Science Says: Believe Women

Here's what the politicians and pundits are saying about Christine Blasey Ford's allegations—and what the research can tell us about the truth of their claims.
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In protest against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, activists chant slogans outside the office of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on September 20th, 2018, at Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In protest against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, activists chant slogans outside the office of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on September 20th, 2018, at Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In the week since psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford went public with sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, politicians have demanded to hear the truth. With Ford (who goes by Dr. Blasey professionally) prepared to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee sometime next week, according to the New York Times, senators' questioning could offer a chance to settle the record. But in the conversation around Ford's accusation, many people have repeated well-worn myths about sexual assault.

Here's what the research can tell us about the truth behind these myths.

False Rape Accusations Are Rare

Despite persistent myths, research shows few rape allegations are false. Moreover, decades of crime data prove the majority of incidents of sexual assault go unreported. President Donald Trump disputed this widely established fact in a tweet on Friday:

In reality, as few as 23 percent of incidents of rape and sexual assault were reported to the police in 2017, according to the the National Crime Victimization Survey—making it the least likely crime to be reported out of every kind tracked, a FiveThirtyEight analysis found. Because of underreporting, studies have found that NCVS data and other federal surveys likely leave out millions of incidents. Many survivors fear retaliation or believe the police can do little to help; research has also confirmed a powerful stigma.

Difficulty Recalling Details Is Normal

Edward Whelan, the president of the conservative think tank Ethics and Public Policy Center, took a different theory to Twitter this week, suggesting that Ford could have mistaken the identity of her attacker. In response, Ford said there was "zero chance" she would have confused the two men, whom she knew and had socialized with before, the New York Times reports. While victims of sexual assault often experience post-traumatic stress disorder or difficultly recalling details in an interrogation, this is considered a normal response to fear—not evidence of a lie. As Pacific Standard reported in 2016:

Terror kicks the memory encoding region of our brain into hyperdrive, giving victims vivid memories of certain components of their environment when fear sets in—like the smell of their attacker's cologne, or the song on the radio. But while some of the memories may be vivid, they also might not be linear, and the fragmented and inconsistent memories that traumatized victims have of events can lead officers to question whether or not they are telling the truth.

Additionally, research has long dispelled the myth of the unknown attacker: In 2017, about two-thirds of rape survivors were in an intimate relationship with their attacker, and 39 percent considered their attacker an acquaintance, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Polygraphs Are Inaccurate Across the Board

Perhaps because of this myth's persistence, Ford's lawyer advised her to take a polygraph test, which she passed. Democrats are now calling for Kavanaugh to do the same. As Kate Wheeling wrote for Pacific Standard, this is "a measure rarely deployed against victims of any other type of crime." Nor is it a reliable method of uncovering the truth—although not in the way some of Ford's detractors have implied. Fox News published a pointed piece quoting "experts" who claim polygraphs do not detect lies from "sociopaths, psychopaths and committed liars lacking a 'conscience.'" Instead, research shows polygraphs produce inaccurate results across the board; non-psychopaths can fool them, and truth-telling people can fail them. As the American Psychological Association says on its website:

The accuracy (i.e., validity) of polygraph testing has long been controversial. An underlying problem is theoretical: There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.

While research shows most survivors do not lie, their assault will often go unreported, or, worse, disbelieved. Many have drawn parallels between law professor Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, which were similarly questioned. Despite the growing scientific evidence, history repeats itself.

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