This week, the renewed allegations that Woody Allen sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow have reignited a national conversation about sexual assault, the legal system, and the appropriate response to victims who choose to come forward. Many observers have emphasized that Allen was never convicted of a crime, and should therefore be presumed to be innocent — kicking off a debate about whether children frequently lie about being abused, and whether the people who say they’re victims of sexual crimes can ever be trusted.
It’s unsurprising. When it comes to addressing sexual crimes, the issue of false reports is one of the most contentious divides. On one hand, victim advocates argue that false rape reports are incredibly low — generous estimates put the rate around 2.2 percent. On the other hand, skeptics caution that false allegations can ruin an individual’s life, and invariably bring up the infamous Duke lacrosse players. It’s not a debate that will be resolved any time soon.
But when it comes to children who speak out about sexual abuse, the proverbial deck is especially stacked against them. There’s actually been a lot of psychological research into the factors that make it difficult for young victims to tell their stories in a way that will be believable to outside audiences.
First of all, children don’t always have the words to describe what’s happened to them. Some kids don’t necessarily understand when their physical consent has been violated, and don’t know the language to talk about their genitalia. Several studies have found that children tend to delay disclosing incidences of abuse, sometimes for years. Sexual violence prevention advocates believe that teaching kids about their anatomy, and having frank discussions about healthy relationships, is an important tool to prevent this issue from being kept in the shadows.
If kids do speak up about abuse, and their parents want to press charges, that pushes them into the legal fray. Even if they’re sure about what they remember, navigating official statements, lawyers, and courtrooms can be confusing for child victims — which ultimately sets up an uneven playing field between them and their abuser. “The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand,” Natalie Shire points out at the Atlantic.
The cases that go to trial are often held back by several difficult factors. Putting a kid on the stand can end up being a traumatic experience for them, and child psychologists aren’t convinced that it’s always helpful, especially if the legal proceedings drag on for a long period of time. And even though older children can often testify correctly, that doesn’t guarantee their story will sound believable to a jury.
Adult victims of sexual assault often display erratic behavior — like expressing no emotion, mixing up the chronological order of events, or laughing at inappropriate times — that outsiders mistake for proof that they’re being untruthful. But that behavior actually reflects the disjointed way that the brain processes trauma, not a carefully constructed lie. This dilemma may be even more pronounced in kids. According to a 1983 study on child abuse, the act of disclosing a sexual crime often causes the child to experience “secondary trauma.” This theory posits that “the normal coping behavior of the child contradicts the entrenched beliefs and expectations typically held by adults,” which makes the children appear to be less credible. Particularly if a young child has been prepared for trial, it’s perhaps no wonder their testimony may come off as too rehearsed.
On top of that, memory certainly is fragile. There are lots of complex aspects to working with kids who allege abuse — they can be sensitive to repeated interrogations, and begin to repeat what authority figures are telling them even if it’s not true. Psychologists are working within these constraints. “There have been all kinds of protections developed in the last 20 years about how to talk to children in the course of investigations so as not to create confabulation or not to impair the testimony so it could be impeached in court,” David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, explained to TIME.
Younger children are more likely to fall prey to those dynamics, and less likely to be able to accurately recall details about what happened to them. That’s why abusers tend to prey on very young and vulnerable children. The power dynamic is intentional, and it works.
Dylan Farrow is just one of the millions of Americans who say they’ve experienced some kind of childhood sexual abuse. Just like all the rest, she can’t control the way that other people interpret her story, or whether they choose to believe it. (Woody Allen, for his part, plans to refute her allegations in a forthcoming column that may be published in the New York Times.) But pointing to the rate of convictions for these type of sexual crimes — and noting that Allen hasn’t been found guilty by a jury of his peers — isn’t exactly the right measure of veracity. The culture of suspicion around victims is directly related to the way the justice system fails to convict their abusers.