Sex, lies & lack of videotape
Society and Hollywood Share a Fear of ‘False Accusation’
I was in my early 20s when I began my teaching career. Like almost every job these days, my entry level job somehow expected experience. Lucky for me, I was able to get a volunteer position at a local high school. While I may have been a glorified intern, I still got to run lessons from time to time, and my enjoyment of this helped solidify my career choice. While this experience taught me a lot, one of its biggest lessons came at the end of the year, with student reviews.
Most of the feedback was kind and positive. They enjoyed my classes, or at least sensed my fragile ego couldn't take harsh criticism. Either way, towards the end of the notes, I came upon one that looked very different from the others. It didn't start with a "good job" or a "it's not too late to change careers", but instead a phone number, followed by a "call me". I shortly after began to panic. Should I tell someone? There were only a few days left of school, and I was to be off to teachers college, and this student would graduate. Was it worth the fuss? I had heard the horror stories of how even unfounded rumours could ruin teaching careers, and made the mistake of telling nobody. While this issue never resurfaced and is now years in the past, for a time I worried I would fall victim to rumours, or even a false accusation.
I mention this because I think it represents the fear and misunderstanding many have during this time of social change. #MeToo is constantly sweeping the news, and has unfortunately become equal parts empowerment, and equal parts punch-line. While thousands of (mostly) women open up about experiences that range from embarrassing and cringe-worthy to heartbreaking and abusive, many still scoff and question the validity of the stories, worrying that they are simply a way to slander the accused. While this is seemingly unfair, is it really that surprising?
We as a society share a pervasive phobia, which is being accused of a crime we didn't commit. Odds are that you can easily remember a time you were falsely accused of something small, and if you have a sibling, those odds are 100%. But what if there was more drama? Look no further than Hollywood, dramas undisputed king. While Hollywood has taken a definitive stand with the #MeToo movement, it simultaneously profits off narratives that legitimize its biggest detractor. "False Accusation" films have become some of Hollywood's most commercially successful formulas, because they highlight one of our biggest fears.
A recent example is Gone Girl, a bestselling novel and extremely profitable movie about a man who is accused of murdering his wife, only to discover she had elaborately set him up to rot in prison for his infidelity. It struck a chord with audiences, who probably shared nervous glances to their sides while silently realizing how much power their partner holds over them. Of course, in reality, while false accusations of spousal abuse exist, it is much more likely women remain silent. Stats Canada found that 83% of spousal abuse victims are women, with only 30% of these women reporting the abuse. What's worse is that women are four times more likely to be killed by their partner than men are by their partner. Realistically, the audience should be more vigilant of domestic abuse, yet all who left Gone Girl were more preoccupied with the possibility of "False Accusations".
Two decades before Gone Girl came the Oscar Nominated blockbuster, The Fugitive. It was all about (again) a man falsely accused of murdering his wife, who had to go on the run to prove his innocence. In one of the most famous movie scenes in cinematic history, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) hovers over the steep edge of a dam, pleading "I didn't kill my wife" to U.S. Marshal (Tommy Lee Jones). Jones infamously replies with "I don't care", as Ford takes his chances and leaps over the edge to escape - or die trying. Was there ever a more fitting example of the lengths we would go to avoid false blame? While we root for Dr. Richard Kimble (he's Harrison Ford, how can we not?), we do so knowing that 55% of female homicides are at the hands of their spouses, a number that grows much larger if you expand the group to include "intimate relationships" (Stats Canada). It is hard not to sympathize with Harrison Ford, but how often does The Fugitive match with reality?
Yet another example of the "False Accusation" drama is the highest ranked movie on IMDb, The Shawshank Redemption, in which a man is falsely imprisoned for murdering his - well, you get the point. There are plenty more examples to choose from, but it is simply more of the same. "False Accusation" is one of the most common and successful cinematic tropes in history because it cuts to our real, deep-seated fears. We are so worried that we will become the very few wrongly accused, and have our lives and reputations ruined, that we overlook the overwhelming evidence. While these films mostly deal with homicide, it contains the same train of thought that leads so many to dismiss the #MeToo movement, and question the truthfulness of the victims. It is much easier to ignore the overwhelming patterns in hopes that these statistics are yet another cinematic tale.
