|Effects and motivations|
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A false accusation of rape is the reporting of a rape where no rape has occurred. It is difficult to assess the true prevalence of false rape allegations, but it is generally agreed that, for about 2% to 10% of rape allegations, a thorough investigation establishes that no crime was committed or attempted.
There are a number of ways in which an alleged victim can accidentally come to believe that they have been raped by the person(s) they accuse. These include, but are not limited to:
There are a number of motivations an accuser may have to falsely claim they have been raped. There is disagreement on into how many different categories these may be put. Kanin (1994) put them in three: revenge, producing an alibi or to get sympathy/attention. Author Sandra Newman listed four categories in 2017. According to De Zutter et al. (2017), Kanin's division is inadequate and one should recognise eight distinct categories in total:
According to De Zutter et al. (2017), 20% of complainants said that they did not know why they had filed a false allegation.
It is extremely difficult to assess the prevalence of false accusations. All jurisdictions have a distinct classification of false accusation, resulting in these cases being combined with other types of cases (e.g. where the accuser did not physically resist the suspect or sustain injuries) under headings such as "unfounded" or "unproved". There are many reasons other than falsity that can result in a rape case being closed as unfounded or unproven. DiCanio (1993) states that while researchers and prosecutors do not agree on the exact percentage of cases in which there was sufficient evidence to conclude that allegations were false, they generally agree on a range of 2% to 10%. Due to varying definitions of a "false accusation", the true percentage remains unknown.
Another complicating factor is that data regarding false allegations generally do not come from studies designed to estimate the prevalence of false allegations; rather, they come from reviews of data regarding investigations and prosecutions within criminal justice systems. The goal of such investigations is to determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, not to evaluate the cases for which there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute and classify such cases as "false" or "true".
Claire E. Ferguson and John M. Malouff conducted a meta-analysis of confirmed false rape reporting rates in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2016, and found that 5.2% of cases were confirmed false rape reports. The authors note that the "total false reporting rate... would be greater than the 5% rate found here" if possible false allegations were also included alongside confirmed allegations.
Researchers Cassia Spohn, Clair White and Katharine Tellis examined data provided by the Los Angeles Police Department in the US from 2008, and found that false reports among rape cases was about 4.5 percent.
A report by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) examined rape allegations in England and Wales over a 17-month period between January 2011 and May 2012. It showed that in 35 cases authorities prosecuted a person for making a false allegation, while they brought 5,651 prosecutions for rape. Keir Starmer, the head of the CPS, said that the "mere fact that someone did not pursue a complaint or retracted it, is not of itself evidence that it was false" and that it is a "misplaced belief" that false accusations of rape are commonplace. He added that the report also showed that a significant number of false allegations of rape (and domestic violence) "involved young, often vulnerable people. About half of the cases involved people aged 21 years old and under, and some involved people with mental health difficulties. In some cases, the person alleged to have made the false report had undoubtedly been the victim of some kind of offence, even if not the one that he or she had reported."
In a study of the first 100 rape reports after April 1, 2004, in Scotland, researchers found that about 4% of reports were designated by police to be false. In a separate report by the same researchers that year which studied primary data from several countries in Europe, including Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, and Wales, found the average proportion of reports designated by police as false was about 4%, and wasn't higher than 9% in any country they studied. They noted that cases where the police doubt the allegation may be "hidden in the ‘no evidence of sexual assault’ category" instead of designated false category and suggested more detailed research into explicating both categories.
The UK Ministry of Justice in their Research Series published a report describing the analysis of 1,149 case files of violent crimes recorded April 2008 to March 2009. They noted that 12% of rape allegations fell into a broader definition of false accusations (victim was intoxicated, there was a delay in reporting the crime, victim retracted the complaint after the fact, or no evidence of bodily harm was recorded). Approximately 3% of the false rape allegations were identified as malicious (determined to be intentionally false). When it came to cases with grievous bodily harm (GBH), even the broader definition (no evidence, delayed report, retraction, or intoxicated victim) accounted for only 2% of crimes.
