131107-D-VO565-021Recently Bill Cosby has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Multiple women (19 at this point) have come forward and accused him of drugging them, assaulting them, or even raping them. The media have been in a frenzy over the accusations. This has led to what can only be described as a horrific debate in our society. Should we believe Bill Cosby, who has denied the accusations? Or should we believe the women who have accused him?

The reason this debate is so horrific is because many people, when they hear accusations of rape, immediately rush to the defense of the accused and suggest that the accuser might be making it all up. This is especially true when beloved celebrities are accused of rape. We find it hard to believe that Bill Cosby, America’s wise-cracking, sweater-wearing dad, could be capable of such terrible crimes. We have idolized an imaginary figure (Cosby’s public persona) and have conflated it with the real person, who is very human and thus capable of evil. Such is the nature of celebrity culture in America. Perhaps I’ll write more on that in a future blog.

The issue that presently concerns me is how our society places an impossible burden of proof on victims of sexual assault. If a lone victim comes forward, we doubt her[1] credibility. After all, if the accused man was really a rapist, wouldn’t there be more victims coming forward? But if multiple women come forward they don’t fare any better. Numerous alternative explanations are offered for the rape accusations. Maybe the sex was consensual but she had regrets afterward. Maybe they had a romantic relationship that soured, and now she’s seeking revenge. Maybe she’s trying to get attention and win her 15 seconds of fame. Maybe she’s after money. Of course, no logical reason is given for why multiple women would all accuse the same man of doing the same thing to them.[2]

Even if women come forward at the time of the assault, they are often doubted. They don’t earn fame and fortune. They earn shame and scorn. They’re accused of being sluts, attention whores, vindictive ex-lovers bent on revenge. This is why many victims of assault and abuse do not come forward. And then, in a cruel twist of irony, if they do find the courage to come forward years after the assault, we raise an incredulous eyebrow and ask, “If this really happened, why didn’t she say something at the time?”

This is the impossible burden of proof our society places on victims of sexual assault and abuse. Many times no evidence offered by the victim is enough to convince us that a rape occurred. There’s always a preferred alternative explanation. The very nature of sexual assault makes it a private affair. No witnesses are available to corroborate the victim’s story except for the abuser, and he’s certainly not going to incriminate himself. In fact, he has likely arranged the situation in such a way that no one is able or willing to support the victim. He has isolated her so that if she does come forward, she will receive the response our society is all too willing to give: blame the victim.

Contrast this with the approach that God commanded the Israelites to take when dealing with accusations of rape:[3]

But if out in the country a man happens to meet a girl pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the girl; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders his neighbor, for the man found the girl out in the country, and though the betrothed girl screamed, there was no one to rescue her. (Deut. 22:25-27)

What is significant here is that the accused rapist was to be found guilty and even sentenced to death based only on the testimony of his lone accuser. Normally a person facing the death penalty had to be convicted by at least two witnesses (see Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15).

The principle is exceedingly clear: when a woman says she has been raped, believe her. Rather than resorting to increasingly implausible alternative scenarios that let the rapist off the hook while leaving his victim doubly traumatized (first by him, and then by society), take her accusation seriously.

Now, I know that someone is going to raise the issue of “innocent until proven guilty,” a cornerstone of our legal system. I am not repudiating that principle here. Our legal system works much differently than ancient Israel’s, and we have methods of evidence and investigation that were unavailable to them. I am not suggesting that we should rush to judgment in the other extreme. But I am saying that we, especially as Christians, should listen seriously when a woman says she has been raped and apply a reasonable standard of proof instead of an impossible one.

A study conducted by David Lisak on an American university campus found that over a ten-year period only 8 out of 136 cases of reported sexual assault were false. That’s 5.9%. Overall they estimate that only 2% to 10% of sexual assault accusations are false. That means when a woman says she has been raped, it’s very unlikely that she’s making it up and very likely that she’s telling the truth. Yet our society responds in just the opposite way. We act as though it’s likelier that she’s lying than telling the truth.

This data is especially troubling when we consider how many sexual assaults go unreported. If we were to compare the number of false accusations with the number of actual assaults, it would be an even tinier percentage. False accusations of sexual assault are indeed a problem, but they are not nearly as widespread as the epidemic of sexual assault that plagues our society. We need to stop acting as though false accusations are a bigger problem than rape itself.

As Christians who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must take a stand with the oppressed and downtrodden. That includes the victims of rape and sexual assault. No more victim blaming and shaming. No more defending the abuser. While we should never rush to judgment, we should rush to the aid of victims who come forward with stories of abuse. Listen to them. Believe them. Take a stand with them. Maybe we can begin to change the stigma that our society places on victims of sexual assault and remove the impossible burden of proof from their shoulders.

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3, 4)




[1] I realize that not all victims of sexual assault are female, and not all perpetrators are male. However, that is the situation in many cases, including this one, so for simplicity’s sake I refer to victims as female and abusers as male.

[2] Cosby’s accusers all have remarkably similar stories, despite the fact that they have come forward individually. One would have to believe that there is a massive conspiracy to destroy Cosby, and that all of these women have colluded together to get their stories straight. Such a belief defies logic and common sense.

[3] The Old Testament’s teachings on rape are sometimes misunderstood and thus vilified, but notice here that even compared to our modern society this standard of proof is exceedingly progressive.