Jess Mahler’s Unified Theory of Rape and Sexual Assault Allegations

Okay, I want to tackle some hard stuff today, so pull up a chair and grab your thing. Like the title says, this is my unified theory of rape and sexual assault allegations. If I don’t piss at least half the people reading this off at least once, I’m doing it wrong. But stick it out, I don’t think you’ll be expecting where I take this.

Before I get into this, let me note that I’m writing this for private individuals. I am NOT advocating that anything I say here replace real investigation of accusations or that anyone is not entitled to legal presumption of innocence. But individuals are confronted every day with a need to decide who to believe when accusations come to light. This is my take.

There is No Single, Usable Theory of Rape and Sexual Assault Allegations

Remember #MeToo that was going around a while back? Well, a lot of people got kinda worked up about false accusations when it was going. And while by and large those concerns were dismissed by folks trying to bring light to the problem of sexual assault and harassment, I kept remembering Emmett Till. I know someone who has lived all his life knowing that he could be the next Emmett Till. He was understandably reluctant to offer a blanket #Ibelieveher to allegations from white women. And because of that, I saw him hounded and harassed by a feminist we both knew until he was nearly driven out of our mutual social group.

Full disclosure? When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, I’m generally on the “believe the victim” bandwagon. (Accusations of ongoing abuse within a romantic relationship are a lot more complicated and we’ll be examining that another day.)

But while I (generally) believe the victim I am well aware that other people may have legit reasons to withhold judgment. So as long as other people aren’t attacking the victim I don’t take issue with their stance.

If you start attacking the victim, instead of just suspending judgment pending more information, we’re gonna have issues you and I. (You can defend the accused, if you so wish, without attacking the victim.)

He Was the Boss

I read an article last month about the many news-making accusations which brought down a number of high profile men over the summer. It made a point that I hadn’t seen made anywhere else at the time:

All of the accusations that were making waves in the media weren’t JUST accusations of sexual assault. They were allegations of workplace harassment and specifically situations where the accused had power over the accuser’s career.

The old saying about rape being about power is not only cliché but generally pretty well disproven. However power is definitely a factor in rape. You can’t rape someone you don’t have power over, whether that power is physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise.

So Let’s Talk Power

Now, power dynamics are a hobby horse of mine. If you follow this blog, you’ll hear more about them. But for our purposes today you need to know two things:

Power dynamics are always in play. There is never a situation where two people (much less a group of people) are completely equal in relative power.

Power dynamics are complex shit. My nesting partner is both physically and financially more powerful than I am, but I am the driving force in our family because I hold more social power. I have societal power (different from social power) over many people who are physically stronger than me. Yet I have less financial power than almost anyone who isn’t living on the street. And that’s just looking at part of one person’s relative power. I didn’t even touch on political power, career power, power in a specific hierarchy, etc. Get a group together? Fuck that shit.

So when someone starts talking about how all the high profile cases of sexual assault and harassment are also cases of workplace harassment, that grabs my attention. Now, we are talking about a pattern in the power dynamics between accused and accuser.

Powerless? #MeToo

At the time of the assaults, the accused had power over their accusers. And that power dynamic is critical to how this plays out. It is the power that the accused had that let them get away with their harassment. If they didn’t have that power the accusers would have told them to fuck off as soon as the assaults started. If they didn’t have that power their victims would have come forward a lot fucking sooner.

Take those same people, and flipped the power dynamic in their work relationships, those assaults would never have happened. At worst the accused would have tried something, been slapped down, and never tried it again.

However I’ve gotten a bit of afield of where I started didn’t I?

I started with #metoo, false accusations and Emmett Till.

There’s a connection. Bear with me a bit longer, okay?

But False Rape Accusations!

In the wake of all the highly publicized accusations, many men discussed how to prevent rape allegations. Apparently a lot of men are really worried 1) about being next to be accused and 2) about being accused when they were acting with good intentions. For some reason, none of the various articles, blog posts, and forum discussions by people who had these concerns advised that the way to not be accused of rape is to, ya know, not rape. Cause while false accusations are 100% a thing, I promise that will work for well over 95% of folks.

