Just Because Sexual Assault Is Bad, Doesn’t Mean You Have To Stop Thinking

uva-vandalism

The modern media does not report news – it reports hysteria. That’s why so much of current news is dedicated to acquaintance rape. If a person is robbed, murdered, or assaulted by a stranger, there is often mountains of physical evidence. The media could report the crimes, but there isn’t a lot else to say. Viewers know that bad things happen to people every day.

But acquaintance rape is much juicier, because while it may be a horrific crime, it may also just be made up or embellished. The cases often boil down to a he-said, she-said situation – which is incredibly unfortunate for justice but a boon for media. The 24/7 news cycle cannot survive on actual news. It needs controversy – and what is more controversial than one person claiming a terrible crime took place while another says it was just drunken sex.

However, sexual assault is such a sensitive and charged topic that anything but complete deference to the accuser brings accusations of “rape culture.” The threat of such backlash has pushed the media into being entirely “pro-accuser.” This automatic belief of accusers without question made the media looking foolish this week. A legal fund is being launched by a man seeking to clear his name from charges in Lena Dunham’s book, while Rolling Stone is apologizing for its Campus Rape piece, and then re-apologizing some more.

The Dunham charges always seemed a little too perfect –  she was allegedly sexu1 (2)ally assaulted by a mustachioed campus Republican in purple cowboy boots with a voice like Barry White. Dunham does have a knack for creativity, which may bite her in her frequently naked ass as no one has been able to find evidence that such a person ever existed at Oberlin. Even though most Oberlin students were probably high throughout college and can’t remember any of the books they were assigned, a mustachioed man with purple cowboy boots is something most people like to think they’d remember.

The only shocking part about the Rolling Stone article is that anyone believed it was true in the first place. The protagonist Jackie’s story was essentially that she: went to a date party at a UVA frat with a fellow lifeguard; was led up a staircase by her date where she was thrown into a glass table; was raped by seven fraternity brothers on the broken glass as a pledging event; and then was violated with a beer bottle. Jackie also recounted a separate incident when a glass bottle was thrown at her face and shattered simply because she had spoken about sexual assault earlier – though she did not require medical care for this assault either due to her Wolverine-like healing ability.

The most unbelievable aspect of the story was that after Jackie emerges from this tortuous ordeal that seems more in line with a SAW horror movie than a fraternity date party, her friends urge her to keep her gangrape quiet because “they will no longer be allowed at frat parties” – and then where will they get free jungle juice with a side of gang rape on broken glass?

“She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again” – words published in Rolling Stone without interviewing anyone to corroborate the tale.

To no one with an open mind’s surprise, it turned out that little to none of Jackie’s account is true. There was no date party that night. There were no pledges that time of year. There was no life guard in the frat. No friends said those things. There wasn’t even a staircase. It’s as if the entire story was taking place inside the mind of an autistic kid holding a snow globe.

While it’s obviously a problem that Rolling Stone did no fact checking on the article, it’s also a problem that we’ve lost all common sense when it comes to rape allegations. Fraternities may do terrible things, but they are made up of normal guys. They aren’t ISIS. If you have a group of 50 guys, at least one of them is going to say “Hey maybe we should stop this pledging ritual where we gang rape random women in Tommy’s room – you know, since it creates mountains of physical evidence for a violent felony?”

But the media has lost all restraint when it comes to rape allegations. Perhaps the most irresponsible paragraph published  this week comes from Deadspin. Writing about Jameis Winston, a Heisman trophy winner who was investigate for sexual assault until his accuser stopped cooperating, the “journalist”  IronMikeGallego brought statistics to the table:

I don’t know if Jameis Winston is guilty, but the statistics say he almost certainly is. The threshold for the government to take your liberty is proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which legal scholars generally define as about 95% certainty. To take your property, the government (or a private citizen) need only show your guilt by a “preponderance of the evidence,” 50.1% certainty. If there is a 2-8% chance of the accusation against Winston being false, there’s a 92%-98% certainty that it’s true.

It’s depressing the current culture of media publishes not just the glaring misuse of statistics, but in a context alleging they prove a man should be sent to prison. The logic is faulty for a number of reasons.

First, using such naked statistical evidence to prove a case in the method suggested by the author is not allowed by the courts (for reasons discussed below). The so called blue bus hypothetical addresses this point in the clearest manner by supposing a victim is a struck by a blue bus with an unidentified owner. The hypothetical then asks if the victim shows only that 80% of blue buses in the city are owned by Company X, has the victim met their burden by showing it was more likely than not that Company X is responsible for their injuries? Courts have decided that the answer is no.

One can clearly see why courts think using statistics in this manner would lead to absurd results. Black people commit around 52.5% of homicides in the U.S. each year. Could a white defendant then argue that they are surely innocent, as the statistical evidence shows that it could not have been them beyond a reasonable doubt because the murder “statistically more than likely was committed by a black perpetrator?” Everyone should agree this is an absurd argument, but it is essentially the same logic the Deadspin article is using in a serious manner.

The Deadspin author is applying a blanket statistic from an entire pool of data to a very narrow set of circumstances. It’s the equivalent of saying, “90% of the people living at the Playboy Mansion are gorgeous women, so since Hugh Hefner lives at the Playboy Mansion, it’s more likely than not he’s a gorgeous woman.” The statement is ridiculous because we have more information that renders the general statistic moot. We know that Hugh Hefner is a decrepit old man who somehow seems both sweet and disgusting at the same time.

hugh-hefner-bunnies

The same applies to Jameis Winston. The statistic that only 2-8% of rape allegations are false includes all types of rape allegations – cases with DNA evidence, cases caught on video, and cases where the defendant admits to the crime. We know Winston doesn’t fit into any of these buckets. He is a high profile target, there is a phone record of the girl voluntarily leaving with him,  the alleged victim stopped cooperating, and eye witnesses have testified on Winston’s behalf. For a journalist to then lump him in with the 2-8% general statistic is logically more incorrect than if a CSI David Caruso-like detective walked into every crime scene, took off his sunglasses, and shouted “Statistically it was probably a black guy!”

But perhaps most importantly, even the 2-8% statistic for false rapes itself is flawed. As Bloomberg puts it:

The 2 percent number is very bad and should never be cited. It apparently traces its lineage back to Susan Brownmiller’s legendary “Against Our Will,” and her citation for this figure is a single speech by an appellate judge before a small group of lawyers. His source for this statistic was a single area of New York that started having policewomen conduct all rape interviews. This is not data. It is an anecdote about an anecdote.

In fact, none of the statistics are very good because of the inherent difficulty in proving and disproving a crime that in the majority of case is one person’s word against another’s. But none of that will stop bloggers like IronMikeGallego from citing statistics they sincerely hope to be true. I suspect if confronted about his bizarre ineptitude with statistics, IronMikeGallego would argue that he never meant to say the stats proved Winston was guilty, he was just posing a question when he wrote “If there is a 2-8% chance of the accusation against Winston being false, there’s a 92%-98% certainty that it’s true.”

But that is still irresponsible. It’s about as valid a hypothetical as stating, “If there is a 91% chance IronMikeGallego is a holocaust denier who invented checked-bag fees and is responsible for all the non-functioning hand dryers in public bathrooms, then he probably shouldn’t ever be printed in Deadspin ever again.”

Although at least with that outlandish hypothetical, the second half is true.

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