An odd place where men’s rights activists and feminists meet is at the idea that false rape allegations ruin lives. The first side is infuriated that with a single accusation, someone (usually female) can destroy the reputation and future of someone else (usually male). The second side argues that false allegations are exceptionally rare, and the few people who make them are destroying the credibility of true sexual assault victims. This last point was proven a few weeks ago when Whoopi Goldberg, in the face of Bill Cosby’s own testimony that he drugged women to have sex with them, compared the situation to well-publicized false allegations like the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal and Rolling Stone’s retracted “A Rape on Campus” article. (In the face of nearly overwhelming evidence against Cosby, Goldberg eventually changed her position, saying, “It looks bad, Bill.”)

But while both groups agree that false allegations are a problem, they couldn’t disagree more on how to address the issue. MRAs can’t talk about them enough; many cite a false allegation as their “red pill” moment that opened their eyes to how evil feminists are. Feminists are much more uncomfortable with the topic. False allegations, after all, hold a disproportionate place in the public imagination; their specter derails productive conversations about sexual assault and supporting victims. Feminists, a group in which I include myself wholeheartedly, can dismiss the discussion by claiming that, because of their extreme rarity, false allegations aren’t worth representing or talking about. And when stories about false allegations are told in art and literature, we try to label them as “bad for women” and minimize their impact.


This is a bad approach, and it’s counterproductive to the goal of supporting victims. The only way to dilute the power of stories like the ones cited by Whoopi Goldberg is by discussing false allegation narratives more, not less. We need to actively explore these stories to understand what they can tell us. Although false allegations are statistical outliers, the fact that people are so frightened of them and reflexively disbelieve victims tells us more about our society than it does about the woman or man making the allegation (or about the prevalence of rape in general). And the allegations themselves show how familiar, widely believed tropes about gendered behavior can be manipulated into plausible-seeming narratives.

Stories about false allegations are not only common: they’re also very old. They go back as far as the Bible, but are especially common in Greek mythology. The most famous example is Phaedra, whose false accusation against her stepson led to his death. I’ve written about how common rape was in Greek literature and how the Athenians enjoyed the occasional rape joke. In a culture where rape was so common and so easy to laugh about, it’s surprising that there was so much worry about false allegations. But maybe that paradox can tell us about our own, equally irrational fears.


Discussions of false allegations are inherently charged, cutting close to some of our deepest discomforts about how our society deals with and thinks about rape. They evidence the near-impossibility of an outsider ascertaining objective falsehood when the only witnesses are the alleged victim and perpetrator of the crime, as well as the difficulty of the fact that rape often doesn’t leave a trace except on the psyche of the victim. In the absence of physical evidence, the struggle becomes one between narratives: he said, she said. That’s why the recent New York Magazine article juxtaposing photos of Cosby’s accusers with their stories is so powerful: it centers them, at last.

Rape allegations also draw attention to an uncomfortable contradiction. One of the core beliefs of our legal system is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, many people—after an entire recorded history that has often assumed the opposite—have a default response of wanting to support and believe those who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. So how do we handle the fact that these two stances are fundamentally irreconcilable? If we believe that alleged rapists are innocent until proven guilty, then on some level, we have to believe that victims might be lying until they can prove that they’re telling the truth. We don’t want to automatically assume that everyone accused is a rapist, but we also don’t want to assume that accusers are liars. There is no unequivocally safe ground from which to judge.

With subjects this difficult, art offers a uniquely safe place to find and draw out the nuance. False rape accusations are common in fiction: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch establishes that his defendant, Tom Robinson, is being falsely accused of raping a white woman. The title character in the 2003 film The Life of David Gale had his academic career ruined by a student who claimed he raped her after he refused to give her a good grade. More recently, Amy Dunne, the main female character in the book (and movie) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, repeatedly falsifies rape accusations—and, surprisingly, is easily believed by the police.


Because Gone Girl was released in the age of the thinkpiece, there are dozens of articles declaring it misogynistic. Many of these articles say outright that seeing the movie reinforces the mistaken idea that false rape allegations are common. But again, ignoring and minimizing the false allegation narrative won’t make people trust rape victims any more. Looking at the story closer almost always shows that stories about false allegations don’t land on “bitches be crazy” they explore how deeply screwed up a society’s attitude toward rape can be. Analysis detoxifies better than dismissal, better than calling false allegations a “myth.”

