So let's talk about a touchy subject today: false accusations.
False accusations are bad. False accusations hurt innocent people by claiming that those innocent people have said or done wrong things that they haven't actually said or done in that given context.* False accusations hurt innocent people by giving their loved ones, their employers, and society in general a false reason to doubt their innocence. And false accusations hurt genuine victims by contributing to a social bias against victims in general. False accusations are bad.
* By which I mean that a false accusation of X doesn't mean that the falsely accused has never done X in general. They just haven't done X in that specific instance, ergo the falseness of the accusation.
False accusations also do in fact happen. They don't happen as often as you might think. And contrary to popular belief, they don't happen disproportionately for, say, certain types of crimes committed largely by certain types of people against certain types of other people. But they do happen very occasionally and they absolutely shouldn't.
So now that we've clarified that false accusations -- however rare -- do exist and are very seriously bad for the falsely accused, let's talk about three things that happened to me this week.
The first thing that happened to me was that I watched "Law & Order". I do that a lot, actually, and maybe I should stop, but I like hearing Sam Watterson lecture me as the audience. It's the voice, I think; even when I disagree with him (which is often), I just enjoy hearing him talk. One of these days, I want a talk-off against Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, and Sam Watterson all reading from the same cue cards and letting the audience vote on the winner. Why can't someone do an American Idol show based around that? And Samuel L. Jackson should be in it, but he gets to add amusing swears to his cards. Anyway.
So this L&O episode featured a murdered college student who was also pregnant. And since pregnant-women-who-are-murdered are usually murdered by the sperm donor portion of the equation, the detectives gamely set out to figure out who was the sperm donor in this case. And they found a professor! Who was having an affair with the college student! Which raises all sorts of serious ethical questions! Because this professor was her professor, as in the guy on whom her grades and her thesis and her academic future hinged on! And that represents a serious imbalance of power in a relationship! So it's really not uncommon for schools to make rules against that sort of thing because it brings up all sorts of sexual harassment scenarios and favoritism issues and so on! And now it's all come out against Sort-of Innocent Professor Guy on L&O!
And the guy's life was ruined. I mean, that's what L&O told us. Because there were signs up around campus saying that he was having sex with a student (which was true), and people were talking about removing his tenure, if you can imagine. And since he wasn't the murderer after all (what a twist!) it was a tragedy.
And, I mean, it kind of was. The writers were careful to set everything up so that he was presented in the best possible light: the relationship was totally consensual (Well, I mean, according to him. She was dead and couldn't weigh in on the matter.), it was a one-time thing so he wasn't preying on college students in general (Unless this was just the first time.), and he was the one who broke it off because the ethics of the situation made him uncomfortable (Which is, I suppose, a 'better late than never' scenario, but there are others.). Anyway. Point being: a man's life was fundamentally changed because it came out that he had sex with one of his students and people took the situation seriously.
I was skeptical. Maybe in this case, this man's life was ruined because it was a high-profile murder case, but it felt like a stretch for the L&O writers. Maybe the university decided to actually follow their posted rules, and they yanked the guy's tenure and busted him down to associate prof or even fired him. Maybe. I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm not saying it's never happened before. I am saying that that's not how the situation usually goes in my personal anecdotal experience. I am saying that if we live in a culture that takes power imbalance in sexual relationships that seriously, then it's news to me.
But, eh, it's L&O. Whatever.
The second thing that happened to me was that I got the NetGalley "new title round-up" in my email, and the first book on the list caught my eye. I'm not going to identify the book because I haven't read it, and thus this would be Complaining About Things I Haven't Read, but here was the write-up designed to catch the reader's eye:
After a student's accusation of sexual assault destroyed his reputation, Noah left the teaching career he loved. The school system that should have protected him and an ex-lover who should have known better shattered his confidence, and it took Noah six years and another university degree to finally get his life back on track.A false accusation of sexual assault destroyed a man's reputation.
And now we have to go WAY back up to the top of the post and reiterate: False accusations do happen and they are very seriously bad for the falsely accused.
Now having said that, here is an exact transcript of my thought process on reading this book synopsis: What.
I'm not saying this isn't possible. I'm not saying it doesn't happen. I'm not saying those things. I am saying that I don't recognize this fictional reality being presented to me. I am saying that the only way this makes sense to me -- that a pure-as-the-driven-snow man is utterly and completely ruined by a false allegation -- is if the falsely accused is a member of a Marginalized Group and this false allegation was used as an excuse to discriminate against him. I'm saying that, again, not because this setup is impossible, but rather because it just sounds so very unlikely to me.
Why does it sound unlikely to me? Why is it so hard for me to believe that I live in a country where a false sexual assault allegation could conceivably ruin a man's life for six years?
Maybe because of the third thing that happened to me this week: I realized that I live in a country where a man can weather four sexual harassment and/or assault allegations and still be taken seriously as a candidate to run my country.
And now there are some signs that the scandal is taking a political toll on Cain. An Ipsos/Reuters poll conducted online at the end of last week showed Cain’s favorability rating among Republicans dropping 9 points, from 66% to 57%, and his rating among all voters dropping from 37% to 32%. Perhaps more worrisome for Cain was that a full 80% of respondents said they knew about the harassment allegations. One in three Republicans said the accusations made them view Cain less favorably.That quote is from the L.A. Times, noting that the allegations are "taking a political toll" because the accused's favorability rating in his own party has dropped 9 measly points. More than half of the voters in his party still heavily favor him despite not one but four sexual assault allegations.
I don't know if these allegations are true. I frankly don't want to talk about whether they are true. The truthiness of the allegations is immaterial to this post. The point of this post is that if your synopsis for your book or your movie or your short story or your edgy screenplay is that 'false sexual assault allegation ruins man's life forever; man picks up pieces and lives again', then you might want to look out your window and see that that scenario isn't exactly reflected in the human experience outside.
Can a false sexual assault allegation ruin a life? Yes. Has is happened at least once in all of human history? Yes. Is that a tragedy? Yes.
Does that mean that this scenario is going to resonate with your readers in an oh, this is such a common human experience kind of way? No. Do we have a living, breathing, very current example of someone currently weathering sexual assault allegations with very little real-world repercussions, including his popularity with a large portion of his home country? Why yes, yes we do. Do we have people -- real people, actual people -- frequently and excessively insisting that sexual harassment and sexual assault at school and work just doesn't happen anymore? Sadly, depressingly, shockingly, yes.
Does that mean you shouldn't write about false accusations ruining someone's life? I'm not going to say that. But I will say you might want to start with a fictional narrative that more closely resembles the reality that a fair number of your prospective readers live in. You might want to not add to the growing list of fictional anecdata that someone who claims sexual assault happened to them is a lying liar who lies. You might want to come up with another reason -- a better reason -- for why your protagonist has to put his life back together than because some lying liar-woman ruined his life in a society that totally takes sexual assault allegations super seriously because when you use that reason, I don't recognize your fictional reality. It's maybe not your fault, but I just don't. It's not the world I live in on a daily basis. I'm sorry.
That's just my opinion.