Lying Until Proven Truthful
CW: Discussions of Sexual Assault.

Whenever a public figure is accused of sexual assault or alleges that another public figure has sexually assaulted them, websites and forums and everything else under the sun will inevitably be flooded by some derivation of: “I thought people were innocent until proven guilty in this country!” Leaving aside the long and sordid history of coerced confessions, tampered evidence, bogus testimony, political witch-hunts, and so on—the sort of history that should make anyone who utters that sentence take a step back and think, “wait, hold on, maybe nobody in power has ever actually believed that”— this complaint barely makes sense. And, for reasons known only to God, it’s an especially prominent statement in sexual assault cases [1].

Presumption of innocence is, obviously enough, a necessary prerequisite for civilization that is going to be the least bit tolerable. Even if we abolished the State today and criminal law went the way of the dodo, retributive punishment would still likely be practiced by organizations with enough power and pent-up rage to deploy force against whoever it is that don’t particularly like that day. Even restitutive and transformative approaches to justice require the kind of mutual understanding that simply can’t exist alongside baseless accusations. People do deserve to be treated as innocent until guilt can be established. And, obviously enough, being guilty of something—even something particularly heinous—doesn’t mean that now the gloves can come off, so to speak. 

But there so frequently seems to be this additional assumption, trailing along like a disease-ridden tail, that believing a person is innocent until proven guilty also means believing that the accuser must be lying, maliciously attempting to destroy the other person’s life because of jealousy or personal vendetta or any number of possible grievances. Automatically believing that the accuser is lying is a completely nonsensical position to take, however, as it completely contradicts the spirit and intent of presuming innocence in the first place.

If you take the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” seriously, and especially if you believe that mob-rule can quickly make any “trial by media” as hazardous to a person’s well-being as an actual trial, then consistency requires you to assume that the person making the accusation is also innocent of any charges against their character: including that of being a malicious liar out to destroy lives. Demanding that one person receives the benefit of the doubt and protection from a public mauling does not, and cannot, then be taken as prima facie permission to level all manners of accusations at someone else, or to hound this person with the kind of harassment you think the accused is being subjected to. If you think people are innocent until proven guilty and that it’s a good thing to assume this, then this applies to everyone and against everything—whether its accusations of sexual assault or accusations of willingly making “false accusations.”

Protecting Against Harm and Abuse

The reason you’re required to also treat an accuser as being truthful and sincere, if you want to be consistent with this principle, is this: The point of the principle, and the reason why it’s important, is because it protects people from abuse and harm as justice is carried out. It recognizes that in any situation where someone is alleged to have violated a norm, any attack against a person’s character can damage their relationships with broader society. Though cutting ties with problematic people is necessary for self-defense purposes (at least if restitutive and transformative options aren’t available), it obviously comes with enormous psychological and physical costs. Inflicting even indirect harm on people is not something that should be done lightly. 

But accusers are just as much people as the accused; they’re not excluded from the importance of being protected from harm simply because they stepped forward and made an accusation. And being accused of lying—of purposefully trying to deceive others for personal gain or to destroy another person’s reputation—is an accusation of violating important norms as much as anything else. A person on the receiving end of this sort of accusation can be painfully cut off from their social networks too, given that they’ve now been painted as being inherently conniving. You’re not striking out in defense of someone by painting the accuser in a bad light: you’re only accusing them of committing a crime and refusing to let them put up a reasonable defense.

This is, in fact, why feminists pushed so hard for rape shield laws in the first place: something you can read more about through the writings and tireless advocacy of organizations like the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). Real harm is being done when a person’s claims are not only summarily dismissed, but judges and juries can’t even conceive of certain people ever being victims, regardless of evidence, because of assumptions about their character. 

Some of the tactics rape shield laws are meant to defend against include defense lawyers attempting to portray victims as being sexually promiscuous; so that juries would assume that any sexual activity that took place had to be consensual, on some level, and that accusations against their client could only be about revenge or money or attention [2]. Trying to paint those who speak out about sexual assault as being inherently distrustful has a truly chilling effect not just on their relationships more broadly, but on society’s ability to see them as being worthy of justice. The damage wouldn’t be limited to just networking opportunities, careers, or the prospects of starting a family or friendship; anyone who is seen as unworthy of justice become vulnerable to all sorts of abusers, users, tyrants, and torturers, for as long as they’re excluded from the moral community (for more on the problem of letting disgust guide moral actions, see Martha Nussbaum’s excellent book Hiding from Humanity). People might try to shrug off the damage done to those accused of being liars by saying that the harm they face pales in comparison to the harm felt by someone falsely accused of sexual assault, but that’s simply not true. Preventing someone from being seen as worthy of justice is at the heart of some of the worst evils unleashed by the human race. 

