How to Ruin Someone’s Life


Sexual assault protest at UVM, photo by the Burlington Free Press.

Trigger warning: Sexual assault and misconduct.

A friend recently posed the question to me: “How can you ruin someone’s life in three words or less?” I thought of many options: “that’s MY wife!” “the lion escaped,” you’re the father!” We went back and forth for a while, discussing the merits of each answer until he paused.

“Okay, but hear me out… ‘he raped me.’”

He said it with eyebrows raised, shoulders shrugged up by his ears, hands resting in a pose usually reserved for those “what can ya do?” moments. He said it as if the statement simply was the truth, an undeniable, indisputable fact. Suddenly the jokes lost their humor.

“Well I don’t know if that’s always true,” I offered cautiously.

“Yes it is,” he continued, “once someone accuses a man of rape it completely ruins his life. People can’t unsee that label.”

We live in a world that only recently started giving women validation for their experiences with sexual assault. From the view of a lot of men, these are “scary times:” the words rape and sexual assault are assumed to be new weapons for women, weapons that can and will be used at the drop of a hat against them. Furthermore, there is the belief that this new, credulous society, will believe any story, regardless of fact. Donald Trump perpetuated this fear for many with his 2018 comments during the Kavanaugh hearings, saying, “It’s a very scary time for young men in America… It’s a very scary situation where you’re guilty until proven innocent. My whole life I’ve heard you’re innocent until proven guilty, but now you’re guilty until proven innocent. That is a very, very difficult standard.”

So whose fear should we pay more attention to? Is being falsely accused of rape a reasonable concern? 

The answer can be found in statistics. One in five American women will be raped in their lifetime, comprising 91 percent of rape victims. A post by the Minnesota Law Review titled, “Men Fear False Allegations. Women Fear Sexual Misconduct, Assault, and Rape,” reports that “an estimated two to eight percent of sexual assaults or rapes are falsely reported, this number only affects the number of reported rapes; therefore, the amount of false reports in comparison to the total number of sexual assaults and rapes is likely closer to .002 to .008%.” 

False rape allegations are then about as likely as your chances of being born with more than 10 fingers or toes at a rate of 1 in 500. A woman’s chance of being raped in her lifetime is 1 in 5. A woman’s fear of being raped is then, statistically, more substantial than a man’s fear of a false accusation.

Trump’s comments, that men are guilty until proven innocent, also don’t hold up against recent statistics. Out of every 1,000 reported sexual assaults, 46 will lead to arrest (.046%), 9 will be referred to prosecutors (.009%), 5 will lead to a felony conviction (.005%), and 4.6 will lead to incarceration (.0046%). Men aren’t guilty until proven innocent; they’re guilty and still proven innocent. 

If a true and honest report of rape is unlikely to be proven or taken seriously, how can we reasonably expect false claims to hold up?

The reality is that the words “he raped me” can ruin two lives, not just one. Opening up about sexual assault comes at a heavy price; many people never do in fear of their identity being watered down to “the victim.” Others choose not to share their trauma because it is too painful to revisit. 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape. 

Many also choose not to share specifically because they believe they won’t be taken seriously. Most statistics estimate about 3/4 of rapes go unreported. There are a variety of reasons, most concerningly, the belief that police will not do anything to help, that police cannot do anything to help, or that the incident was “not important enough” to report. 

Comments, like Trump’s, about men fearing false allegations reinforce this behavior. It guides the discourse of rape and sexual assault away from empowering survivors and seeking justice, instead prompting others to question the character and integrity of the person coming forward. It makes the discourse of rape not taboo, but instead trivialized for the victims. The more we understand and acknowledge this as a problem, the more likely people are to seek support and the more likely it is those prosecuted will be convicted.

“He raped me” is not a smoking gun aimed at all men to shoot them down. To treat it as such is to invalidate the pervasiveness of rape and sexual assault in today’s culture.