Unfortunately, it's not just movies, and it's not just sexual and domestic abuse of women. Take a look at news headlines and internet searches. Any time someone warns that racial discrimination and hate crimes are a growing threat, wait how long it takes someone to glibly mention the recent "Hijab Hoax" in Toronto, where an eleven year old girl alleged that someone cut her hijab to pieces on her way to school. In an effort to catch the perpetrator, police spread the story quickly, and important political figures like Toronto Mayor John Tory and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were quick to condemn this hate crime. When it came to light soon after that the pre-teen girl had completely fabricated the story, pundits were quick to slam the police, Mayor and P.M. for jumping the gun. The condemnation came regardless of the fact, according to StatsCanada, that "police reported hate crimes" have been on a steady rise since 2013. Even though there are an increasing amount of proven hate crimes in Canada, doubt is now cast on the rest through this now incident, one which will undoubtedly last longer in the collective memory.
Another example more closely tied to the #MeToo movement is the gut wrenching story of Brian Banks. A standout high school football player, he had been given a full scholarship to USC, one of the preeminent football colleges in America. That was quickly taken away, along with all his other freedoms, when he was found guilty of raping an underage high school classmate in 2002. Looking at over forty years in prison, Banks took a plea deal, worried that an African-American male would not get a fair shot with an all white jury. He took the more lenient five year jail, five year probation sentence while registering as a sex offender. Thankfully, by 2012, the accuser let it slip that she had made the whole story up.
While Banks was fully exonerated and given over $1 million dollars in damages, his promising football career, and some of the best years of his life, were over. When Hollywood inevitably turns Banks' story into a full length film, it will do two things: One, it will hopefully assist Banks financially, as well as emotionally overcome his harrowing past, and two, give doubters of sexual assault victims more anecdotal evidence to dismiss their claims.
We as humans rely heavily on stories and anecdotes. It is how we communicate, how we interact, and how we share information. The idiom "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic" is frequently misattributed to Joseph Stalin (not the best person to quote, I know), but still tells us quite a bit about the human condition. It is impossible not to feel duped and betrayed by the "Hijab Hoax", just like it is impossible not to feel the utmost sympathy to Mr. Banks.
Yet to focus on awful anecdotes is to betray the much bigger picture of statistics. The American Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that around 2-10% of rape claims are either totally false or contain false testimony. However, they also explain that over 60% of rapes are not reported. 1 out of 6 North American women (who confess) have experienced either attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. The Angus Reid Institute, a non-profit Canadian research foundation, reports that 3 in 10 Canadians (both men and women) admit to being sexually harassed in the workplace, while 80% confided that they did not report it. According to RAINN (America's Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), there are over 321,000 victims of rape and sexual assault every year. Again, that is just accounting for those who come forward. Yet if you go online to read a story about rape victims, or how sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent in our society, you won't have to scroll down long before you find a mention of Banks, or a story in a similar vein.
This leads me back to my anecdote at the beginning. I was incredibly nervous by this student's inappropriate advance, and even more worried that I would be judged or accused of inappropriate behaviour myself. If the student simply shared that letter she wrote to me with a friend, or made her thoughts more vocal, it would have looked suspicious on my part for not coming forward. I was put in an awkward position, and momentarily felt out of control. I was worried - rather foolishly - that I could fall into the position of the "Falsely Accused". Perhaps I watch too many movies. While I can't ignore what might have happened, I also can't let it cloud my perception. I have been in a classroom with thousands of different students since, and never had another issue like this. We as humans are programmed to remember the unusual, especially if it is in narrative form. We fear the worst case scenario, and the only thing remotely close to being a victim of a crime is to be falsely accused of it. But when we doubt the sufferers because of a small minority, we take away the power of their voice.
While the axiom is that we are all innocent until proven guilty, it is really hard to prove everything. It is hard to prove that your boss keeps staring at your breasts from across the table, or that your behind was pinched at a Christmas work party. It is also hard to prove that your manager put his hands down your pants while in the camera-free food storage room of a grocery store, because you "wanted it". This happened to a friend of mine at a summer job when she was in high school. She didn't report it to her manager because she feared she would lose her job. Please forgive my use of anecdotes. No one wants a witch hunt, and certainly no one wants "False Accusations". No one wants to see more random name shaming, or a justice system that views evidence as an impediment.
The movement is about changing a culture, and giving a voice to those without power. If the examples given seem to jump from sexual assault to domestic abuse to homicide and back again, it only serves to the catchall nature of the #MeToo movement. It is an opportunity for those taken advantage of in the workplace and at home to come forward and have their voices heard. To say the movement is a call-to-arms in an all out gender war is simply wrong, and the most basic form of fear mongering. Those fearing an "overcorrection" seem to worry doing something is worse than nothing. The small minority of "False Accusations" that come from any testimony should be a condemnation towards the lying accusers, not the movement as a whole. To simply fear that we could be Harrison Ford, helplessly peering over the abyss as our judge and executioner lunges towards us is to negate the real changes that need to happen.