But let’s try it. False allegations are a myth. True or false? It’s both. False, because when we call something a myth we really mean that it doesn’t exist. When we say that mermaids are mythical, we aren’t saying that we know there are a few mermaids in the ocean but the majority of sightings aren’t genuine: we’re saying fully that mermaids aren’t real. Calling false rape allegations a myth implies that they never occur, and as much as we might wish that were true, that is not the case.

On the other hand, it is literally true that false rape allegations are a myth, in the sense that mythology is populated with them, and thus the idea that women might falsely accuse men of rape for malicious reasons is deeply held in our cultural consciousness. There are frequently-cited examples in both Genesis and Greek mythology.


The standard narrative has changed since in the past few millennia. Potiphar’s wife and Phaedra (and others) accused men of rape because the men refused to have sex with them, but now we have new motivations: women falsely accuse men of rape because they want fame or money, people say—or they regret a sexual encounter, so they try to make it seem nonconsensual. Or they’re just psycho. People sometimes point to literary and mythical examplesespecially Phaedra, who gives her name to the “Phaedra syndrome”—to legitimate the idea that this behavior is an essential part of female psychology, as though these ancient stories show that women have always lied about rape when it suits them.

But making comparisons to the ancient world is a dangerous thing. It offers a false sense of legitimacy, an imagined continuity, an implicit cultural currency. As a classical scholar, I feel a responsibility to unpack these comparisons, to explore the context with sensitivity and nuance. We use this process all every day in our treatment of analogies in ancient texts—a truly astonishing amount of scholarly energy has been devoted to the study of similes in Homer. So it seems obvious that we should do the same thing for similes that bridge the ancient and the modern world, especially when they’re being used to justify the idea that the urge to lie about being raped is just part of female nature.


The story of Phaedra and Hippolytus is similar to (but more complicated than) the story of Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, in which Potiphar’s wife lies about Joseph raping her to get revenge after he refuses to sleep with her. Phaedra’s motivations and actions are much more difficult to pin down. For her, Hippolytus, her stepson, isn’t just a random object of lust and vengeance. And in a way, he really is responsible for victimizing Phaedra—just not in the manner she alleges.

There are many versions of the myth of Phaedra, but the most commonly known is the story as it is told in Euripides’ Hippolytus. In Euripides’ version, Hippolytus is a very vocal misogynist and supporter of celibacy. Aphrodite, furious that he refuses to honor her, decides to punish him by causing Phaedra to fall deeply, painfully in love with him. (Aphrodite acknowledges but isn’t terribly concerned that her revenge reduces an innocent woman to the status of collateral damage.)

Phaedra has no intention of acting on her desire for her stepson. Instead, she locks herself in her palace and refuses to eat, intending to starve herself to death. When a trusted slave discovers the cause of Phaedra’s distress, she propositions Hippolytus on her mistress’s behalf. Hippolytus is horrified, of course, and threatens to tell his father Theseus about his wife’s shamelessness. Phaedra then hangs herself, leaving a note claiming that Hippolytus raped her. Although Hippolytus attempts to defend himself against the charge, Theseus believes his dead wife and prays to his father Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. Hippolytus then suffers a brutal chariot accident and survives just long enough for Artemis to appear and inform Theseus that his son had been telling the truth all along.


The Hippolytus is brutal to watch or read. Every character is guilty of doing something wrong. Every character overreacts when something wrong is done to them, also, but they’re also all punished in a way that’s completely disproportionate to their crimes. It’s hard not to feel that the play’s ultimate message is a nihilistic one: life is suffering.

Edith Hall, a prominent British classicist and professor at King’s College London, wrote a blog post in late May titled “Why I Hate the Myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus.” In her post, Hall recounts the story of how an acquaintance compared a woman who was believed to have made a false rape allegation to Phaedra. The woman’s story was later verified and the accused man arrested. The story could easily be compared to Whoopi Goldberg likening Bill Cosby’s accusers to the false allegations at Duke and UVA, then later admitting his probable guilt. Hall says that the incident shed light on her “intuitive loathing” of the Phaedra myth, and especially Euripides’ Hippolytus. She writes, “Every performance constitutes another ‘proof’ of the mass delusion that information imparted by women is unreliable.”