|Number||False reporting rate (%)|
|Theilade and Thomsen (1986)||1 out of 56
4 out of 39
|New York Rape Squad (1974)||n/a||2%|
|Hursch and Selkin (1974)||10 out of 545||2%|
|Kelly et al. (2005)||67 out of 2,643||3% ("possible" and "probable" false allegations) |
22% (recorded by police as "no-crime")
|Geis (1978)||n/a||3–31% (estimates given by police surgeons)|
|Smith (1989)||17 out of 447||3.8%|
|U.S. Department of Justice (1997)||n/a||8%|
|Clark and Lewis (1977)||12 out of 116||10.3%|
|Harris and Grace (1999)||53 out of 483
123 out of 483
|10.9% ("false/malicious" claims)|
25% (recorded by police as "no-crime")
|Lea et al. (2003)||42 out of 379||11%|
|HMCPSI/HMIC (2002)||164 out of 1,379||11.8%|
|McCahill et al. (1979)||218 out of 1,198||18.2%|
|Philadelphia police study (1968)||74 out of 370||20%|
|Chambers and Millar (1983)||44 out of 196||22.4%|
|Grace et al. (1992)||80 out of 335||24%|
|Jordan (2004)||68 out of 164
62 out of 164
|41% ("false" claims)|
38% (viewed by police as "possibly true/possibly false")
|Kanin (1994)||45 out of 109||41%|
|Gregory and Lees (1996)||49 out of 109||45%|
|Maclean (1979)||16 out of 34||47%|
|Stewart (1981)||16 out of 18||90%|
A 2006 paper by Philip N.S. Rumney in the Cambridge Law Journal offers a review of studies of false reporting in the US, New Zealand and the UK. Rumney draws two conclusions from his review of literature. First, the police continue to misapply the "no-crime" or "unfounding" criteria. Studies by Kelly et al. (2005), Lea et al. (2003), HMCPSI/HMIC (2002), Harris and Grace (1999), Smith (1989), and others found that police decisions to no-crime were frequently dubious and based entirely on the officer's personal judgment. Rumney notes that some officers seem to "have fixed views and expectations about how genuine rape victims should react to their victimization". He adds that "qualitative research also suggests that some officers continue to exhibit an unjustified scepticism of rape complainants, while others interpret such things as lack of evidence or complaint withdrawal as 'proof' of a false allegation".
Rumney's second conclusion is that it is impossible to "discern with any degree of certainty the actual rate of false allegations" because many of the studies of false allegations have adopted unreliable or untested research methodologies. He argues, for instance, that in addition to their small sample size, the studies by Maclean (1979) and Stewart (1981) used questionable criteria to judge an allegation to be false. MacLean deemed reports "false" if, for instance, the victim did not appear "dishevelled" and Stewart, in one instance, considered a case disproved, stating that "it was totally impossible to have removed her extremely tight undergarments from her extremely large body against her will".
American psychologist David Lisak criticized the collection of studies used in Rumney's 2006 paper, which estimated the rate of false allegations as between 1.5–90%. Lisak stated that many of the stats are misleading upon investigation and "when the sources of these estimates are examined carefully it is clear that only a fraction of the reports represent credible studies and that these credible studies indicate far less variability in false reporting rates." Lisak points out that even in the original paper Rumney concludes that many of the studies have inadequacies and should not be used to estimate the frequency of false rape reports.
A study of 850 rape accusations made to police in Victoria, Australia between 2000 and 2003 found that 2.1% were ultimately classified by police as false, with the complainants then charged or threatened with charges for filing a false police report.
The Home Office on UK rape crime in 2005 released a study that followed 2,643 sexual assault cases from initial reporting of a rape through to legal prosecutions. The study was based on 2,643 sexual assault cases, of these, police classified 8% as false reports based on police judgement, and the rate was 2.5% when determined using official criteria for false reports. The researchers concluded that "one cannot take all police designations at face value" and that "[t]here is an over-estimation of the scale of false allegations by both police officers and prosecutors."
