It's been almost a year since #MeToo first started trending on Twitter, and the viral hashtag is still spawning offshoots. Most recently, #HimToo was trending on Monday night. But while #MeToo is an empowering hashtag meant to support sexual assault survivors, #HimToo calls their stories into question. The hashtag was used throughout Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing and maybe even before then, but it started trending after a mum used it to explain that her son, a gentleman and USO award-winner who graduated number one in his navy bootcamp class, is terrified to date thanks to the "current climate of false sexual accusations by radical feminists."
To her, #HimToo is a rallying cry for the men who've been falsely accused of sexual assault, and a reminder that false accusations ruin lives. Her son, Pieter Hanson, quickly responded to the the tweet to make it clear that he does not support his mum's use of #HimToo. But his mum's opinion isn't rare. Many people truly believe that most sexual assault reports are false, and that the survivors who come forward have a vendetta against the person (usually a man in a powerful position) they've accused.
The problem is, false accusations are rare, and this hashtag makes it seem as if they happen all the time. According to the statistics we have on sexual assault (which are imperfect because many survivors don't report, or report decades later), a rape report is false only about 2% to 10% of the time. Yet even that statistic is difficult to obtain, because many reports don't clearly define what constitutes a "false" allegation, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre (NSVRC).
There are differences between a false report, a baseless report, and an unsubstantiated report, the NSVRC says. A report is false when an investigation proves that the sexual assault never happened. It's baseless when the assault doesn't meet the criteria for rape, even though investigators do believe it happened. And it's unsubstantiated when there's insufficient evidence to prove whether or not a crime happened. But not all police departments abide by these definitions, and often, statistics about false accusations of sexual assault inflate the numbers, because definitions of what constitutes a false allegation and what constitutes sexual assault are unclear.
So, more often than not, sexual assault reports are credible. And assuming that a report is false until proven true hurts sexual assault survivors by making it harder for them to come forward with their stories. "I, too, would feel horrible for any man who was falsely accused. But in over a decade [of counselling sexual assault survivors], I've only had two clients who I suspected of false reporting," says Holly Richmond, PhD, a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist (CST). Dr Richmond doesn't know exactly how many survivors she's spoken with, but the two she's suspected of false reporting definitely fall into a small percentage, she says. Often, the survivors she's worked with are terrified to talk about what happened to them, and many only begin speaking of their assault years after it happened. So it's hard for Dr Richmond to imagine why anyone would lie about being assaulted.
Many times, when people claim that a survivor is making the assault up, they say that she (it's usually a woman, but not always) wanted to ruin the person's life or get back at him (it's usually a man) for passing them over for an opportunity at work or for treating them badly on a date. But think about how much trouble someone would have to endure to make up a story about sexual assault that never happened, and then defend it. "That's a huge trouble to go to, to be that malicious toward someone," Dr Richmond says. A lot of times, the person being accused is in a position of power (think: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh), which means that the person accusing them has to fight an uphill battle to change how people see that person. "If it's a judge, if it's a doctor, if it's a teacher, and the rest of their life looks so perfect, the survivor has her work cut out for her if she's going to press charges."
False reports do sometimes happen, and they do have the potential to ruin a man's life, as people tweeting #HimToo worry about. But those stories happen way less often than real sexual assaults. It can be easier to believe that someone is lying about sexual assault than to imagine that a person we trusted, whether it's a public figure like Cosby and Kavanaugh or a friend or loved one, could do something as heinous as sexual assault, Dr Richmond says. Yet statistics and the stories that originally came out of #MeToo tell us that survivors deserve (and need) to be trusted.