Entertainment

07.15.14

Conor Oberst and the Myth of the Woman Who Cried Rape

The Conor Oberst story presents a temptation for those who believe that women routinely lie about rape to cover up their own sexual indiscretions, or to get revenge against men.

Months after Conor Oberst, the lead singer of the indie rock group Bright Eyes, filed a lawsuit accusing a woman named Joanie Faircloth of making up rape accusations against him, Faircloth has finally confessed that she had lied. The story infamously started in the comment section of an article at XO Jane in December 2013, when Faircloth left a comment accusing Oberst of raping her after a Bright Eyes concert when she was 16 years old. The comment was picked up by the media and blown out of control, pushing Oberst to sue in February 2014.

After seven months of ignoring Oberst’s legal team, Faircloth reached out to Oberst’s lawyer and issued a notarized apology. “I made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life and trying to cope with my son’s illness,” Faircloth wrote, adding, “I publicly retract my statements about Conor Oberst, and sincerely apologize to him, his family, and his fans for writing such awful things about him.” Oberst’s legal team issued a statement, as well, indicating that Faircloth had no physical contact with Oberst at the show she originally claimed was the site of the assault.

The story is coming out at a politically perilous time, as debate over the issue of acquaintance rape is heating up in response to the Obama administration’s formation of a task force to improve campus response to sexual assault. Many on the right have responded by insisting, without a shred of evidence, that many alleged rapes are not rapes at all, but consensual encounters that the victims later claim are rape for malicious purposes. George Will of The Washington Post scoffed at anti-rape efforts from the White House by saying they were just an attempt “to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication,” the implication being that women have consensual-but-drunken sex and lie later to conceal their shame at being sexual. A.J. Delgado at the National Review was even more blunt, arguing falsely that “regrettable sex” is routinely being classified as rape, and implying women do it just to get revenge against men for rejecting them.

Even police officers who should know better can get caught up in the myth that women lie about consensual sex. One Columbia student who reported an alleged rape to the NYPD says that an officer told her friend she brought to the station for support, “Of all of these cases, 90 percent are bullshit, so I don’t believe your friend for a second.” Many, many people are eager to believe that women should be ashamed about consensual sex, so much so that they convince themselves, against all prevailing evidence, that many to most rapes are a matter of women lying rather than the statistics showing that rape is sadly quite common.

In this environment, the Conor Oberst story presents a temptation for those who believe in the myth that women routinely lie about rape to cover up their own sexual indiscretions, or to get revenge against men who rejected them. But that temptation should be avoided, in the interest of basic honesty. After all, this story has nothing to do with the claim that women have consensual sex and “cry rape” afterwards. How do we know this? Because there was no sex to “cry rape” about. The story appears to be made up whole cloth.

Contrary to the common and ironically false accusations of anti-feminists, feminists don’t deny that false rape reports do happen. (It’s estimated that 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are false.) But even though there are false rape reports, that doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to believe men are in any real danger of having consensual sex with a woman, only to find her pointing fingers and yelling “rape” afterwards. Most false rape reports appear to fall into two categories, neither of which comes close to the “regrettable sex” claim: 1) Situations where a rape did, in fact, happen, but the wrong man was accused of the crime and 2) Situations where a mentally unstable woman makes the whole thing up and there was no sexual contact at all.

For women who are making the whole thing up, it’s important to understand that it’s rare for women lying about rape to accuse anyone at all.

In the former category, you mostly have a situation where women or children are raped and either because they didn’t get a good look at the rapist, or in even sadder cases where they are murdered afterwards, the crime is pinned on the wrong man. You can read about some of those cases at the Innocence Project.

For women who are making the whole thing up, it’s important to understand that it’s rare for women lying about rape to accuse anyone at all. The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women put together a report on the realities of false reports that underlined this, writing that a major potential indicator of a false report is a “perpetrator who is either a stranger or a vaguely described acquaintance who is not identified by name,” usually because a false reporter is seeking attention and sympathy without actually wanting to get anyone in trouble. Indeed, we saw this pattern with Faircloth, who initially only claimed to have been attacked by a “rock star.” It was only after some prodding from other commenters that Faircloth came up with a name.

The closer you look at this case, the less and less it resembles the right-wing myth that women “cry rape” to conceal consensual sexual activity. Tracie Egan Morrissey of Jezebel examined the backstory back in February and found a hefty amount of evidence that Faircloth may be a fantasist who says false things online to gain sympathy and attention, perhaps not even fully realizing that things said online can have impact in the real world. Morrissey collected evidence showing that Faircloth has told some heart-rending tall tales in comment sections before, and reported on people who said to have been catfished by Faircloth in the past.

Before Faircloth confessed to lying, in fact, she made a public statement saying, “I did not think my comment would be anything more than an exchange with one or two other commenters sharing their stories,” suggesting she may have thought she would just get a little positive attention without having to worry about the broader impact of falsely accusing someone of rape.

Considering that Faircloth has a long, public record of being a super-fan of Oberst and Bright Eyes, this feels a little bit closer to a story about an unstable fan than a warning tale about false rape accusations. Oberst’s dilemma is closer to that of other celebrities, like Madonna or David Letterman, who have had to deal with stalking and harassment from mentally ill people developing obsessions with them.

This story is categorically different from cases where men accused of rape are swearing up and down it was consensual sex. “I realize that my actions were wrong and could undermine the claims of actual sexual assault victims,” Faircloth wrote in her apology, and sadly, there’s little doubt that this case will be used to bolster the myth that women are “crying rape” because they regret having a consensual hookup. But this is more a tale about the unfortunate dangers of life in the public eye, and should not be used to perpetuate the myth that thousands of women who are raped by acquaintances every year are simply lying to distract from “regrettable” sex.