Americans have been told a dangerous myth. It is an old but enduring one, which gives its beneficiaries unwarranted power — and in many instances, is demonstrably false. The myth is that allegations of rape and sexual assault are often simply a matter of “he said, she said”; that when a woman accuses a man of a sexual assault and the man denies it, there is no way to discern the truth and the justice system is impotent. But so-called “he said, she said” cases can almost always reveal much more — if they are properly investigated.
Like many myths, the legend of “he said, she said” originated centuries ago. Under old English law, rape prosecutions could not be brought unless every material element of the victim’s story was corroborated by another witness or evidence. Because sexual assaults don’t usually happen in crowded pubs, this rule effectively barred many cases. Victims of any other type of crime — muggings, robberies, physical assaults — could provide the sole testimony at trial. Rape victims were uniquely excluded from the criminal justice system.
This exception was steeped in misogyny. The judges creating the law were all men; rape victims were overwhelmingly women. Women had lower status in that society, and rape claims were one of the few instances where a woman’s word might legally diminish a man’s authority. The institutionalized skepticism of female testimony was based on a medieval male fear of losing power.