Trauma, abuse and bereavement / Category / Emile Du Toit / September 14th 2014
This 4th blog in the series of 10 on preventing rape takes a look at false rape allegations. We take a thorough look at why this topic raises such emotional debate and why as a result some of the research on the issue has been criticized as being biased and methodologically unsound. We look at why actual rates of false rape allegations are so important in terms of the burden of proof in rape court cases, as well as the profound effect it has on both the potential rape victim and alleged rape perpetrator in ruining people’s lives in the media.
The series begins with How to prevent being raped series (1/10) - The harsh realities of rape.
There is a fierce debate in the literature on women falsely accusing men of rape. Estimates of false allegations fluctuate like a rollercoaster depending on who you talk to.
Although the FBI had set 8% as the average rate of false (actually, unfounded) accusations there is huge variation in estimates of false allegations of rape in the literature 1. 7.. Studies on false rape accusations between 1968 and 2005 showed a percentage range from 1-90% 10.. In my opinion only some of this can be explained by definitions of rape and regional psychosocial diversity.
Sadly, when it comes to the debate on rape allegations I have to conclude that ‘facts’and statistics are being cherry picked to fit already present theories and biases.
I shall desist from describing the debate on what ‘false rape allegations’should actually entail. What is DOES entail is a wide array of definition. In the narrowest definition it is assumed that there has only been a false rape allegation if the victim recants her testimony. On the other hand the broadest definition of false rape allegations includes all those situations where the perpetrator was not convicted or there was insufficient evidence to convict. For those who are interested here is a good overview of the studies conducted 6. although I do not necessarily support the conclusions that are reached.
Anyhow, we will have to live with the fact that actual figures on false alleged rape are unknown and the best we can work with is an estimate. Having perused the studies on this subject I am not sure that any are methodologically sound enough to report here. What does emerge though is that the two most common motives for women who have falsely alleged rape are:
A good factual meta-analysis of the published studies is included here 10.. Three studies in particular bear mentioning as they are both recent (and thus the attitudes of the police are likely to be less biased), as well as being relatively comprehensive, unbiased and methodologically sound.
This number was similar to the Perhaps the most comprehensive study conducted on false rape allegations was the British Home Office study 8.. It found that police department files classified around 8% of rape cases as ‘false’. The report looked at the data and noted that the classification as ‘false’was based on the personal judgments of the police investigators, and were made in violation of official criteria for establishing a false allegation. When applying official criteria (as best as one ever can retrospectively) they felt that around 3% of the rape victims had falsely reported being raped.
FBI research studies also concluded that around 8% of rape allegations were concluded to be ‘unfounded’.1. 2. 3. 4. 5. They noted though that they collect data on crime from areas that use different criteria for "unfounded."A reported rape could be classified as ‘unfounded’if :
the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect,
Obviously this would once again decrease the percentage of actual false rape allegations.
The last study I am going to mention in this article is a 10-year rape allegation study 9. What I liked about this study methodologically speaking is that it involved a thorough investigation of many different criteria through different methods. So where possible it might include multiple interviews of the alleged perpetrator, the victim, and other witnesses, as well as other forensic evidence such as medical records and security camera records. This study reported that 5.9% of rape allegations were false.
So where does our thorough review of the literature actually leave us? For one thing I feel it clearly shows us that different countries and socio-cultural contexts will have different rates of false reporting. We also need to take cognisance of those studies citing much higher figures of false rape allegations than the ones mentioned below. My personal response to those studies is that much of the data from them appears to be quite heavily dependent on the (often present) male-dominated bias of the police investigators. They also tend to employ very broad criteria for situations what would be defined as depicting a false rape allegation.
I have also stuck my neck out and concluded that there appear to be high levels of ‘researcher bias’in some of the studies on both sides of the debate. This is a very emotional debate, and I am aware that giving an opinion opens me up to criticism from both sides of this debate. All I can say is that I have tried to be led by the facts rather than squeezing them to fit any pre-existing viewpoint:
It is my opinion that it seems likely that on average in the western world false rape allegations make up between 3% and 8% of all cases, possibly close to Lisak’s figure at around 6%.
