Shortly after the #metoo movement began gaining nationwide attention, a female student arrived at my office and started to close the door as she introduced herself. While it is embarrassing to admit this, I felt a sudden spike of fear. In an instant, my mind went through a nightmare scenario: what if she is failing the class and is planning to use an accusation of sexual harassment to try to scare me into passing her? Struggling to remain calm, I casually said “Oh, you can leave the door open.” She stopped closing it, sat down and we talked through the paper she was working on. I recall thinking at the time that my moment of fear was something women felt quite often when a man closed an office door behind them. Being a philosopher, my job is to rationally analyze things. So, naturally, I thought a great deal about the situation and want to share these considerations.
To head off any criticisms about inconsistency, I have always had an open-door policy for all my students. The cause of this dates to my grad school days when a female friend told me that when a male professor closes his office door on her, she feels trapped and vulnerable. As various famous cases indicate, her fear was not unfounded. As such, when I finally had my own office, I made sure to always keep the door open. To be consistent, I did the same for all students. As such, it was rather ironic that I would be one scared by the mere closing of my office door by a woman.
Like everyone else, I have various fears. A rather important question about a fear is whether it is rational or not. To illustrate, I will use my biggest fear, the fear of heights. Part of this fear is quite rational: I suffered a full quadriceps tear when a ladder went out from under me. As such, being wary about being on ladder, roofs and the edges of tall things like mountains is sensible. However, my fear also extends to flying: I am terrified by the though of flying. This fear, I know, is utterly irrational. Being inside a commercial airliner is one of the safest places a normal person can be; yet I have a deep fear of flying. I have never been in a crash or mishap, so there is not even an instigating incident to explain this fear.
While I have been told and have told myself that flying is nothing to fear, this does not work. Statistics and proof do not move the emotions. So, I deal with the fear using Aristotle’s method: I have made myself face my fear over and over until I can function perfectly normally—despite being utterly terrified. Because of my own crazy fear of flying, I do not dismiss other peoples’ fears, even when they might seem unfounded or even silly. As such, when men claim to be terrified of false accusations of sexual assault I do not dismiss this fear. This is, I am obligated to say, a fear I have felt as well.
As with any fear, a rather important question is whether the fear of a false accusation is a rational one or not. That is, is it like the sensible fear that leads me to be careful on ladders and roofs or is it like the irrational fear of flying that causes me needless suffering? As with any fear, this cannot be judged by the strength of the feeling—this gives no indication of the likelihood of a bad thing happening. To illustrate, most people are not terrified of the health complications of not exercising and not eating properly but are afraid of being attacked by a shark. But, poor health habits are vastly more likely to kill a person than a shark attack. Sorting out the rationality of the fear is a matter of statistics, unless a person has relevant data for their specific situation. For example, if I jump into shark infested waters with bleeding cuts, then my odds of being attacked by a shark are rather different than the general statistical data. As another example, a person who happens to associate with women who are scheming, unethical liars would have greater odds of being falsely accused of assault.
While, as discussed in the previous essay, it is challenging to have extremely accurate data about false accusations, the best available data shows that between 2% and 10% of accusations are shown to be false. The FBI claims that 8% of rape accusations are found to be false. In contrast, unreported cases of assault (which, one must admit, are hard to quantify precisely) are much higher than the number of false accusations. The best evidence suggests that only 35% of sexual assaults are reported. As such, a man who assaults is statistically unlikely to be reported and the odds of a false accusation are extremely low.
But, one might point out, false accusations do happen. This is true, but the data shows that the typical false allegation is made by a teenage girl trying to get out of trouble. So, the notion that women use false accusations to destroy men does not have much of a foundation. This is not to say that such a scenario is impossible: it could happen. Going back to my fear of flying, the fear is not irrational because a crash could never happen. Rather, it is irrational because the fear is far out of proportion to the likelihood of the crash happening. So, the terror we men feel about being falsely accused of sexual assault is like my fear of flying: it is not a fear of the impossible, but a fear of the extremely unlikely.
There are, however, people who do have a reasonable fear of being wrongfully accused and convicted. These are, of course, black people (and other minorities). Many of those who are very vocal about their fear of men being falsely accused of sexual assault have little or no concern about the wrongful accusation and conviction of minorities and express faith in the system in this regard. This is, of course, an inconsistent view: if false accusations leading to harm are truly awful and something to worry about, then the false accusation of minorities should also be regarded this way. One might suspect that the worry does not stem from a passion for justice, but fear of accountability. Then again, it might also be a clever political use of scare tactics.