The defendant’s attorney voices everyone’s doubts: Her trial testimony should
not be believed. Either she is lying now, or the poor thing’s original perceptions
were mistaken, just the product of illness. Maybe the attorney is right.
This story is hypothetical but not implausible. Women’s stories of sexual vio-
lence are time and again doubted and discredited. False reporting is rare (though
difficult to measure, likely less than 5%), yet many incorrectly believe the preva-
lence of false reporting is much greater.
In one representative survey, almost
10% of respondents went so far as to “believe that in most of these cases nothing
happened” and the accusers are “purposefully lying” or “misremembering or con-
fused about what rises to the level of sexual harassment or assault.”
mental illness only magnifies that disbelief.
Questions of credibility are almost inevitably implicated by allegations of sex-
ual violence. In the prototypical “he said, she said” credibility contest, one story
is pitted against another, and the factfinder must choose the more credible story-
teller. Women tend to lose.
As a high-profile example, comedian Bill Cosby
reportedly told some of his assault victims they would not be believed if they
Though Cosby was eventually convicted of three counts of aggra-
vated indecent assault, it took over fifty years, a hung jury, sixty different wom-
en’s accusations, and Cosby’s own confession to using Quaaludes to “have sex
with young women” before that happened.
1. See Lisa Avalos, The Chilling Effect: The Politics of Charging Rape Complainants with False
Reporting, 83 BROOK. L. REV. 807, 816–17 (2018). Many estimates of false reports include
“unfounded” accusations or those that qualify as some lesser offense, muddying any precise
determination of falsity. Jan Jordan, Beyond Belief? Police, Rape and Women’s Credibility, 4 CRIM.
JUST. 29, 35–36 (2004) (cited in Tuerkheimer, infra note 7, at 17 n.83).
2. Measuring #MeToo: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault, STOP STREET
HARASSMENT 1, 36 (2019), http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/2019-
MeToo-National-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault-Report.pdf [hereinafter Measuring #MeToo].
3. See, e.g., Sandra Newman, What Kind of Person Makes False Rape Accusations?, QUARTZ (May
11, 2017), https://qz.com/980766/the-truth-about-false-rape-accusations/ (referencing mental illness as
a primary motivator of false reports).
4. Women are most often the accusers. About one in five women have been raped during their lives,
while for men the rate is closer to one in seventy-one. Statistics About Sexual Violence, NAT’L SEXUAL
VIOLENCE RES. CTR., https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-
packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf (last visited Jan. 31, 2021) (citing MICHELE C. BLACK ET
AL., NAT’L CTR. FOR INJURY PREVENTION & CONTROL, CTRS. FOR DISEASE CONTROL & PREVENTION,
THE NATIONAL INTIMATE PARTNER AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE SURVEY: 2010 SUMMARY REPORT 1 (2011)).
When including attempted rape, the probability for women jumps up to 46%. See Diana E. H. Russell &
Nancy Howell, The Prevalence of Rape in the United States Revisited, 8 SIGNS 688, 691–92 (1983). A
2019 study found that women are over twice as likely as men to experience verbal sexual harassment
(76% versus 35%) and, likewise, almost twice as likely to report experiencing some form of sexual
harassment and/or assault in their lifetime (81% versus 43%). Measuring #MeToo, supra note 2, at 10.
5. See Noreen Malone, ‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted
by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen, CUT (July 26, 2015, 9:00 PM), https://www.thecut.
6. See Deborah Tuerkheimer, The Deck Is Stacked Against Every Sexual Assault Victim in America.
The Cosby Case Is No Different., SLATE (June 18, 2017, 12:24 PM), https://slate.com/human-interest/
2021] SHE’S CRAZY (TO THINK WE’LL BELIEVE HER) 175