Law & the Courts

‘Why Would Accusers Lie?’ Is the Wrong Question

Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters )
‘Why?’ is a question that is not easily addressed by indisputable evidence. ‘Did she lie?’ is a different kind of question.

‘Why would she lie about something like that?”

That, approximately, is the go-to question put forward in defense of women who come under scrutiny after coming forward with questionable allegations of sexual assault or other misconduct, as in the current matter of Brett Kavanaugh. It is the wrong question.

Or, more precisely: It is the wrong question if what we desire to do is to get as near as we can to the truth of the matter at hand. It is an excellent question if your desire is something else, especially misdirection. “Why would she lie?” is a question that obliges us to engage in mind-reading and redirects us from answerable questions to unanswerable ones. As a rhetorical ploy, it is transparent: Engaging the question puts Kavanaugh’s defenders and would-be defenders in a difficult position, and it puts Kavanaugh’s antagonists in an easier position, from which they may point and shriek that their opponents are victimizing an already victimized woman without any dispositive evidence to support their claim. It’s silly and sophomoric — which, unfortunately, means that it is likely to be effective in our current political environment, which is dominated by hysteria, dishonesty, and stupidity.

“Why?” is a question that is not easily addressed by indisputable evidence. “Did she lie?” is a different kind of question.

Women and men do lie. And we need not look very far or wide to find examples of women lying about sexual assaults — and, specifically, lying about them as a way to damage political and cultural antagonists. Lena Dunham fabricated part or all of a story about being raped at Oberlin by a campus Republican named “Barry.” The publisher of her memoir was obliged to amend the text and offered to pay the legal expenses of the man named Barry, who had been a prominent campus Republican at Oberlin during Dunham’s time there. Dunham has characterized the episode as an unfortunate coincidence, an explanation that no person with a normally functioning adult mind could possibly take seriously: “Barry” is not even among the 100 most common American men’s names, Oberlin has a relatively small number of students and a considerably smaller number of Republican students. Why did Dunham fabricate a story about being raped by a campus Republican? It is impossible to say. We can say that she did not choose to fabricate a story about being raped by a member of the Oberlin democratic-socialists club, or a young Democrat, or an environmental activist.

Is that relevant?

Sabrina Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, brought herself and her magazine into disrepute by publishing a fabricated account of a sexual assault by University of Virginia fraternity members in her now-infamous article headlined “A Rape on Campus.” Erdely did not fabricate the story; instead, she credulously published a fiction so obviously manufactured that the story began being unraveled only hours after its publication. Rolling Stone eventually was obliged to settle multiple lawsuits related to the libel. The details of the story were horrifying: The purported victim told of being thrown through a glass table and then raped on a bed of broken glass. That is the sort of thing that leaves physical evidence, elevating the story from a he-said/she-said controversy into something that can be more scrupulously investigated. There was no such physical evidence. None was offered, and none was sought. None of this piqued the interest of Erdely, who purports to be a reporter.

Why would the young woman in that case fabricate a story about being brutally raped by UVA fraternity brothers? It is impossible to say. We can say that Rolling Stone did not choose to publish a false story about a rape allegedly committed by members of the Berkeley chess club or by a creative-writing student at Bryn Mawr College.

At Duke, it was the lacrosse team, and the fictitious rape was held up as an example of the “toxic masculinity” associated with the retrograde culture of sports teams on relatively conservative campuses such as Duke’s. The fictitious rape at UVA was presented as evidence of similarly toxic tendencies at fraternities — and it was defended as illustrating a “larger truth” about those tendencies even after it was exposed as a lie. Dunham is among those who traffic in myths about the prevalence of rape on college campuses, another fiction that is put forward as an indictment of the purportedly sexist and atavistic culture of American institutions and of the country itself.

Brett Kavanaugh also is said to embody those cultural currents. That the accusations against him are inconsistent, and that many of those close to the facts have disputed the claims as inventions, is dismissed as inconsequential. “Why would she make something like that up?”

I do not know why Lena Dunham, the Duke accuser, or Rolling Stone’s sources made up their stories. I only know that they did.

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