Is Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain guilty of sexually harassing women? Only the people directly involved know for sure. But so many high-profile cases of alleged sexual abuse have crumbled under scrutiny for example, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of a New York City maid that some skepticism is called for. Indeed, the presumption of innocence offered to an accused should be at least as strong as the credibility granted to an accuser. In a court of law, it should be stronger.
Many sexual accusations are first played out in the court of public opinion, however, where the standards of evidence are similar to those used by teenagers gossiping in a high-school corridor. With Cain, it seems unlikely that a legal proceeding will ever occur, if only because the statute of limitations has expired. But the unadjudicated accusations may well destroy his political career, which may well have been their purpose.
Journalists are supposed to adjudicate the evidence that they present to the court of public opinion. They are supposed to verify sources, question motives, and weigh credibility; otherwise, journalists become nothing more than gossipmongers and political mouthpieces. But, with Cain, the scent of political blood made the mainstream media launch a feeding-frenzy campaign even at the point when all accusations were anonymous and vague. The frenzy began with an expos in Politico, which presented no facts and identified no accusers. Those who viewed this as a rush to judgment were accused of blaming the victims.
In an article entitled Final Verdict: The Unethical Media Persecution of Herman Cain, and Five Questions for His Critics, the Ethics Alarm site commented,
Astoundingly, people who readily assume that Cain was guilty of wrongdoing based on their undefined claims and resulting cash settlements pronounce themselves shocked at the Cain defenders suggestion that the women themselves had no basis for their accusations. Yet that suggestion is at least as supported by the facts, or lack of same, as the conclusion that Cain did anything wrong.
Questioning the accuser is not equivalent to blaming her; it is a request for the evidence and credibility that constitutes proof. But when two Cain accusers finally came forward, many in the media took it as confirmation of his guilt rather than an opportunity to get solid answers to hard questions. For example, why did one of the accusers have a past history of similar workplace allegations? Interestingly, after Cain hired a high-profile defamation attorney, both the accusers and the media have backed away. Reuters (11/11) reported, The two public accusers [Sharon] Bialek and Karen Kraushaar had planned to hold a joint news conference, but Kraushaar on Thursday decided against it.
Again, the point is not whether Cain is guilty. The point is how the legal system and our society should determine anyone’s guilt. Any system that lays claim to fairness must weigh evidence and not rush to judgment with a pitchfork in one hand and a bowl of popcorn in the other.
How common are false accusations?
The acceptance that false accusations occur is a foundation of Western jurisprudence. Otherwise, it would make no sense to insist upon due-process protections like the presumption of innocence, the right to face an accuser, and cross-examination. Because these are fundamental rights of everyone accused, it is also reasonable to assume false accusations are a common threat to justice. But how common are they?
There is no reliable database on false accusations of a sexual nature, and so no one knows how commonplace this travesty of justice is. Even what seems to be solid evidence of the problems scope can result in confusion instead. For example, many statistics on unfounded rape reports are virtually worthless because the definition applied to that term varies widely from one jurisdiction to another, as do reporting practices.
Studies can also confuse rather than inform. In his essay False Rape Allegations: An Assault On Justice, Bruce Gross explained, A review of those studies on false rape accusations conducted between 1968 and 2005 showed a percentage range from 190%. [Note: the actual range was 1.5%90%.]”
Philip N.S. Rumney, whose work Gross cites, concluded elsewhere that as a consequence of such deficiencies within legal scholarship, factual claims have been repeatedly made that have only limited empirical support.
The absence of solid research into false accusations is odd. Such research could serve as a reality check on what seems to be a matter of burning concern throughout society. Sexual accusations flood the news. Accusations of child abuse are routinely processed by family courts and government agencies, such as Child Protective Services. Policies to prevent sexual abuse now permeate every school, from kindergarten to PhD programs. Children are warned to never associate with a stranger even by making eye contact; university students receive antirape and antiharassment training.
When children are involved in any venture, it is common for the adults to be vetted through background checks even if they are volunteering their time. Almost every business of size in America has sexual-harassment policies. With so much energy, legislation, and money focused on sexual abuse, why has so little attention been directed toward rigorously testing the scope of the problem?