In the US, FBI reports from 1995, 1996, and 1997 consistently put the number of "unfounded" forcible rape accusations around 8%. In contrast, the average rate of unfounded reports for all "index crimes" (murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft) tracked by the FBI is 2%. This estimate, however, does not appear in subsequent FBI reports. This estimate was criticised by academic Bruce Gross as almost meaningless as many jurisdictions from which FBI collects data use different definition of "unfounded", which, he wrote, includes cases where the victim did not physically fight off the suspect or the suspect did not use a weapon, and cases where the victim had a prior relationship to the suspect.
In 1994, Eugene J. Kanin of Purdue University investigated the incidences of false rape allegations made to the police in one small urban community in the Midwest United States (population 70,000) between 1978 and 1987. He states that unlike in many larger jurisdictions, this police department had the resources to "seriously record and pursue to closure all rape complaints, regardless of their merits". He further states each investigation "always involves a serious offer to polygraph the complainants and the suspects" and "the complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is the sole agent who can say that the rape charge is false".
The number of false rape allegations in the studied period was 45; this was 41% of the 109 total complaints filed in this period. The researchers verified, whenever possible, for all of the complainants who recanted their allegations, that their new account of the events matched the accused's version of events.
After reviewing the police files, Kanin categorized the false accusations into three broad motivations: alibis, revenge, and attention-seeking. These motivations were assigned prevalence of roughly 50%, 30%, and 20% respectively. This categorization was supported by the details of complainant recantations and other documentation of their cases.
Kanin also investigated the combined police records of two large Midwestern universities over a three-year period (1986–1988), and found that 50% of the reported forcible rapes were determined to be false accusations (32 of the total 64). No polygraphs were used, the investigations were the sole responsibility of a ranking female officer, and a rape charge was only counted as false under complainant recantation. In this sample, the motivations mentioned above were roughly evenly split between alibi and revenge, with only one case characterized as attention-seeking.
Critics of Kanin's report include David Lisak, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Men's Sexual Trauma Research Project at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He states, "Kanin's 1994 article on false allegations is a provocative opinion piece, but it is not a scientific study of the issue of false reporting of rape. It certainly should never be used to assert a scientific foundation for the frequency of false allegations."
According to Lisak, Kanin's study lacked any kind of systematic methodology and did not independently define a false report, instead recording as false any report which the police department classified as false, whereas Kanin stated that the women filing the false allegations of rape had recanted. The department classified reports as false which the complainant later said were false, but Lisak points out that Kanin's study did not scrutinize the police's processes or employ independent checkers to protect results from bias.
Kanin, Lisak writes, took his data from a police department which used investigation procedures (polygraphs) that are discouraged by the U.S. Justice Department and denounced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These procedures include the "serious offer", in this department, of polygraph testing of complainants, which is viewed as a tactic of intimidation that leads victims to avoid the justice process and which, Lisak says, is "based on the misperception that a significant percentage of sexual assault reports are false". The police department's "biases...were then echoed in Kanin's unchallenged reporting of their findings". While also noting some of the same criticisms of Kanin, Rumney's 2006 metastudy of US and UK false rape allegation studies adds that "if, indeed, officers did abide by this policy then the 41% could, in fact, be an underestimate given the restrictive definition of false complaints offered by the police in this study. The reliability of these findings may be somewhat bolstered by the fact that the police appeared to record the details and circumstances of the fabrications."
Bruce Gross writes in the Forensic Examiner that Kanin's study is an example of the limitations of existing studies on false rape accusations. "Small sample sizes and non-representative samples preclude generalizability." Philip N.S. Rumney questions the reliability of Kanin's study stating that it "must be approached with caution". He argues that the study's most significant problem is Kanin's assumption "that police officers abided by departmental policy in only labeling as false those cases where the complainant admitted to fabrication. He does not consider that actual police practice, as other studies have shown, might have departed from guidelines."
Surveys of police and prosecutors find that many in law enforcement consistently over-estimate the prevalence of false accusations, leading to what some researchers have characterized as a culture of skepticism toward accusers in sexual assault cases.
