Last night, the Hofstra University freshman who had accused five men of gang-raping her recanted her statement. The 18-year-old student, who had told police that the men had lured her into a dorm bathroom, tied her up, and raped her, admitted to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office that the “incident” was, in fact, consensual. After being released from jail, where they had been held for nearly 24 hours, the four men cleared of the rape charges posed in a series of celebratory photographs, smiling, raising their hands in the air, and offering thumbs-up signs to the press. Overnight, the men turned from accused rapists to . . . four guys who had had consensual sex with a woman together.
It was an odd scene, if only because the implications of this situation are too thorny to be glossed over by a jubilant release story. Since the men were cleared of all charges, the public will likely never know what actually happened during this “incident,” why the woman reported it as a rape, and why she later took it back. For most bystanders, these details are unimportant. Whenever a high-profile rape accusation becomes public knowledge, commentators tend to gravitate to one side of the story, regardless of the outcome of the case. On one side are people who are concerned about the problem of rape. On the other, people who are concerned about the problem of false rape accusations. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen a discussion of a rape accusation devolve into the one side arguing why the accuser should be believed, and the other side arguing that the accuser should be discredited. Another common point of argument I find frustrating—-what percentage of rape claims are genuine, and what percentage are false? Most of the time, we, armchair rape analysts, launch into these arguments before we have any actual idea whether a particular person has raped another person. In most cases, we will never know. What we do know, all the time, is that rape is a problem, and false rape accusations are a problem. The meaningless squabbles between the two camps tend to overlook the fact that people concerned about rape and people concerned about fake rape accusations are both fighting against the same thing: rape culture.
Rape culture does not just encourage men to proceed after she says “no.” Rape culture does not simply teach men that a lack of physical resistance is an invitation. Rape culture does not only tell men to assert ownership over whichever female body they desire. Rape culture also tells women not to claim ownership over their own bodies. Rape culture also informs women that they should not desire sex. Rape culture also tells women that saying yes makes them bad women.
Both rape and rape accusations are products of the roles assigned by rape culture. In the traditional seduction scenario, a woman is expected to not desire to have sex, and to only submit after the man has successfully coerced her into submission. When the preferred model for consensual sex looks a hell of a lot like rape, an array of fucked-up scenarios are inevitable: the woman never wanted to fuck the guy, refuses to submit, and is raped; the woman submits to the man’s coercion in order to avoid other negative consequences (like being raped); the woman had desired the sex all along, but must defend her femininity by saying that she had been coerced into sex. Thankfully, a good deal of modern men and women reject these antiquated ideas, but they’re far from being banished from the sexual landscape. Especially when that landscape involves four men, one woman, and freshman year of college.
And yet, even the people who care most about false rape accusations seem to find ways to keep rape culture going strong. In his coverage of the case, Men’s News Daily editor Paul Elam writes:
In what has become a more or less common turn of events, the female Hofstra University student that accused five men, including one classmate, of gang raping her in a school dormitory bathroom has recanted the charges. That’s legal and media speak for admitting she cheapened herself by taking on five men willingly on a men’s room floor and lied about it later out of what little capacity for shame she had.
Elan admits that even if the woman hadn’t accused five men of raping her, she still would have “cheapened herself” by having sex with the men “willingly.” Meanwhile, the four released men in the case carry no such group-sex stigma when they pose triumphantly outside the jailhouse doors. In case you’re interested, it gets worse.
RELATED: Why are people calling the accuser a whore instead of a liar?