Arguments like Hall’s—and the many people who have argued that Gone Girl reinforces toxic ideology—imply an imaginary state of nature surrounding rape allegations: as though once upon a time, when people claimed they’d been raped, they were implicitly believed, until one day, somebody decided to lie (probably for revenge), and ever since then we’ve been deeply suspicious of sexual assault victims. If we could just stop telling stories about false allegations, goes the undertone, we’d forget that they’d ever happened and revert back to believing victims.


In fact, the opposite is true: the cultural default has always been that victims aren’t believed. Especially female victims. The Greeks associated women with fabrication and deception and storytelling; so do we. One article about false allegations points out that women (and children) are “defined as trusting and yet, in the sexual sphere, not to be trusted.” That Theseus and Potiphar in these stories automatically believe their wives is an aberration. And, to dismiss Euripides’ Hippolytus as harmful to the discourse on sexual assault is to reduce Phaedra to a crudely silenced figure, nothing more than a woman who made a false rape allegation—when, in Euripides’ version of her myth, the details of her psychology are the most fascinating part.

Phaedra, like Amy Dunne, knows how important image is to a successful false rape allegation—both her image, and that of the man she accuses. Her spotless sexual history works completely in her favor, especially when compared to her mother (Pasiphae, the woman who gave birth to the Minotaur) and sister (Ariadne, the woman who pursued Theseus and helped him kill her monstrous half-brother). Unlike her female relatives, Phaedra has no history of being the aggressor in a sexual relationship: she’s the kind of person who would rather die than proposition her stepson. She’s the model of a virtuous wife.

It also helps Phaedra’s case that she points her finger at a man who already looks guilty. Even before Phaedra makes her accusation, Hippolytus has an irritating tendency to soliloquize about how oversexed women are and how men should have nothing to do with them. It wins him no friends, and it makes it very easy for Phaedra to depict him as a hypocrite. This trope is a familiar one—Americans are so used to a certain kind of politician getting caught in a sex scandal, we are no longer surprised when anyone who runs on a platform of conservative family values turns out to be gay, a pedophile, or a man who loves sending naked photos to his staffers.


In addition to being a credible victim with a guilty-looking target, Phaedra’s particular method of accusation also cements her narrative. Obviously, her testimony can’t be cross-examined: her suicide seals her story, providing as evidence her dead body and her note. The Greeks believed that the written word had an almost mystical power, and Phaedra’s note has been compared to an ancient curse tablet. By writing down her accusation, she gives it almost the same kind of weight that DNA evidence would have today.

Phaedra’s story, ironically, shows that male terror of false rape allegations is largely unfounded. The only way an allegation will be given weight is if the right kind of non-victim accuses a likely-looking non-rapist and provides some kind of tangible evidence to support her claim. Otherwise, the chances of her being taken seriously are more or less nonexistent. In some ways, not much has changed in 2500 years.


The long history of examining the false rape allegation is further complicated by the fact that no one can agree on what the term exactly means. “False” can have a surprisingly broad array of meanings. Is a rape allegation false only if it’s made with malicious intent by someone who knows that a rape didn’t really occur? Is it false if the victim is confused about what happened to her, or him, and unknowingly gives misleading or incorrect information? Some even call any unverified or unverifiable rape allegations “false.” This last usage implies that anybody who is found not guilty of rape has had a false allegation made against them, eliding the (often significant) distance between truth and what is tangibly provable.

Even without these definitional concerns, our knowledge about false allegations is extremely spotty. In a June 5 article in Bloomberg View beginning with the declaration “Rape statistics are a mess,” Megan McArdle concluded, paraphrasing Socrates: “Until we get mind-reading machines, the only thing we can know about the actual prevalence of false rape reports is that we don’t know it.” Not everyone is quite as Socratic as McArdle, however. The most commonly accepted statistic is that 2-8 percent of rape allegations are false.