It is really important as –unlike with most other crimes –it is possible in many countries to be convicted of rape based on a victim’s testimony, without much other corroborating evidence. This acknowledges the fact that most rape crimes happen in a solitary environment without any witnesses. In western democracies and indeed many other nations one of the normal legal principles is that an accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. False accusations in the press or indeed any social environment can also open the accuser up to defamation charges.
The problem with rape is that if the legal principle of assumed innocence applies to the alleged assailant, it automatically places a level of assumed dishonesty on the person who is claiming she was raped!
This plays strongly in to all the male dominated stereotypes and myths about rape. It also makes conviction somewhat problematic in situations where there is no evidence of violence and it is the alleged rapist’s word against his alleged victim.
So allegations that 90% of women falsely accuse men of rape creates a strong bias towards the assailant, which can be a factor when police collect data and indeed even in the courtroom itself. Equally, those who claim that 99% of women who allege rape are telling the truth create a strong bias in the other direction! I mentioned the press and defamation earlier on as this can also become a factor. Even if a man (such as say Woody Allen) is not found guilty of rape (the charges against him of child molestation were thrown out before even reaching court as the investigation found insufficient evidence to proceed), the allegations still hang around in the media and tarnish his good name. There will always be people out there who see him as a child molester. Equally, the findings of the investigation tarnish both his daughter and more strongly his ex-wife. She cried wolf and for the rest of her days many will see her as a dishonest, vindictive women who will do anything for revenge against her ex-husband.
We will never know for certain whether he did it or not –though obviously the legal system found him innocent. But all three of their lives have been negatively affected by the allegation.
So should the alleged victim or rapist carry the burden of proof, in the legal system but also in the media?
As a male I cannot think of much worse than being accused of raping someone. It is an image entirely incongruent with my identity and I have no doubt it would damage my life forever. Beyond my personal life, it would also irrevocably damage my career. I consider false accusations of rape in order to vengefully ruin someone’s life or just arbitrarily to get out of an awkward situation as the ultimate act of cowardice from a woman.
On the other hand though, I work with so many clients who have been raped. So very many... The overwhelming majority are by acquaintances, which often makes it so much harder to prove. Many of them are too ashamed –or convinced that the perpetrator would be acquitted –that they do not even report it to the police. I also deal with clients who were molested as children, or raped by partners many years ago, and the trauma has left layers of scars upon their persona. When they have felt unable to speak out it is obviously much worse as it is so very hard for them to resolve themselves of the shame and inadequacy that they feel. When they do speak out they are sometimes not believed by friends and family, or not supported by the legal system, and once again they suffer from feelings of shame and inadequacy.
This series on How to prevent being raped will continue next week with part 5 of 10 Psychosocial beliefs and attitudes that support rape.
A selection of findings on the prevalence of false rape allegations. Data from Rumney (2006).
False reporting rate (%)
Theilade and Thomsen (1986)
1 out of 56
4 out of 39
New York Rape Squad (1974)
Hursch and Selkin (1974)
10 out of 545
Kelly et al. (2005)
67 out of 2,643
3% ("possible"and "probable"false allegations)
22% (recorded by police as "no-crime")
3–31% (estimates given by police surgeons)
17 out of 447
U.S. Department of Justice (1997)
Clark and Lewis (1977)
12 out of 116
Harris and Grace (1999)
53 out of 483
123 out of 483
25% (recorded by police as "no-crime")
Lea et al. (2003)
42 out of 379
164 out of 1,379
McCahill et al. (1979)
218 out of 1,198
Philadelphia police study (1968)
74 out of 370
Chambers and Millar (1983)
44 out of 196
Grace et al. (1992)
80 out of 335
68 out of 164
62 out of 164
38% (viewed by police as "possibly true/possibly false")
45 out of 109
Gregory and Lees (1996)
49 out of 109
16 out of 34
16 out of 18
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