Sex Abuse: Truth, Lying, or False Memory?

Recently, an unusually personal and lengthy exchange in the New York Times has raised the question: Did Woody Allen molest Dylan Farrow when Dylan was a child?

I have no idea.

But millions of people have an opinion, many of them quite strong. Across the blogosphere, comments about the subject have been loud, and dominated by three views.

One group—including many survivors of such victimization—believes children never lie about this, and accuses American society of not wanting to hear about its enormous rate of sexual exploitation. Another group—including many people with a very different experience—notes that in bitter child custody battles adults will do and say practically anything, including accusations of abuse, and coaching kids to hate or fear. A third group examines the “he said, she said” facts and allegations, and comes to its own conclusions—giving itself permission to have an opinion despite having no actual knowledge about the alleged event.

America’s attitudes about childhood sexual exploitation are deeply troubling. The troubling attitudes start with ignorance—of the structure of human memory, of the incidence of false accusations, of distinctions between kinds of exploitation. It continues with indignation and moralism, claiming that objective attempts to understand and parse this phenomenon ultimately disrespect all victims, and at worse, hide a tolerance of molestation.

It climaxes with pop psychology and sloppy journalism which claims that “1 out of 3 females is molested in her lifetime,” lumping together physical coercion, psychological pressure, bullying, bad parenting, and shame induction, so that the category “child molestation” loses its value to describe or explain much of anything—thus trivializing the horrific crime the term is meant to define.

Many general facts about child sexual exploitation are known:
• Many children are sexually exploited
• Many children who complain about molestation go unbelieved
• Many abusers go unpunished
• Many accusations of child molestation are false
• The most common situation in which false accusations occur is a divorce—and tragically, the children are often coached by one parent to accuse the other. Some children are coached by investigators—sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently through unprofessional techniques.

Many activists, policymakers, and the public seem unaware that, proven beyond any doubt, the structure of human memory does NOT resemble videotape—recording everything accurately, and playing back everything accurately under the right circumstances.

If anything, human memory is more like a digital photo that is constantly being photoshopped—by exposure to others’ memories, others’ opinions, cultural norms, and subsequent events that seem to contradict or confirm the memory. It’s surprisingly common for people to believe that certain things happened to them that actually didn’t. And it’s surprisingly easy to implant false memories in both children and adults. For more on this, see the work and Ted talk of world-renowned scientist Elizabeth Loftus.

Too many of the comments about the Allen-Farrow situation say that Ms. Farrow should be believed because (1) the millions of victims out there are damaged when any molest accuser is disbelieved and (2) not believing an accuser discourages victims from coming forward in the future.

This logic transforms the Allen-Farrow situation involving two actual people—about whom we know nothing—into social forces, about which we all have opinions and desire particular outcomes. It’s a call for retributive “justice” similar to the calls to convict Rodney King’s tormentors and to acquit OJ Simpson because African-Americans have historically been mistreated by Caucasian police.

And too many of the comments about the Allen-Farrow situation come down to “If you doubt that she’s telling the truth, you obviously hate women, tolerate rape, are blinded by male privilege, and/or are a molester yourself.”

Consider the crime of murder: most people agree that professionals can study it, differentiate among different types of it, know that some people are falsely accused of it, and study how that happens. Yet no one discussing these points is accused of not taking murder seriously, or not believing that it happens.

We should be at least that smart about child sexual exploitation. Intelligent people not involved in a situation should be willing to say “I don’t know what actually happened”—without having their integrity or compassion questioned.

And if an intelligent person is unsure whether something heinous happened in a particular situation, s/he shouldn’t have to hastily add that “of course, these heinous things do happen way too often, and of course I’m totally against them.”

When those are the ground rules—that doubting that X was molested or harassed or raped is a legitimate (although possibly incorrect) viewpoint—then we can have an actual, serious conversation about this serious subject.

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