To be absolutely clear: that means 2-8 percent of the reports made to the police are later proven to have been made by somebody who knew that the person they were accusing was innocent. And when you consider that many victims choose not to go to the police at all, the ratio of people who have actually experienced sexual assault to people who have falsely claimed to have experienced sexual assault gets—one presumes—even larger. The number of false rape allegations is small: it’s not zero, but it’s small. The amount of fear and worry and hand-wringing about these false allegations is disproportionate to their actual prevalence.


Acknowledging their rarity, however, shouldn’t minimize the tremendous damage that the (extremely uncommon) false rape allegations do to the lives and reputations of the falsely accused. Part of the reason why the myth of Phaedra is such a commonly cited “rape myth” may be that its results are so gruesome: a young man literally gets ripped apart, and his father holds part of the blame.

Euripides, anyway, seems to have had something of an obsession with false rape allegation stories. In addition to the existing Hippolytus, he also wrote another, lost version of the same story, featuring a much more sexually aggressive Phaedra. He told similar stories in at least two other lost plays about other young heroes who had the misfortune of catching the eyes of older women. These plays fit into a bigger thematic group of Euripides’ tragedies, including Medea and Andromache, that all tell stories of how dangerous women can be when you deny them sex.

A certain kind of scholar (the 19th century British kind) would try to spin this trend into a story about how Euripides was falsely accused of rape in his youth and then spent 15 years trying to work out his issues through playwriting. But scholarship of that sort isn’t in vogue anymore. A claim like that is completely unprovable—and, even worse, not very interesting. That kind of analysis looks at these stories as the product of one man’s experience rather than as products of a fascinatingly alien and yet familiar society that handled rape very, very badly.


And of course, there isn’t a one-to-one equivalency in the definitions of rape in ancient Greece and today. There isn’t even a clear consensus about what rape means among Americans living in 2015. Regardless, if people are going to use Phaedra as evidence that women have been using false rape allegations to get revenge on men for thousands of years, they have to acknowledge what rape meant in Athens 2500 years ago. And what it meant—fair warning—was disturbing.

In spite of the omnipresence of sexual assault in Greek myth and literature, the Greeks had no precise word for “rape.” Having sex with an unwilling woman (or man)—while a defined problem in certain contexts—wasn’t an inherently criminal act. They had several words that approximated the meaning: harpagē, biazō, hybris. The first of these words means something like “robbery” or “abduction”—so, if you stole a woman from her husband or father, the criminal act was the theft (regardless of whether sexual assault took place). The latter two terms refer to violence. None of the words has an exclusively sexual meaning, and there was also no word for “rapist” as an identifier that you could use to describe someone.

In our society, rape is defined by lack of consent or inability to consent. But for Athenian men, as Edward Harris has shown, consent wasn’t the main issue at stake. (Harris has gone on to say that we shouldn’t even use the word “rape” to describe sexual violence in Athens, which seem to me to go too far: although consent may not have been an important consideration legally, it was clearly important to the victims, as Sharon James has pointed out. If it hadn’t been, Phaedra could have written a note saying that she committed suicide out of guilt because she’d had consensual sex with Hippolytus, and theoretically Theseus would have gotten equally angry.)


So, if an incident of non-marital sex occurred between freeborn people (slaves didn’t count), the only considerations were: what was the state of mind or intent of the aggressor, and what impact did the act have on the honor of the victim? If the aggressor was in love with his victim, that could be a mitigating factor. And if the woman bore the child of a god, for instance, or if the assailant offered to marry her, the honor that either of those circumstances would bring her disqualifies the act as a rape. This situation occurs frequently in New Comedy, and it’s always difficult for students (and professors!) to accept.

Within this legal framework, victims could only very rarely get anything like what we would consider “justice.” The system was heavily weighted in favor of rapists. And yet, there was still a tremendous fear of false allegations—a fear great enough that Euripides could write four plays about them. In our system, likewise, only a very small number of rape allegations lead to conviction, but the idea of false allegations still dominates the discourse—even though, both in Athens and today, men were more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of it.

Previously: How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke

Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck) is editor of Eidolon, an online Classics journal. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2014 for her dissertation on ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Read more of her work here.


Illustration by Bobby Finger, source image via Wikimedia Commons (The Death of Hippolytus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema)