Trigger warnings – rape
A deliberate attack on your reputation from a false accusation of abuse is a terrible thing to have to deal with. I’m not speaking hypothetically here, I’ve experienced it. Alongside this, I see routinely in mainstream culture the idea that an attack on a man’s reputation is as bad, if not worse than an attack on a woman’s body. We don’t take people seriously when they claim to be abused – especially women and children – because they might be making it up as a way of attacking someone – usually a famous and powerful man. The people with the most scope, power and opportunity to abuse are the ones whose ‘reputation damage’ is often taken most seriously. It may be more about power than gender in essence, but power and masculinity still align more often than not.
Reputation damage hurts. There will always be people who want to believe the worst of you, and people with axes to grind who take it as an opportunity. Which you may or may not deserve. A reputation can be a key thing not only in terms of your personal relationships, but your professional life. Your job, your scope to pay the bills, your place in society may all hang on your reputation, and a loss of reputation can have a very high price tag.
I’ve seen two guys who were friends of mine deal with rape accusations. One was proved innocent because physical evidence taken at the time in no way matched the accusations. He went through a great deal of stress and anxiety, followed by relief and getting over it. Another friend dealt with accusations that were directed towards his work life, and not to the police. I saw him sickened and distraught, and it cost him dearly, and he survived. I suspect it has changed his behaviour in some ways, but it certainly didn’t ruin his life or damage any of his closest relationships. False accusations happen, and they certainly do cause a lot of pain and misery. I know far more people who have been raped and assaulted than I know people who have had to fend off a false accusation.
I’ve spent time with a lot of women who have experienced rape and assault. I was there one morning when another woman came in covered in bruises from the night before. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories. Most rapes do not involve strangers with weapons, they involve someone you trusted enough to let get close. Friends. Partners, Husbands. Rarely first dates, but sometimes that. It’s not just the physical assault that does damage, but the absolute betrayal of trust. Some victims will never get over what happened to them. Some victims will die, because assaults of all kinds can prove fatal.
Assaults on reputation tend not to prove fatal.
Knowing perfectly well that false accusations happen, and are damaging, I still believe firmly that the default response to an accusation of any kind of abuse, is to listen and take it seriously. As individuals, we are not equipped to deal with these kinds of accusations, what we need to do is actively support victims and get the police involved, and get it investigated. Most rape allegations don’t result in court cases because unless the physical evidence is collected quickly, it is just one person’s word against another, and impossible to prove the way our courts work. But, police involvement can persuade someone that what they did is rape, and wasn’t ok, and isn’t a good idea. It can persuade them they may not get away with it next time. If a person stacks up enough rape allegations, the odds increase of it being taken seriously. The same is true with other kinds of assault as well.
The really problematic false accusations are not the ones made against powerful men, but the ones used to keep victims under the thumb. My go-to example here is the man shouting ‘you’re abusing me’ while breaking his partner’s bones. A short version of a true story. I’ve witnessed this done – where a bully attacks a victim and then plays the victim and draws people around into supporting them. As a quiet witness to one of these I was able to put the lie to it, but many bullies are cleverer than that, and don’t make their methods quite so obvious.
It is better to take allegations of bullying and physical assault seriously than to ignore them. It is better that someone take reputation damage than that bullying and assault go unchecked. It is as well to look closely, because in situations of abuse you can be sure someone will be lying, and it isn’t always obvious as to who. Most often, victims are frightened and seeking safety, whereas people making false accusations will present demands and seek revenge.
I’m still dealing now and then with the fallout from being accused of bullying. At the time, I did not put in a lot of work defending my reputation. I spent a lot of time pointing out how important it is to take bullying accusations seriously and not just sweep it under the carpet and pretend everything is fine. It was a strange, and deeply ironic situation to be in. I don’t regret my choices. Having experienced both abuse, and reputation damage, I can say with confidence that abuse is life destroying, whereas reputation damage is unpleasant, and that risk of damage to reputation should not be the priority issue, ever.