So, if you believe that people ought to be protected from accusations that damage their relationship with others—at least until there’s enough evidence for people to be justified in cutting someone out of their network—then this has to apply to people who say they’re victims of sexual assault just as much as those who are alleged to have perpetrated the assault. To do otherwise is to be acting in a woefully (and harmfully) inconsistent manner. 

Women, Accusations of Lying, and What to do Moving Forward

Now I’ve been using gender-neutral language here, but as just about anyone can tell you after spending more than five minutes online, this sort of discourse happens whenever a woman accuses a man of sexual assault. Indeed a core component of the MRA playbook is to paint women as inherently being lying, untrustworthy hags in order to make it seem like there’s a society-wide conspiracy to see men thrown in jail [3]. And quite a lot of anti-feminists who don’t openly identify as an MRA seem to take a similar line, where even if it there isn’t a conspiracy to imprison men, a woman coming forward with an accusation is just an “attention seeker.” So perhaps the notion that the presumption of innocence entails assuming the (mostly female) accuser is lying through her teeth is just the product of a deeply reactionary mind. If you hate women who don’t conform to a very limited and very repressed mold, or if you jerk your knee hard to the right whenever something vaguely smelling of “feminism” pops up, then I suppose you shouldn’t be expected to have any nuanced ideas about justice. Given that people show their ass on this and accuse women of being inherent liars even when someone doesn’t specify any names [4], I think there’s some truth to this. 

But I don’t think everyone that makes this unjustified leap is fully reactionary. I think people genuinely assume that the presumption of innocence only applies to people accused of sexual assault and not the accusers themselves, mostly because they’re not sure what else they’re supposed to do except take sides. 

So how are we supposed to act when someone accuses someone else of sexual misconduct, then? I don’t exactly know, because trying to talk about accusations in the abstract is incredibly difficult. In the abstract, it’d be proper to not take sides by believing both sides, since believing both sides is the best way to limit harm. It can be done—it’s not cognitive dissonance—because you, being separated from the context where everything is happening, don’t have the evidence or the necessary interpretive resources to fully understand what’s happening. You are, at this point, a bystander. And so it’s best, then, to let the parties involved sort things out on their own and take in whatever information comes your way; you should keep an open mind, of course, since that’s both what justice requires and, practically, an essential means of ensuring that you don’t become numb to new facts. And attempts shouldn’t be made to sever either party from their social networks until evidence can be released and understood by all, which is most assuredly not an easy or quick task.

But that’s the ideal world. In the real world, things move quickly, brands have to be protected, and reputations already exist. And importantly, the institutions that are supposed to solve these conflicts are universally awful at it, whether it’s the judiciary or human resource departments in corporations or what-have-you. Gender biases already stack the deck against the victims, with stereotypes of men suggesting that they either love sex no matter what or are too strong to be taken advantage of, women suffering from the malicious stereotypes and Catch-22’s noted above, and non-binary people being seen as too much of an Other to warrant having protections against harassment in the first place. But the people who are expected to run these institutions—judges, legal experts, human resource managers, etc—are, thanks to the social capital necessary to reach these positions and the psychological effects of being in a position of power, also the individuals who are most likely to violate the very norms these institutions are supposed to protect. Or, if nothing else, the heads of these institutions are likely to have close networking ties with predatory actors, and so conflicts of interest are just a regular part of the day-to-day business of the courts and HR departments. It’s like any other form of regulatory capture, and the prospects of seeing justice win the day drop drastically because of it.  

