Some questions, and answers, on James Deen and believing rape allegations

Last week, I wrote a column for the New York Observer on the rape accusations against porn star James Deen, arguing that while the legal presumption of innocence may not apply in the court of public opinion — and the media — even a conviction in the latter should require more than “Believe the [alleged] victims.” While multiple accusations against the same person are often extremely strong proof of guilt, they could also be the result of a “bandwagon effect” when the first accusation is widely publicized and there are strong social incentives to back it. I also pointed out that in this case specifically, there are facts that should be possible to check, since some of Deen’s alleged offenses took place in public, during film shoots.

My friend-with-whom-I-disagree-about-everything (well, not quite everything…) Barry Deutsch has raised some questions on Twitter which I am answering here.

Proving that an accusation is definitely false is extremely difficult. Last year, for instance, Oxford Debating Union president Ben Sullivan was arrested on charges of raping one woman and attempting to rape another, but was ultimately cleared in both cases (he claimed everything that happened was consensual).  But do we know for a fact that these accusations were false? No, of course not.

Nonetheless, I know of at least one case, in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, in which it’s fairly certain that one false accusation was the result of another. I would also say that in the Paul Nungesser saga at Columbia University (the man accused of sexual assault by “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz and by two other women and one man), there is all but incontrovertible evidence that at least the last accusation, from the male student identified only as “Adam,” was a confabulation motivated by the desire to support Sulkowicz (the internal Columbia report on the case doesn’t come out and say so but strongly hints at such a conclusion).

And not quite the same, but in a tragic case 15 years ago, six girls and a boy conspired to accuse a teacher of sexual abuse, leading to his suicide.

Also, I could turn Barry’s question on its head: Are there any known cases in which multiple accusations made entirely in the social media and the news media, with no criminal or legal action, were shown to be true?

Barry further asks:

Actually, I thought it was interesting that the one story for which there was corroborating evidence was also one where Deen’s alleged behavior falls short of rape or sexual assault (as Buzzfeed concedes, for instance), but was more along the lines of boundary-pushing and deliberately provoking. I was alluding to that when I wrote:

Is he a predator, or a man who likes pushing women’s boundaries in ways that may be upsetting but not criminal?

Also from Barry:

On the first point: I’m not sure if Barry and others are aware that Amber Rayne appears not to regard her experience with Deen as sexual assault.

See also this exchange with a writer in which Rayne reiterates that she does not consider herself one of Deen’s victims and sees the incident as one in which things got “unnecessarily rough” due to his lack of control and maturity.

As for the second point, no one should be forced to hire Deen or anyone else. If he routinely engages in behavior that is not criminal but upsets his fellow performers, he should not be hired. If I ran a company (in whatever line of business) and one of my employees was accused of raping another, or raping anyone for that matter, I would most definitely suspend that employee pending an investigation. The entire point of my piece was that there needs to be an investigation — if not by legal authorities, then by the media.

Which leads me to Barry’s final tweet on the subject:

And this is where I remember why Barry and I disagree on almost everything except the awesomeness of Firefly and Farscape. 😉

Well, not everything. I think it’s good that the Tumblr post in question makes the point that “I believe women” is a profoundly sexist statement that excludes male victims (and, in some cases, sides with female perpetrators!). But I’m afraid the author’s suggestion to replace it with “I believe survivors” (i.e. any self-proclaimed survivor) is only a slight improvement.

And this is what really left me speechless:

I don’t believe Stoya because she’s a woman, I believe her because as a general principle it’s awful to play detective on rape claims and it’s good to listen and offer support.

Ex…cuse me?

It’s awful to play detective on rape claims?

Well, yes, if someone close to you (spouse/partner, family member, good friend) says she or he has been raped, of course you should listen and often support and not ask for proof. The same applies if you’re a therapist and the person reporting a rape is your client, or if you’re a counselor at a rape crisis center or a member of a support group for rape victims. (I don’t think you’re obligated to shut down all doubts if the person’s story sounds dubious — you’re not doing them any favors if you support them in a fabrication or delusion — but “playing detective”really would be rather awful.)

But rape is a crime. Crimes are investigated by actual detectives. If a crime has been reported only to the media, not to the authorities, then it absolutely is the media’s duty to “play detective” before reporting any conclusions. As for the general public, it should be able to rely on the media to “play detective” when reporting such a story.

So far, that hasn’t happened with the James Deen story.

I still have no idea what really happened between James Deen and Stoya, or between James Deen and his other accusers. But in the days since my Observer article came out, I have seen some fascinating new information that, while publicly available, seems to have flown completely under the media’s radar.

Stay tuned.



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