There are studies about the extent which the media affects the public perception of false rape accusations. Incorrect assumptions about false rape allegations increases the likelihood that a person who reports rape will be blamed or disbelieved. Megan Sacks in Deviant Behavior says that the media perpetuates rape myths when reporting on sexual assaults. Rapes that are reported in news media are typically sensational and do not often correspond with the reality of most rapes, for example, the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the person knows as opposed to a stranger. Sacks says, the media also normalizes sexual violence in general, often blames the person who reported the assault, and commonly expresses sympathy for the alleged perpetrators instead of the victim. Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral psychology associate at Harvard University, speculated that mythologizing of rape could contribute to the idea that "no normal person" could rape. As a result, the people commonly had a difficult time believing someone they know or like is a rapist, and this could contribute to the idea that the person who reported the rape is at fault.
In the European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, André De Zutter and a team described how false rape allegations often resemble stories of rape portrayed in the media, which are not typical of most true incidents of rape. False stories tend to be quick and straightforward with few details or complex interactions, and usually involve only vaginal intercourse. Some behaviors associated with lying by juries is actually typical of true rapes, including kissing or a previous relationship with the rapist. True rape reports often include many details rarely seen in media or false rape reports, for example pseudo-intimate actions, detailed verbal interactions and an otherwise wide range of behaviors besides simply face-to-face vaginal intercourse.
Over a five-year period ending in 2014, a total of 109 women were prosecuted for crimes related to making false accusations of rape. The report did not indicate the verdicts following prosecution. Another report identified 121 charging decisions involving allegations of false accusations of rape and an additional 11 false allegations of both domestic violence and rape between January 2011 and May 2012 and found of these cases, 35 were prosecuted based upon false accusations of rape. A further 3 were prosecuted based upon charges of false accusations of both rape and domestic abuse. The report did not indicate the verdicts following prosecution.
In 1895, Ida B. Wells published The Red Record which documented lynchings from 1892 and their causes. She compiled statistics of 241 lynchings which showed that rape and murder were the two most common reasons used to justify lynchings. Wells found little evidence that victims were lynched because they had committed rape or some other offense. Instead she found that African American businesses were competing with white-owned businesses and in some cases African American men had consensual sexual relationships with white women and were lynched after the relationships were discovered by other people. Subsequent analyses have confirmed Wells' argument that economic competition led to lynchings and found that lynchings increased during difficult economic times.
In Louisiana between 1889 and 1896 rape was the second most common reason used to justify a lynching and a survey done in the 1930's of a small town in Mississippi, 60 percent of respondents stated that lynching was an appropriate response to a case of rape and that it was necessary to maintain law and order and protect white women.
There are several notable cases of violence after an accusation of rape during the Jim Crow era.
In the Tulsa race riot of 1921 mobs killed 36 people and hospitalized an additional 800 people. The riot began over an allegation that a black man had attempted to rape a white 17 year-old elevator operator.
The Rosewood massacre of 1923 began after a white woman in nearby Sumner claimed she had been raped by a black man from Rosewood. An angry mob surrounded a house with black residents and a standoff ensued. The mob killed several people inside and two white people were killed outside. This attracted additional angry mobs who razed Rosewood. Black residents fled into the forest, escaped in cars, and on a train. At a minimum, eight black people and two white people were killed but it is possible that as many 150 black residents were killed.
Two white women accused the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African American boys and young men, of rape on a train in 1931. Eight of the boys were found guilty and the case was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and then twice to the United States Supreme Court. In Powell v. Alabama the Supreme Court reversed the Alabama Supreme Court decision because the Court found that the defendants had inadequate counsel. In Patterson v. Alabama the Supreme Court sent the case back to Alabama for retrial on the grounds that there were no black jurors in their trials, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Eight of the nine Scottsboro boys were ultimately found guilty and received long prison sentences.
Racially charged allegations of rape continue to the present time. In the Central Park jogger case, one hispanic and four black teens were found guilty of raping a white woman in 1989. Their cases were vacated in 2002 and they received a $41 million settlement in 2014.
This report is the product of the first ever study, by the Crown Prosecution Service, of the number and nature of cases involving allegedly false allegations of rape or domestic violence, or both. This is in many ways a trailblazing report, the first time we have clear evidence about the prosecution of this important issue. The report outlines the key findings of that review and the steps that we plan to take in response