Via Jeff Goldstein, a bizarre story (warning: the linked article contains sexually graphic material and some very bad language) with serious implications. An Orange County, California woman, Tamara Anne Mounier, goes to the police and claims she was abducted at gunpoint, gang-raped, and forced to perform degrading sexual acts on tape. A week later, six men are arrested. When they turn the videotape over to the police, it turns out that the sex was entirely consensual; the woman repeatedly laughs, directs the action, berates some of the men for being unable to perform adequately, expresses her enjoyment verbally and vocally, and at one points talks to someone on a cell phone, enthusiastically describing the goings-on.
Apart from the baffling question of what possessed Mounier to go the police with her story and mention the videotape, which she had to know would disprove her claims, there is also the issue of punishment. The most Mounier could have faced for her false accusation, which could have sent the men to prison for life, was a misdemeanor charge resulting in a maximum of six months in jail. In the case she has actually been charged with two felonies because she also defrauded the state victim assistance program out of several thousand dollars. If convicted -- so far, oddly enough, Mounier has refused to take a guilty plea -- she could go to prison for up to 44 months. (Should the case go to trial, with the videotape as evidence, this is going to be be one time people won't be wiggling out of jury duty.)
Jeff asks what feminists, including yours truly, think about this. I'll gladly answer.
In some legal systems, a false accuser faced the same penalty that the accused would have faced if convicted on the false charge. That may be excessive, but the penalties for false accusations -- whatever the crime -- do need to be tougher. There are legitimate concerns that women who are raped may not come forward if they have to worry that they'll go to prison for a long time if unable to prove the charge. But no one is talking about punishing accusers whose charges cannot be proven (resulting in the accused going free). If a woman or a man is charged with a felony for falsely accusing someone of a serious crime, the prosecution will have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person knowingly made a false charge. That's a tough burden to meet, and it should be. But in those cases where the falsehood of the accusation is clear, the punishment should be fittingly serious.
There is another issue here as well. In response to pernicious myths and stereotypes about women routinely "crying rape" -- stereotypes that, among other things, often branded any "unchaste" victim as a lying slut -- many feminists have gone to the other extreme of asserting that women don't lie about rape (or hardly ever lie about rape), and that women in he said/she said sexual assault cases should be given what feminist sociologist Margaret Gordon called "the benefit of belief." In some cases, the very discussion of false charges of rape has been treated as misogynist hate speech. And while it's certainly not true that, as some men's activists claim, all it takes to send a man to prison these days is one word from a woman, the new rape myths -- the feminists ones -- have taken enough hold to result in some very substantial injustices.
We need a serious, honest, open discussion on false accusations of rape. Being able to accuse someone of rape is a form of power (of course that's true of any accusation, but a charge of rape packs a unique emotional and legal punch); and it would be naive to expect women never to abuse the power they have, just as it would be naive to expect it of men.
For more on the topic see:
Prosecuting rape allegations (The Y Files, December 4, 2005)
Who says women never lie about rape? (Salon.com, March 10, 1999)
Kobe's rights: Rape, justice and double standards (Reason, April 2001)
How much should we know about the sex life of Kobe Bryant's accuser? (Salon.com, March 26, 2004)