But false accusations are a thing, and as Emmett Till’s story graphically demonstrates, they aren’t harmless. The harm they can do varies.

In aggregate the harm to the many, many, many people sexually assaulted every day is far worse than the harm to the relatively few people false accused. But harm doesn’t happen in aggregate, it happens individually. And in some cases the harm of false accusations is life destroying.

The usual response to worries about false accusations is to point out that false accusations are really rare. Very few people are going to make false accusations. Why? Because the accuser in cases of sexual assault almost always gets put through a gauntlet. An accuser needs to prove not just the validity of the accusation but that they are righteous enough for their accusation to be worth paying attention to.

I agree 100% that those responses are accurate most of the time.

When the Gauntlet is a Cakewalk…

Just how much of that gauntlet did Bryant get dragged through when she accused Emmett Till of making lewd advances? None. (Oh, after Till was dead she may have gotten dragged quite a bit. But when she made the accusation no one even stopped to question her.)

A rape victim on the witness stand may have their sexual habits and style of dress dissected. But Do you really think the school board–who are elected by the parents of the students–is going to sit through the same being done to a student who accuses a teacher? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

Why do you think that is?

Because power dynamics.

A young white woman had enormous societal power over a black boy 50 years ago. And while the power differential isn’t as bad today, it still exists.

In schools, power looks like it is in the hands of the teachers. And in the classroom it is. Beyond the classroom, the parents hold power over the teacher’s careers. Which means the students, through their parents, can have power over their teachers.

These aren’t universals. Bill Cosby reached a level of financial, career, and social power that is extremely rare for a black man in America. So the power imbalance between Cosby and the average white woman was in Cosby’s favor. A very rare situation for a black man in America. Though it is perhaps notable that the accusations against Cosby started coming out years before the accusations against white men with similar career positions.

And the Sandusky case definitely proved that not all teachers are created equal.

So let’s pull it all together:

Rape and sexual assault can only happen when there is at least one power imbalance favoring the assailant.

People making rape allegations go through a harrowing gauntlet both medically, legally, and socially, when they come forward–unless they have significantly more power than the person they are accusing.

Certain situations are more likely to be generate false rape and assault allegations. These are situations where on average the accuser has significant power over the accused. White women accusing black men, teachers being accused by students are two examples of these situations.

Jess Mahler’s Unified Theory of Rape and Sexual Assault Allegations

Believe the person the power imbalance doesn’t favor. Believe the person who is fighting an uphill battle to get their side of the story heard, never mind believed. Usually, that’s going to be the accuser. Because usually the accuser is going to get put through that gauntlet. Usually people are going to rally around the accused. But not always.

People talking about how the accused’s life shouldn’t be ruined because of one mistake is a clear sign of where the power lies. So are public dissection of the accuser’s sexual habits. Similarly, publishing mugshots of the accused instead of school photos, dissecting their past mistakes and wrong doings, while everyone paints the accuser as a shining innocent victim are also clear tipoffs as to who has more power.

And of course, if the accused can literally make or break the accusers career, cost them their job, or otherwise has direct power over the accusers well being… it’s pretty obvious who has more power, right?

And if none of this is happening? If there is no clear power imbalance or the power dynamic is a mixed bag where each has some power over the other and neither has a clear advantage? That’s when you hope the folks investigating the accusations and allegations are actually capable of doing their goddamn jobs. Something I personally have little faith in, but we can always hope.

A Few Last Thoughts

So here it is. My unified theory of rape and assault allegations, in 2000 words of less. It isn’t perfect. Even if the theory is 100% accurate, we’ll still make mistakes applying it because there will be things you don’t know. For instance, it may be that the secretary is blackmailing the exec over some indiscretion. Then the secretary holds the power even though as far as all of us can tell, the power is with the exec.

But I think this is a step in the right direction. A theory that both has solid utility and can give folks on both sides of this issue a way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns of both sides.

Comments are open, but ban hammer will be wielded liberally. Keep it clean, people.

(Did you learn something? Please help support my work.)