The Sad, Strange Aftermath of the Conor Oberst Rape Accusations

Cometh the news, cometh the thinkpieces. The news that Joanie Faircloth — the woman who, in January, accused Conor Oberst of having raped her a decade ago — has withdrawn her accusations has thrown the spotlight back on the whole sorry case. And despite the fact that he’s essentially had his name cleared, the commentary has, again, not been kind to the singer. Take, for instance, this piece that ran yesterday in the Daily Dot, wherein author Chris Osternhorf makes the point that Oberst being cleared of a false rape accusation is likely to make him a de facto hero to MRA types. This is probably true; what’s less defensible is the continuing speculation about Oberst’s guilt, and the idea that he was somehow morally obliged to have handled things differently.

There’s an unpleasant undercurrent that runs through Osternhorf’s piece, and indeed through a lot of the commentary on this case: the idea that the undeniable power disparity between Oberst and his accuser somehow means that Oberst was under some sort of obligation to just take one for the team here, to show restraint because of the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, the vast majority of rape accusations are true, and because false accusations tend to get disproportionate attention. That’s a nice idea, so long as it’s not you who’s being falsely accused of pretty much the worst thing a man can do short of murdering someone.

For instance, Osternhorf’s piece starts by analyzing Oberst’s choice to file a lawsuit, suggesting that “it could still have unfortunate results.” He qualifies this by saying that “a lawsuit wasn’t entirely an inappropriate move… if Oberst’s career did in fact suffer” — which, come on, dude, of course his career suffered. Osternhorf cites “a very visible campaign to discredit Faircloth and prove [Oberst’s] innocence” — but there have also been a lot of very visible assumptions of guilt. And they don’t go away. The Frisky published a hugely irresponsible piece in January titled, “Why I Believe Conor Oberst’s Anonymous Rape Accuser” (which has now been quite casually updated with the news that she recanted). There are a bazillion more posts on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook where fans have said that after this, they can’t listen to Bright Eyes anymore. Even now, with his name allegedly cleared, there are people writing pieces like… well, like the one we’re discussing.

So yes, his career was damaged. And so was his reputation. Accusations like this are the sort of shit that sticks. For a lot of people out there, there will always be a question mark next to Oberst’s name, a mark that nothing will be able to erase. “To be sure,” opines Osternhort, “you can’t help but feel at least somewhat bad for Oberst here.” Yeah, no shit. I feel at least somewhat bad for anyone who’s publicly accused of a violent crime they didn’t commit. God only knows what the man and his family went through.

Osternhorf is careful and smart enough not to perpetuate the accusations, but then, he doesn’t exactly seem at pains to dispel any doubts the reader might have, either. “Awkward and sensitive is all well and good,” he writes, “but as anyone who’s paying attention knows, all men are capable of rape — even the awkward and sensitive ones.”

Yes, all men are indeed capable of rape (and plenty of other horrible crimes and injustices against women). Sure. All humans are capable of murder, and all sorts of other terrible things. But the point is that that fact has no bearing on the outcome of any particular case, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the precepts of natural justice get thrown out the window. People are innocent until proven guilty for a reason.

This, this right here, what’s happening right now, is the reason. It’s because the presumption of guilt makes it all too easy to toss around false accusations and place the onus on the accused to prove their innocence — and for the stench of presumed guilt to linger long after, even if the initial charges are resolved. This is more relevant than ever in 2014: the Internet is the world’s epicenter of confirmation bias, and it’s notable that many people who believed Faircloth a priori the first time around are now refusing to believe her the second time around.

And no, the lawsuit doesn’t “protect Oberst’s image,” as Osternhorf suggests. It looks bad. It still looks bad, and at this point it’s unclear whether he’ll withdraw it, even given Faircloth’s retraction and apology. I hope he does. Plenty of people have pointed out, correctly, that there is a clear power disparity here, and that the threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from a well-funded rock star might well be enough to make the woman in question decide that even if what she had alleged really did take place, the consequences of persisting with the case would be intolerable. She would hardly be the first — rape trials are long, protracted, traumatic, and, in this case, potentially financially ruinous. Our judicial system is a minefield for rape victims. But we don’t fix it by continuing to write hitpieces gaslighting men who have been falsely accused, or by brushing aside legitimate doubts about guilt on the basis that, statistically, an accusation is most likely true.

The point of acknowledging that false rape accusations are rare — the oft-cited figure is that only 2-8% of accusations are false — isn’t to instate some sort of latter-day Napoleonic law in regard to rape cases. It’s to ensure that any accusation is evaluated fairly and the institutional bias against rape victims is erased — not to be replaced with a different bias, but to be replaced with impartiality and fairness. Our justice system is broken as far as rape accusations go. This is undeniable. But it needs to be fixed, not just weighted differently.

This is utopian, sure. But the alternative is… what? It’s important to understand that statistics have no bearing on the outcome of any specific case, and citing the 2-8% figure in this case or any other is no more relevant than the citing the result of your past 20 coin tosses in determining whether the next one is going to be heads or tails. It’s a logical fallacy. And in any case, those 2-8% are still people who have been falsely accused. We wouldn’t accept the government arguing that, say, only 2-8% of people accused of murder are eventually found to be innocent, so convicting anyone who’s been charged is justified because there’s an overwhelming chance that he or she is guilty.

Rape is certainly a far more destructive and prevalent problem, and a far more pressing concern for society, than false rape accusations. That doesn’t mean that individual men who are falsely accused have some sort of social obligation to suck it up for the greater good. I wonder what Osterndorf et al really think Oberst should have done here. We’re talking about someone who was falsely accused and wanted to clear his name. Of course he did. So would you, if you were falsely accused of… anything, really, let alone a felony crime like rape.

If he’d refused to defend himself against the accusations, his career (and his life, most likely) would have been ruined. You can argue that he shouldn’t have sued, but then, people would be asking, well, why not? Does he not want the facts to come out in a court of law? Or perhaps he shouldn’t have made the lawsuit public – but then he leaves himself open to Faircloth publicizing it, and shouting loudly that she’s being secretly bullied into silence by the man she says raped her.

There were no good options here. And there can, unfortunately, be no good outcomes. I think Osterndorf is correct that MRA types will gleefully cite this case as justification for their overt misogyny. That’s depressing as hell. But it’s not Oberst’s fault. If we’re going to point fingers here, we might as well argue that it’s Faircloth’s fault — false accusations only make life harder for actual rape victims, whose struggle to be taken seriously and to have their cases prosecuted effectively is plenty hard enough already.

But I think that’s unfair, too. As Osterndorf suggests toward the end of his piece, Faircloth “comes off like a person with some mental health issues… to hold her accountable for the actions of anyone but herself would be abhorrent.” Indeed. But neither should Oberst have to suffer the consequences of others’ actions. As I wrote back in January, no one comes out of this well. It’s a sorry business from start to finish — for Oberst, for Faircloth, and for women (and men) in general.