One of my early forays into talking about sexual violence publicly did not go very well. My heart was in the right place. I wanted to engage more men in conversations about sexual violence prevention and response. Instead, I started with the topic of false accusation.
So I made a nice, pretty little graphic: The Truth About False Accusation. It compares the likelihood of being falsely accused of sexual assault with the likelihood of going to jail if you actually rape someone. In my mind, at the time, this was a lighthearted way of pointing out that men are more likely to get away with rape than to be falsely accused. To a non-rapist, this should be great news, right?
I posted the graphic (below) on Tumblr one January evening and went to bed. It was my third post on Tumblr—ever. When I woke up, the graphic had been shared 16,000 times. I picked up the phone and called my brother, who knew more about Tumblr than I did. He informed me this was not the normal course of things online.
The number of shares continued to tick up, and up, and up—and then the media caught wind of it.
The Internet Exploded
If Dylan Matthews from the Washington Post publishes your graphic, the rest of the world assumes you are a data scientist. I am not. My approach was logical, but not scientific.
Overnight, “The Truth About False Accusation” – and yours truly – was equally critiqued by some of the top feminist bloggers and the biggest men’s rights activist threads on Reddit. To date, the graphic has been shared close to a million times, sparking a whole host of unproductive conversations about sexual violence. Here is a sampling of (suitable for work) blog post titles and headlines:
- This Rape Infographic is Going Viral. Too Bad It’s Wrong
- Rape Statistics. The Anatomy of a Lie
- Show this Depressing Graphic to the Rape Apologist in Your Life
Online commentators were really angry, for all sorts of reasons. I was called a feminist—in positive and negative ways. I was called a liar, a manipulator, an advocate, a crazy woman. Some people saw the graphic as proof that women never lie about sexual assault. Some saw it as proof that women use statistics to create rape hysteria. It seemed like every stranger had a different opinion about who I was, why I had made this graphic, and what it meant.
And the worst part: The “Truth About False Accusation” graphic wasn’t being used to start or deepen a productive conversation. It was being used to prove a point and shut further conversation down.
In case you haven’t learned this lesson yet, here’s a key takeaway: False accusation is the third rail of sexual violence conversations. If your goal is sexual violence prevention and response, it’s probably not a great place to start, especially with strangers on the internet.
Listen First. Then Respond.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a viral backlash to an online post or comment, take the expert advice: don’t read the comments. Of course, I didn’t take the expert advice. I read the comments—hiding in my bed, of course, as my husband tried to wrestle the phone out of my hand. It was a dark couple of days. I felt simultaneously sad, overwhelmed, angry, and confused.
At first, I didn’t engage. I gave myself time to calm down. And then I began to experiment with ways of responding to the comments. I did some more blog posts and responded directly to comments. I also reached out to reporters and bloggers directly and reflected on what I was hearing and learning. In some cases, the conversations didn’t go anywhere—the other people either dug deeper into their reactions or took my response as a reason to further attack me. But in many cases, the initial reactions gave way to much more meaningful conversations, and these helped me gain insights into myself and into the strong reactions to the graphic.
On the one hand, the reactions were feedback on the way I had started the conversation with a particularly charged topic—false accusation of rape. I took the feedback to heart, and it led me to the series of interviews I conducted with men to more deeply understand male perspectives on sexual violence. On the other hand, the reactions were not always about me at all. I learned that the concept of a victim not being believed and the concept of an innocent person being accused of—or punished for—a crime they didn’t commit touched on taboo topics that were not frequently discussed. The reaction was a sign of having a lot to say and feel, and not all the words to express it. The unpracticed conversations were there all along, but when I triggered them, the blowback came to me personally.
In an issue as taboo and under-discussed as sexual harassment and violence, we will frequently encounter unpracticed conversations bursting with emotion, whether the conversations take place at home, at work, or online. The emotional reactions vary from person to person and from conversation to conversation. That’s often the point.
In the context of 2020, it’s really, really important to remember that false accusations of rape have, historically, put the lives of black and brown men at risk. It’s easy to wave a flag of righteous injustice (or share a graphic on the internet). It’s uncomfortable to do the work required to support survivors while advocating for a justice system that allows for accountability and healing.
Our collective path forward to a better world is a pathway paved with uncomfortable conversations. If you’ve liked or shared this graphic, please take the next step and start an uncomfortable conversation today. If you don’t know where to start, read my book, Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace, or check out The Uncomfortable Conversation, my nonprofit YouTube channel featuring hundreds of conversations on a range of topics related to sexual harassment and violence.