Usually, the accuser doesn’t just name names and then put it out into the public sphere; usually there’s some explanation of what happened and why they felt the need to publicly come forward. And what’s oftentimes overlooked is that, frequently, these sorts of things don’t come out of the blue to land in the laps of random men; more often than not, there’s been some sort of hush-hush history of sexual maleficence and a long paper trail of complaints about HR or the police mishandling their investigations. We know from countless studies—too many to list here—that despite biases against victims, false-accusations are vanishingly rare, too. But things need to be as certain as possible before the gavel of justice comes down, and of course, if a woman’s sexual history is (rightfully) irrelevant to whether or not she consented to a sexual act today, it’s also true that past rumors about a man are irrelevant to whether or not he’s guilty in a sexual assault case today.  

Given that judgment can’t be made without information, there’s also the question of how to best distribute information. Privacy is protective to the innocent to be sure, but that’s true for abusers as well—and we care about the presumption of innocence because we care about justice, which means stopping abuse and combating it where it exists. The first step in accomplishing this is making sure that abuse comes to light, so that people can respond and the victim can be aided. Is it wrong, then, given the problems with institutions entrusted to uphold justice, for something like a magazine to publish the testimony of an accuser? Or for you to retweet someone who makes an accusation over Twitter? People are entitled to cut problematic individuals out of their life for their own safety as well, and even if this isn’t a decision that ought to be made lightly or without reason, having information about someone that might incentive you to protect yourself and leave their presence is both good and desirable—the presumption of innocence, again, doesn’t entail that you have to stick with abusive and nasty people. If anything, the presumption of innocence only makes sense if the end-goal is making sure social networks are free from abusive and nasty people. But again, the risks possibly alienating an innocent person are very real, and since world travels so fast in the internet age, permanent damage to relationships are likely to spread across a social network before retractions can be made and apologies handed out. 

So what do we do in a more realistic, messy world? I don’t know. It’s messy and complicated and other people ought to weigh in on it. Particularly people who are survivors of sexual assault, which underscores the importance of not branding those who come forward with accusations of sexual assault as being inherent liars and manipulative harlots. In any conversation about how society should navigate the incredibly tricky waters called “justice,” the voices of survivors will be invaluable for learning and adjusting course, but if even an honest confession from the guilty isn’t enough to convince some people that a survivor of sexual assault really was sexually assaulted, then their voice will inevitably be excluded, making justice less effective for it. 

To that end, sexual assault survivor networks and organizations—local ones as well as national ones, like the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)—are invaluable, and necessary for including survivors in these conversations. 

Above all, though, it’s neither messy nor complicated is to realize that assuming an accuser is lying, and is maliciously attempting to destroy someone else’s life, is assuming that the accuser is guilty of a crime without evidence. Every risk highlighted above applies to accusing someone coming forward with information about abuse they’ve suffered. Their innocence, in light of damaging accusations, must be protected too. If you care about the presumption of innocence as an ethical principle, then you have to care about giving accusers the benefit of the doubt too.

So if we’re going to try to find a way to meet justice despite all the open questions and complexities in cases like sexual assault, ignoring our ethical obligations to those coming forward about abuse is the furthest thing from a reasonable, or effective, solution.



[1] A big thanks to Sarah Strange for helping me articulate a number of these points, and for checking to make sure I actually included some references to women authors in a piece about an injustice that women are subjected to. 

[2] See R. v. Darrach [2000] 2 S.C.R. 443, which, after a lengthy consultation process and a previous ruling (R. v. Seaboyer [1991] 2. S.C.R. 577), upheld a modified version of Canada’s rape-shield laws. The Court’s ruling in R. v. Seaboyer wasn’t that defense lawyers ought to be allowed to include the sexual history of the accuser tout court (indeed, then-puisne justice McLachlin specifically rejected this interpretation) but that the scope of the amendments to the Criminal Code were too broad. A more specific set of amendments were upheld as constitutional in the later-argued R. v. Darrach case.

[3] Reading some of the old “I’m not a feminist — I’m an egalitarian!” discourse is painful on a similar level to having a nail slowly hammered into your femur; not the least because these same people, when class-based issues became more salient, usually ended up spouting nonsense about how minimum wage employees should be thankful they aren’t just rounded up and shot. How much I’m exaggerating on this point is best left to the internet historians.

[4] Frequently women are then also told that, if they were serious with their accusations, then they’d name names. Joseph Heller couldn’t find a better Catch-22 if he’d cut old anti-suffragette propaganda into a line and snorted it.

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