Why Accuse?

Michael Mills, PhD, poses an obvious, deceptively simple question: Why don’t women ask men out on first dates?. Being an evolutionary psychologist, he naturally has an equally obvious and deceptively simple answer: it’s because of "female reputational defense theory" – which is a fancy way of saying that because paternity of a child is less directly determinable than maternity, males face some uncertainty in deciding whether to settle down and help a woman raise the child that she purports is his, and that because women generally want a father’s help raising the child, they have a biological incentive to reassure the actual father that they are not promiscuous. In the pre-scientific age, a man could never know beyond a doubt that he was the father of a child, and sticking to women who were known to be exclusive was a good heuristic for increasing his certainty of actual paternity. The rub being, naturally, that the test is "known to be exclusive" rather than "actually exclusive," since the former is verifiable and the latter is not. All a man really has to go on is a woman’s reputation, therefore she has a strong interest in protecting her reputation, and one obvious way to do that is to be the kind of girl who never initiates. Because if she initiated with you, she may well initiate with someone else.

Like almost everything in evolutionary psychology, it makes good sense … and that’s about all it has going for it. There’s really no way to test this theory. All we can do is cite corroborating evidence and more or less believe it until such time as a better explanation presents itself.

"Corroborating evidence," in this case, is that 50 years of Equality Feminism somehow haven’t produced any meaningful changes in dating patterns. Men still ask first, men still pay, and men are still expected to handle rejection. Mills and some colleagues investigated to confirm this, but they just found what we already knew: some women do ask, but it’s a vanishingly small percentage of them, and while men by and large prefer ask first, a higher percentage of men want to be asked first than there are women willing to do the asking.

What’s interesting to me about this is how I know that no one is ever going to cite it for its other only-slightly-less-obvious implication: that if "female reputational defense theory" is true then women also have a pretty big biological incentive to make false rape accusations. Because again, according to this theory, the incentives aren’t really aligned in such a way that a woman has to actually be exclusive, she just has to appear to be so. Having sex with lots of guys is fine so long as you don’t get caught at it, so to speak.

So what if you do "get caught at it?" Well, that obviously depends on how ethical you are, and just like with men, women run the spectrum on ethics. If you have a healthy respect for truth and the rights of others, you do nothing and either embrace your promiscuous reputation or try to salvage it by changing your behavior going forward. If you are less concerned about truth and rights than you are about your reputation, then there’s only really one way out: find a credible way that to present the whole thing as someone else’s fault. If it isn’t because a choice you made, the man’s anxiety isn’t triggered. But it won’t be enough to chalk it up to alcohol, because if you’re the kind of person who regularly puts herself in situations where where just anyone can have sex with your unconscious body, well, that’s obviously not going to soothe anyone’s paternity anxiety. The emphasis has to be on "against your will" – and exploiting the ambiguity in the word "rape" works really well here. Because technically speaking, it’s rape if a guy has sex with your unconscious, nonconsenting body, and yet that’s not the kind of rape that helps protect your reputation. To the extent it is, it has to be the sort of thing where you’re just not the kind of girl who normally gets that drunk, and there was just this one time, and some terrible guys were there, and it’s too horrible to think about.

Naturally, Dr. Mills didn’t draw attention to this aspect in his Psychology Today article. The dominant narrative won’t really allow you to publish things that say that women have an incentive to restyle sexual regret as rape. And yet it’s an inescapable conclusion of his model. More than that, the model would actually be useful in distinguishing cases where a girl is potentially crying wolf. Basically any case where the encouter is (a) with a guy who she’s at least more than casually acquainted with, (b) reported late and (c) knowledge of the encounter is public and possibly also (d) where there’s some reason to believe she’s actively pursuing someone else. Because again, the standard here is one of reputation, not actual behavior – so you’re looking for encounters that are relatively well known and interpreted differently by the alleged "victim" when circumstances change.

Another, more subtle, aspect of it is that when you think about it, false rape accusations are the female version of "I paid for dinner, put out!" A man risks almost nothing1, reputation-wise, from a one-off sexual encounter, but a woman can risk a lot. This is arguably the classic gender double standard. And it stands to reason that once she’s "paid in" by sleeping with him, she’ll expect something in return – at the very least some discretion about the encounter. If she doesn’t get it, it may help justify, in her mind, an accusation that she would objectively recognize as wrong, were she more removed from the situation.

Finally, of course, it provides an alternate explanation for the phenomenon that many rape accusations are made and then retracted. If the object is to protect reputation, then it’s not necessarily obligatory to prove to the public with legal consequences that the alleged crime occurred – it’s enough for her reputation if the public accusation plants in everyone’s minds that the she wasn’t willing.

Of course, calling this a "model" is a bit generous, because there’s really no way to test or falsify it – certainly not directly – and so it wouldn’t be right to base any policy proposals on it. That said, it’s no less of a model than the already-adopted, widely-repeated article of faith that the shame of being raped is so great that no woman would ever lie about it. We all sense that there’s some truth to both – and so it’s illustrative of how skewed an issue this is that only the second of the two is repeated in polite company.

Very soon, Betsy DeVos and her advisors will be reaching a decision about whether to retract/amend the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter that makes all educational institutions receiving finanacial aid of any kind from the federal government responsible for actively investigating any accusation of rape or other form of sexual assault, no matter how credible. I doubt that Dr. Mills’ theory is going to play much of a role in her deliberations. Nor should it – as noted, it’s plausible-sounding pseudoscience, a good framework for inquiry but not the sort of thing you’d want to draw any real-world consequences from. It’s just that that happens to be true of almost all the "science" that’s been cited in favor of the current approach. If there’s one thing we should have learned from millennia on the planet, it’s that what people actually do often has very little to do with what any rationalist model would expect. Rape is a listed crime, with good reason. It’s time to turn the problem back over to the legitimate criminal authorities. DeVos should retract the letter, and she should do it precisely because armchair reasoning about whether people are likely to under- or over-report isn’t getting us anywhere – especially when, as now, armchair reasoning is only allowed to reach certain predetermined conclusions anyway.


  1. I know what you’re thinking, but there are circumstances where he does. For example, if he’s pursuing someone else and having some but not conclusive success, he may not want it to get out that he had a one-off encounter with another girl. Etc.

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