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"Even when we read a false rape story, we still need to believe women who report rape."

On Monday, Fairfax journalist Paul Sheehan told the story of a heinous gang rape that he says occurred in August 2002.

In his column, entitled “The story of Louise: we’ll never know the scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney”, Sheehan recounted the story of a nurse, “Louise” who had fallen asleep in her car after working a long shift at a Sydney hospital. Louise says she woke to find a man pulling at her leg. She was set upon by men who she says were “Arab-speaking”. She says she was then punched in the face, pulled out of her car, beaten, raped, sodomised, kicked and urinated on.

The sickening story got worse. She says she was horribly injured, unable to speak and spent time in hospital. When she went to the police station six months after the attack, she was turned away because too much time has passed. She went on to become homeless.

false rape story
She says she was then punched in the face, pulled out of her car, beaten, raped, sodomised, kicked and urinated on. (Image: iStock)

Anyone who read this story would be gripped. They would be shocked. While the “Arab-speaking” claim was a jarring addition to the story, the pattern of the account of a rape and the aftermath is all too common.

Louise’s story felt real because it IS real for so many women.

So many rape victims don’t report these attacks immediately. For many, many reasons. We also know that women who report rape don’t always get the support they need from the people to whom they make that report. Many women who are abused and assaulted become homeless.

Last night, Sheehan publicly retracted the story, saying he now believed there was serious doubt about the veracity of the woman’s claims.

It appears that Louise’s story might not be true. There are facts that don’t check out. At its worst, this could be a false report of rape.

False reports of rape happen. They are often seized on by rapists, their supporters and sympathisers as evidence that women can be unreliable, that they make up stories of rape with some ulterior agenda: “She’s crazy.” “She just wants my money.” “She just wants attention.” “She just wants to turn people against me.”

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The truth is that some women do lie. Of course they do. There are also some people who tell confused or unlikely stories because they are unwell or because they are uncertain of what the truth is.

But the reality is that almost all women who say they have been raped do not lie.

Louise’s case is certainly not a reason to stop believing women who tell you about their rape. Even if it happened a long time ago. Even if there are no witnesses. Even if she has never reported it to police.

The incidence of false reporting of rape is very low. Studies have shown the rate of false accusations to be between two and six percent.

That means that, even if you decide to believe every woman who tells you they were raped, every single time, you are likely to be right in 98 in 100 cases. If you decide to always disbelieve every woman who tells you they were raped, you will only be right 2 in 100 cases – that is you will be wrong 98 in 100 times.

Reading Paul Sheehan’s column, I chose to believe Louise’s story even though I did not meet her and even though some elements of the story as reported were odd (like the reference to “MERCs” – “Middle Eastern Raping Cunts” – a phrase that Louise used and Paul Sheehan said he did not know, despite writing a book about some high profile rapes that involved men of Middle Eastern descent).

I also believe Kesha. And I will continue to believe every woman who says she has been sexually assaulted. I will take the chance that I am wrong – because the odds that I will be right are undeniable.

false rape story
“I will continue to believe every woman who says she has been sexually assaulted.” (Image: iStock)

Even as it becomes apparent Louise’s story is false (or at the very least exaggerated or not unfolding in the way that she has described), it’s important we keep believing women who report rape. We need to keep supporting any woman who comes forward.

It is the compassionate thing to do. It is the responsible thing to do.

And, as it happens, 98 out of 100 times, you’re also going to be right.

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