A Lighthouse in the Dark​

Diana Davison is the founder of The Lighthouse Project, a Canadian non-profit that helps people falsely accused of sexual assault. Diana has assisted with cases including social media accusations, preparing for criminal trials and exposing cases of wrongful convictions.

For the last three years, through my non-profit called The Lighthouse Project, my full-time job has been helping people falsely accused of sexual assault. According to feminists I shouldn’t have much work to do. Unfortunately, the claims that women never lie about rape or that false accusations are so rare as to be unworthy of attention are demonstrably untrue.

Just as feminism has morphed throughout the waves and decades of its existence, the frequency and nature of false accusations has also changed. 

The internet and growth of social media has enhanced the way people share information and an accusation made in a single Facebook post or tweet can destroy someone’s life overnight. Despite assertions by feminists that we live in a “rape culture” which condones sexual assault, the stigma of a sexual allegation is so intense that the reputation of the accused can never be completely repaired. Even if acquitted in a court of law.

Feminists deem acquittals to be a failure of the legal system and proof that the system doesn’t work.

The advocacy of feminist bloggers and journalists has played an important role in changing laws around the meaning of consent and how sexual assault trials are adjudicated. The rule of law depends upon public faith in the legal system and third wave feminists have openly declared, with movements like #MeToo, that women must take the law into their own hands.

Society has typically sought to protect women and the current, unwavering support for blatant vigilantism to accomplish that goal should not be ignored. Though pitchforks have been replaced with keyboards, the howls of the bloodthirsty mob seeking to destroy “toxic masculinity” in the form of human males is unmistakable. 

As with many moral panics, it helps to understand the history and how it evolved.

During the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, feminist legal theory took root. The courts were male dominated which made it patriarchal and thus misogyny was presumed. There is merit to the concept that men and women experience the world differently and that laws will affect each gender in a way that could reduce overall feelings of equality. The law generally takes unique or mitigating circumstances into account when a convicted person is being sentenced.

Feminists, and others who seek similar change to the meaning of equality, want something more. While formal equality, the idea that justice should be blind, has been dominant in the formation of our legal system, feminists have been successful in appellate courts arguing that women should be given special accommodations because of their oppression. This is called substantive equality.

The best example of substantive equality in practice is the introduction of “battered woman syndrome” to justify murder as a form of self-defence for women who kill men, even if the man is sleeping at the time.

So when we are told that Feminism is about equality, that is absolutely true. It’s about changing what equality means.

In 1985 an organization called Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) was established in Canada to change the meaning of equality through precedent law. LEAF’s primary mandate was to intervene in court cases which engage issues related to section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The founders of LEAF played a central role in the wording of section 15’s equality rights and established their organization two days after the section was ratified. 

LEAF’s interventions were not wildly successful until the 90s when third wave feminist bloggers started generating public outrage in alignment with the legal positions LEAF sought to advance. As a result of their interventions and social commentary, men facing trial on sexual assault accusations are now in a position of having to prove their innocence. The burden of proof has shifted and their right to full answer and defence has dwindled to a point of absurdity.

The first thing every falsely accused person says when I talk to them is “I never thought this could happen to me.” Most of the people I work with, and their family members, were active supporters of the feminist lobby. They thought every man accused of sexual assault must have done something nasty, even if the accusation was exaggerated.

The foundational false accusation myth is that where there is smoke, there is fire.

Just being able to talk to someone who believes them is the starting point for helping people deal with the trauma of false allegations. Until then, it is incredibly difficult for an accused to focus and figure out what they can do to prove their innocence. One of the harsh realities is that, once accused of sexual misconduct, most of the person’s “friends” abandon them. Almost every man I’ve helped has told me that at one point they had considered suicide.

The isolation doesn’t help. Those facing criminal charges are subjected to a cone of silence by their lawyers. There is good reason for this. The complainant’s name is often under publication ban, the disclosure information handed over by the prosecutor is highly confidential and their lawyers want to make sure the defence material is kept secret until the proper time to reveal it at trial. Nevertheless, dealing with extreme anxiety and upheaval in their life, the accused is left with no meaningful support system.

The next problem is trying to explain why some of their evidence might not be allowed in court. This is where feminist jurisprudence come in.

The main law about sexual assault evidence, generally referred to as “rape shield law,” is that lawyers are not permitted to argue that prior sexual activity makes a person more likely to have consented to sex or less worthy of belief. These are called the “twin myths” and they are rightfully barred from evidence.

Any evidence of a sexual nature that doesn’t relate directly the event comprising the charge needs to be approved in advance after showing that the intention does not engage in prohibited reasoning. Aside from the law as written by parliament, the common law has added a number of other “rape myths” prohibited in court. Some examples are that a delay in reporting makes the accusation less believable or that a failure to verbally say “no” implies consent.

Of course, even if a strict affirmative consent model is followed, it’s extremely rare to have any direct evidence of what took place behind closed doors. Most trial verdicts are based on credibility assessments of testimony from both the complainant and the accused. The primary defence evidence, when it exists, usually consists of messages exchanged before and after the alleged assault. But most of that evidence is now being blocked in trial.

With prosecutors and judges being taught junk science about memory and feminist protests calling for judges to be removed from the bench, the chances of receiving a fair trial are rapidly disintegrating. On the other hand, the number of innocent people whose lives have been affected by false accusations is growing and the demand for due process is getting louder.

The question on everyone’s mind is “how bad are things going to get before we fix this?” So far, given further changes just passed into law, my answer has been “it’s going to get really bad.” But I’ll keep fighting and, hopefully, The Lighthouse Project will be able to help more people before they are wrongfully convicted.