A common question asked by men and women is what percent of sexual assault accusations (almost always assumed to be by women against men) are false?
False accusations of sexual assault result in significant upheaval in an individual’s life. An individual who is accused of sexual assault may be terminated from their employment, removed from their school, and face impairment in their relationships. This is true whether they are found guilty or not. An additional complication is that newspapers often publish the names of accused individuals, regardless of their conviction. Rape shield laws usually prevent the publication of the accuser.
In the United States, enforcement of the provisions of Title IX have resulted in individuals removed from their universities without trial, which may be a violation of their due process and civil rights.
There is significant debate on the prevalence rates of false accusations which depend on the methodology of the studies consulted and the source.
Table of Contents
Police Beliefs Regarding Sexual Assault
Jordan (2004) notes a 1980 study that found that police believed an average of 3 out of 5 rape accusations were false, and a 1997 study where at least half of the surveyed police believed 25% of rape accusations to be false. This reflected police belief that rapes are primarily conducted by strangers off the street, not by people who went out for the night with their rapist. Additional studies noted by Jordan have false rapes pegged police at 50-80%. It is clear that many police officers believe false rape accusations are common. These studies all seem to refer exclusively to male perpetrators and female victims.
Characteristics noted by Jordan as influencing police decisions to classify a case as false include:
- Impaired (drugs or alcohol)
- A delay in reporting the crime to police
- Having previously had consensual sex with the accused
- Having a previous rape or abuse
- Mental health issues
- Perceiving the accuser as immoral
- An intellectual impairment
- A previous false rape complaint
- Concealing information important to the investigation
One factor noted that strongly influenced the rate of genuineness was the presence of physical injuries, which may not be present in many instances of sexual violence. Johnson, Griffith & Barnaby (2013) discuss the frequent error in suspect identification when the perpetrator is black and the victim is white and how this may influence false accusations.
Prevalence of False Accusations
Spohn, White & Tellis (2014), who examined police files of the LAPD and found a rate of 4.5%, while Lonsway, Archambault & Lisak (2009) found a rate of “between 2 and 8%” when studies with strong methodology have been taken into account. This last study notes the issues with police classifications that may result in the under-reporting of the rate of sexual violence.
Spohn, White & Tellis cite other studies in their literature review, which are reproduced here for reference:
- Kelly (2010) found a rate of 3% – This study is discussed in the Opposing Narrative section.
- Lisak (2010) found a rate of 6%
Spohn et. al. note methodological issues with both of these studies.
Kelly (2010) states that rape is a gendered crime, “which creates conditions of virtual impunity for predatory men.” It also states there is a lack of services for women who are victim-survivors of sexual violence.
Kelly, Lovett & Regan (2005) notes that of the 8% of rape cases declared false in their first study, only 18% had a named suspect, and less than 3% involved an arrest. This contradicts the belief that many men are being arrested for false accusations.
In their second study, “rates of false allegations ranged between 1% and 9%, with the majority at 6% or less.” Kelly’s rate of 3% was determined by excluding cases where the suspect’s credibility was based on the issues identified by Jordan above.
O’Neal et. al. (2014) identify five categories that may result in false accusations:
- Avoiding trouble
- Providing an alibi
- Anger or revenge
- Attention seeking
- Mental illness
- Guilt or remorse.
They state that a more complex view of false accusations is necessary, to take into account the personal factors that may lead to a false accusation.
There are few solutions to the problem of false accusation as one cannot control an individual’s statements to police. Improving the coding standards of police to ensure that accusations dropped for lack of evidence or retracted because of a disinterest in the legal process are not automatically classified as false.
Additionally, cases where falsehoods have been proven, prosecution of that individual is necessary in order to deter future instances of false accusation. Edit Oct-20/2015: I’d like to clarify this statement. In cases where beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g. a confession or video taped exculpatory evidence) an accusation of sexual assault was made in bad faith, it is important that, as with all false police reports involving major crimes, the accuser is prosecuted. This should hold true regardless of gender of the perpetrator or victim.
Rewriting rape shields laws so as to protect the names of both the accused and the accuser would prevent false accusations from pre-emptively causing damage to the life of someone who has not been convicted yet.
Finally, removing the ability of campuses in the United States to remove individuals who have not been convicted (indeed, or even charged) of a crime may improve their adherence to due process and protection of individuals civil rights.
Limitations in the Literature
One area that has not, as far as I know, received any exploration in the literature is the prevalence of false accusations by men against women. Interestingly, while sexual assault is assumed to be primarily by male perpetrators against women victims/survivors, the assumption is reversed in false accusations (with nobody believing men would make false accusations of sexual violence against a woman.)
Johnson, M.B., Griffith, S., Barnaby, C.Y. (2013) African Americans Wrongly Convicted of Sexual Assault Against Whites: Eyewitness Error and Other Case Features. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 11:277–294. doi: 10.1080/15377938.2013.813285.
Jordan, J. (2004) Beyond belief? Police, rape and women’s credibility. Criminal Justice. 1466–8025; Vol: 4(1): 29–59. doi: 10.1177/1466802504042222
Kelly, L. (2010) “The (In)Credible Words of Women: False Allegations in European Rape Research,” 16 Violence Against Women 1345–55.
Lisak, D, Gardinier, L., S.C. Nicksa, & Cote, A.M. (2010) False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Case. Violence Against Women 1318–34.
Lonsway, K.A., Archambault, J., & Lisak D. (2009) False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault. The Voice. 1–11.
O’Neal, E. N., Spohn, C., Tellis, K. & White, C. (2014) The Truth Behind the Lies: The Complex Motivations for False Allegations of Sexual Assault. Women & Criminal Justice, 24:324–340.
Spohn, C., White, C., Tellis, K. (2014) Unfounding Sexual Assault: Examining the Decision to Unfound and Identifying False Reports. Law & Society Review. (48)1.