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'Listen and believe' actually hurts rape victims in the long run

It's one thing for activists and support groups to believe everyone that comes to them with a story of rape.

It's their job to offer support, and it's not necessary for them to be incredulous. Could this lead to them getting taken advantage of occasionally? Sure, but for them, it's better to help everyone who seeks assistance than to turn into investigators.

But for the media and police, believing everyone isn't a good idea, and in the long run it can hurt real victims. That's certainly not to say the media and police should automatically distrust those making accusations, but the burden falls on them to investigate and verify (or else falsify) those accusations.

Police offer a different kind of support (the kind that actually puts the bad people away), and the media can call attention to an important issue. But neither should be in the business of ignoring red flags in accusations simply to further a narrative.

That's essentially the argument Megan McArdle makes in the New York Post. McArdle used recent revelations arising from the defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone to make the point that the media is too eager to believe a false story that fits their own prejudices about the issue.

The Rolling Stone author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, went looking for a sensational story to make a point about campus sexual assault. Erdely went into the story knowing what she wanted to write. She just needed to find an anecdote with the right shape to fit into the puzzle.

"The most surprising thing about the UVA case was not that a single reporter got rooked, but that Erdely's editors let the story go ahead, and a Columbia Journalism School professor defended them for publishing the story," McArdle wrote.

That's right — even though the story was completely false and defamed an entire fraternity and the University of Virginia, Erdely was praised for raising awareness of campus sexual assault.

McArdle brought up how activists frequently say rape is a special crime and should be treated differently than other crimes. For example, activists want the police to conduct "victim-centered" investigations that serve to back up accusers' claims while disregarding evidence that they're lying or not actually victims.

McArdle argued that rape is not (or should not be) treated uniquely, because there are numerous crimes that are horrific but that require the police to be skeptical in the course of finding the truth.

"If your spouse is murdered, or simply dies under suspicious circumstances, it's quite likely soon afterward you'll find yourself subjected to interviews with police who think you were involved," McArdle wrote.

"You've just lost the person most important to you in the world, and now you're also being tacitly accused of having committed a crime. It's horrible. Police don't like having to make someone who is grieving sit through hours of interviews. But investigations are the only tool they have. They don't know any other way to keep bad people from murdering their spouses.

"Activists may not like it, and it may seem cruel, but it is the best tool we have to investigate crimes."

The horror of the crime doesn't absolve any of us from the need to be careful about the accusations we level, even if taking that care means we sometimes do further psychic injury to victims," McArdle wrote.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that emphasizing false accusations (and forcing people to believe them or else face public backlash) makes people believe the next accusation a little less. Promote enough false accusations (or questionable accusations, as many on college campuses are turning out to be) and people stop believing anything they read or hear.

When that happens, trying to get justice for actual victims becomes even harder.

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