolonged, and perhaps violent police interrogation, but research strongly suggests that in many cases it doesn’t take that much haranguing to get someone to admit to something they didn’t do.
A couple of studies by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo have tested this notion in an ingenious way. Participants were asked to complete a task on a computer keyboard but warned them that the system would crash and all study data would be disastrously lost if the participant hit a specific malfunctioning key. The researchers then made the system crash a minute into the task, though the participant had not hit the malfunctioning key, and asked the participant if they had hit the key against orders and caused the data failure. In the first study, 26% of confused and guilt-ridden participants confessed to having done so; in the second study, which added a “witness” who “saw” the participant press the key, the confession rate jumped to 80%. Other studies of this issue have found similar results: people are remarkably willing to confess misdeeds to authority figures, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.
Let’s examine this idea in the context of sexual assault cases. The accused students are typically young (young people are more apt to falsely confess than older people), may be anxious and/or eager to please (a mental health condition is a significant predictive factor in false confessions, as is a tendency toward being conciliatory) and, especially in the case of those at elite schools, may have very little experience being interrogated, or being suspected of wrongdoing. Furthermore, and maybe most relevantly, no one has much idea what constitutes criminal behavior when it comes to bad hookups. Is it rape if one party is intoxicated? What if both parties are intoxicated? Is it necessary to have affirmative consent? Does regret = rape?
It seems to me very, very naive to expect a 19-year-old kid, under investigatory pressure for the first time in his life, to state clearly to a Title IX administrator, “No, I didn’t rape her,” especially when neither that kid nor anyone else on campus has a clear idea what constitutes rape right now. Can you see the wheels turning in the student’s head? God, this is really scary but this person seems nice and they said they’d only suspend me and not expel me if I say I did it. And I want to be a good feminist and I really think it was a bad idea to sleep with her, neither of us were ready for that, and didn’t they say at orientation that if we’d had a couple of beers it could easily be sexual assault? Doesn’t that seem like a completely understandable thought process for the young person in that situation to be having?
I advocate on behalf of the accused through FACE, and have met a number of students and families who have gone through this process. I have noticed that in a disproportionate number of FACE families, one or both parents is a lawyer – in other words, the student has an immediate resource to help him navigate an unfair adjudicatory process while maintaining his innocence. What becomes of the accused students who don’t have lawyer-parents? There are a lot of them out there, after all. For example, in 2013, as you may know, Occidental College reported 60 sexual assault, after only having around ten the year before. Mindful that a single student might be accused multiple times, one might guess that 50 or so students were accused that year. Who are these students? How many were punished? How many admitted to doing something wrong? How many actually did something wrong? Are these students doing OK? Do they feel shame, and is that shame well-founded?
We have to understand that we have created a situation that’s extremely conducive to false confessions, and that, given the low evidentiary standard used to adjudicate these cases, the often-hostile disciplinary procedure, and the frequent lack of access to an attorney for the accused, we don’t have a mechanism in place to separate the true confessions from the false ones. What to do about that?
All we can do is to continue to shine a light on the problem, and to keep trying to love, to seek justice and a healthy community. In my case, the shame and self-hatred I felt began to dissipate when I realized that I hadn’t raped Corinne. I felt a little more empowered and a little less dark. The mark of having held for so long that negative sense of self is still there, though; while I know cognitively that I am a decent person, my heart still resists that notion from time to time. As we all must, I continue the process of learning to love myself, and to see myself as competent. It’s a struggle, but it’s an incredibly worthwhile task to undertake and has allowed me to meet great people and to do something worthwhile.
Bad sex is not rape. Sex that you regret post facto is not rape. Much of this fight has focused on making sure administrators, legislators, and would-be accusers understand this; we need to make sure the accused understand their innocence too.
Signed, Anonymous student