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Rape and sexual assault are common. So why don't we believe victims?

Protesters Gather Outside Bill Cosby Shows In Denver, CO
A protester outside a Bill Cosby show in Denver.
Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

Bill CosbyRoger Ailes. And now, Donald Trump.

All three men are prominent media figures who have allegedly been getting away with sexual harassment or sexual assault for decades. And it took until 2016 for any of them to face serious consequences for their alleged actions: Cosby was charged with sexual assault, Ailes was forced to resign as the CEO of Fox News, and Trump's presidential campaign imploded as women started coming forward to accuse him of groping or kissing them without their consent.

The fact that all of this happened just this year, after some alleged victims had remained silent for decades, could signal a big shift in how our culture views sexual assault.

At the same time, victims still face massive amounts of public skepticism when they come forward.

Public figures blamed and doubted Cosby's accusers, even when 60 of them had come forward. Many of Gretchen Carlson's former colleagues at Fox stood with Ailes and against her story, and only a few of them recanted or expressed regret for doing so once Carlson won a $20 million settlement from Fox. And while most Americans (68 percent) think Donald Trump really did make unwanted sexual advances towards women, one in five believe this and are still voting for him anyway.

Rape is incredibly common (about one in five women experience sexual assault), and false reports are rare (2 to 8 percent). So if a woman comes forward about being assaulted, Occam's razor suggests she's probably telling the truth.

But our tendency as a society is to assume the opposite — that any explanation other than rape, however implausible, must be the correct one. Did she willingly go somewhere alone with her attacker or wear provocative clothing? She must have wanted it. Is her attacker famous or well-loved? She must be lying to get attention. Was she literally unconscious? Who knows, maybe she woke up for a while and said it was okay.

We often don't want to do the work of reevaluating our personal heroes, of accepting that a powerful man who is a pillar of the community, or a world-renowned artist, or even the leader of the free world, could secretly be a monster.

We are even less willing to do that work if someone we know or love is accused. If a man has friends, admirers, and social status, he also has a defense against rape and a claim to sympathy in the public eye.

But sometimes, all he has to be is a man.

People don't believe victims of sexual assault because it's simply easier not to. But it also goes deeper than laziness or loyalty. The widespread disbelief of rape has a complicated history but a relatively simple cause: People don't believe women.

Rape denial has a long, twisted history in human society

Rape culture, and its tendency to blame victims, didn't come out of nowhere. Various legal systems have engaged in it for centuries.

The Code of Hammurabi subjected both the victim and the perpetrator of rape to death sentences — unless the victim was a virgin, in which case the rape was a property crime against her father. Early Hebrew law also sentenced both victim and perpetrator to death, but there were exceptions for the woman if she screamed for help.

The idea that rape is a crime against a woman, and specifically a crime against a woman's body, is relatively new. For most of human history, rape has been treated as a property crime against a woman's husband or father, since they effectively owned her.

For most of American history, women have had to prove that they were chaste, and that they put up extreme resistance, in order to have any hope of winning a court case.

Marital rape has only been illegal in the United States for a few decades, since a husband was considered to have complete authority over his wife. (This dynamic may also complicate how we see the wives of accused rapists who were married decades ago, like Camille Cosby or Hillary Clinton, Rebecca Traister argued at New York magazine.)

It would be naïve to think that the weight of this history has been lifted by a few decades of rapid social progress on feminism. Women are still blamed for sexual assaults committed against them, and they are still blamed for bringing down the promising careers of famous or beloved men.

Women are blamed because they have nearly always been considered, legally and socially, to be worth less than men. They are satellites to male stars, auxiliaries, not full people in their own right. It's easier to discount their stories because it's easier to discount them as people.

Male victims face similar problems because sexual assault, and the dismissal of it, has been so strongly gendered for so long — and sex stereotypes of women can also be used as weapons against men.

It's no longer socially acceptable to say out loud that women are worth less than men. But implicit assumptions can be a lot slower to evolve than outward norms.

Most of us believe deep down that women can't be trusted

There are some understandable reasons why law enforcement officials, for instance, tend not to believe victims who come forward about rape.

We are only just beginning to understand the science of how the brain processes trauma. Memories are stored in a fragmented way, and emotional reactions can seem "off." Both of these things can raise suspicions among police officers who are accustomed to using rigorous interrogations to ferret out inconsistencies in a story, and rigorous interrogation only makes things worse.

But there's clearly something deeper going on when a police department calls its sex crimes investigative division the "lying bitch unit."

And law enforcement officials aren't the only ones who don't believe rape victims. Too often, entire communities turn against survivors of sexual assault who come forward.

The idea that women are inherently deceitful, especially when it comes to sexuality, is deeply rooted in our culture. Soraya Chemaly has written extensively about the ways we teach our children that women are liars.

Our pop culture and religious teachings alike are fraught with descriptions of women as untrustworthy — from Eve and the apple to Gossip Girl. Teenagers and police officers alike radically overestimate the number of women who lie about rape. This has real consequences in nearly every walk of life, Chemaly writes:

Women's credibility is questioned in the workplace, in courts, in legislatures, by law enforcement, in doctors' offices and in our political system. People don't trust women … not to be bosses, pilots, employees. Last year, a survey of managers in the United States revealed that they overwhelmingly don't believe women who request flextime. Until relatively recently, in order to hedge against the idea that women lie, many U.S. police departments had "corroboration requirements" for rape reports, unlike any other crime. Pakistan's controversial Hudood Ordinance still requires a female rape victim to procure four male witnesses to her rape or risk prosecution for adultery.

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas wrote about how the Cosby situation made him realize that he didn't truly trust his wife, and that most men don't trust women. He said he trusts her not to cheat and to be a good partner, and he trusts her opinions on important things:

But you know what I don’t really trust? What I’ve never actually trusted with any women I’ve been with? Her feelings.

If she approaches me pissed about something, my first reaction is "What’s wrong?"

My typical second reaction? Before she even gets the opportunity to tell me what’s wrong? "She’s probably overreacting."

Female hysteria is another deeply rooted gender stereotype, and it tells us that women can't even be trusted to know their own feelings. These stereotypes cause doctors to ignore women's symptoms of pain, and they inspire lawmakers to pass abortion waiting periods because they don't think women consider their decision carefully enough. Meanwhile, men are perceived as smarter and more authoritative than women.

Our society, which is less separable than we'd like from the cruder societies that came before it, has created a perfect storm of reasons to dismiss rape victims.

A woman can't be trusted to know her own feelings, which means she either secretly wanted sex while saying she didn't, or wanted it at the time but changed her mind afterward.

A woman isn't her own person, not really — so it matters less that believing him means disbelieving her.

A woman can't be trusted not to lie, so it's safer to disbelieve her than to risk ruining some innocent fellow's life.

And men are the ones with money, social status, and something to lose, so they are the real stakeholders in any rape case.

Rape is horrifying and messy, and sometimes it's easier to disbelieve that it happens at all. But that option isn't open to victims of rape and sexual assault.

Denying rape means believing that victims are lying. It means denying their humanity and worth. And it's a denial that has been made far too easy by thousands of years of habit.

Correction: An inaccurate reference to how ancient Rome treated rape was deleted. (The crime called raptus did indeed refer to kidnapping, but rape as we understand it today could have been prosecuted as a crime against the woman using other ancient Roman statutes.)

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