There is one plausible answer that is almost never raised: too many people do not want to know.
Over the last two decades, there has been a disastrous surge in huge government-funded industries dedicated to solving societal problems. These industries are composed of advocates, agency administrators and workers, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and other experts, educators, sensitivity trainers, writers and lecturers, journalists, politicians, and wannabes. These industry workers constitute an army with a strong vested interest in demonstrating the prevalence of whatever societal problem their rich living depends on.
The specific problems targeted include domestic violence, divorce, child custody, child abuse, sex-worker redemption, sexual harassment, and rape. Since an immense amount of tax money is devoted to prevention, the problem must appear prevalent enough to justify the lavish expenditures and bloated agencies.
A glimpse into a single report by one agency in merely one industry reveals the depth of the deception to which researchers will go in order to create problems for which funding is necessary. It reveals the eagerness with which politicians and the media swallow the deception, because it serves their purposes too. Politicians have a crusade they can moralistically ride into reelection; the media has a sensational story to report.
In September 2010, several nonprofit executives and law-enforcement officers testified before a Congressional committee on the problem of underaged girls who were trafficked into prostitution over the Internet. Deborah Richardson, chief program officer of the Women’s Funding Network, claimed juvenile prostitution is exploding in America. An independent tracking study released today by the Women’s Funding Network shows that over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states, Richardson claimed. Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase. Within days, virtually every major media outlet in America proclaimed the shocking dimensions of the problem.
But the study turned out to be junk science: it has been rejected by every statistician who subsequently dissected it. Consider just one aspect of the study’s methodology: The researchers assembled pictures of young-looking women on online classified sites. No effort was made to ascertain if the photos were retouched or when they had been taken. For example, a 40-year-old who wants to attract sex-phone customers might put up a teenaged picture of herself or someone else.
Then, 100 untrained people variously described as randomly chosen or chosen based on gender balance were asked to guess which photos showed a girl under 18 years old. The initial test group judged that 38 per cent of the young-looking females were under 18 or, as the study stated in more statistically respectable terms, We would compute this by assigning a value of .38 to each of the 100 young girls. Thereafter, in a larger statewide study, researchers counted up the number of photos they found online and multiplied the number by .38. The result was an epidemic of juvenile prostitution in America.
In his article Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science, journalist Nick Pinto commented on the researchers’ motive publicity and public funding.
The group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear it used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.
We pitch it the way we think you’re going to read it and pick up on it, says Kaffie McCullough. If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate I mean, I’ve tried to do that with our PR firm, and they say, They won’t read that much.
Multiply this small study and its inevitable bid for funding by hundreds of thousands of advocates and researchers whose appeals have extended over decades. Such industry workers do not willingly countenance the suggestion that their crusades are largely hollow and self-serving. And those who are skeptical of these accusations or allegations are actually saying the emperor has no clothes.
Reason to hope for the return of fairness
A backlash has developed against the devastation wrought by the social- problems industry. A group in the forefront of pushing back is the men’s-rights movement, which has been evolving into a family-rights movement in an effort to include women who have been abused by the system.
Last week there was a heartening development in the fight against what seems to be the systemic encouragement of false accusations. Under public pressure, Senator Patrick Leahy agreed to delete a controversial provision from his draft legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
The deleted provision would have reduced due-process protections for students accused of sexual abuse, from harassment to rape, in the internal justice proceedings of universities and colleges that receive federal funds. Virtually every college student in America would have been impacted.
The provision sought to replace the more exacting clear and compelling evidence standard with a preponderance of the evidence one, which favors the accuser. In short, university adjudicators would have evaluated rape accusations by the same standard used for traffic tickets. Although a university’s guilty verdict has no criminal weight, it results in shame, expulsion, and an official record that blocks enrollment in other universities as well as many career paths. It can also prompt a police investigation and be used in civil lawsuits.
A return to the academic status quo does not guarantee accused students with genuine due-process protections such as the right to face accusers and the presence of counsel. But it is a sign that situations can change and, sometimes, for the better. Leahy’s deletion signals a welcome time-out from the disturbing trend to downplay an accused’s presumption of innocence. Every time due process returns from its exile, even slowly, innocent people become safer.