book excerpt

The Specter of False Rape Accusations

They are objectively rare, so why do they carry their cultural charge?

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photo Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photo Getty Images

I know two men who were, I am fairly confident, falsely accused of rape. One of them was a wealthy young man accused by a desperate young woman who had stolen some credit cards and was on the run. The rape accusation was just one part of a larger fraud. The man wasn’t where she said he had been when the alleged rape took place, there was no evidence of rape beyond her testimony, and much else of what she said turned out to be false. He was never arrested or charged, and from the start the police assured him that all would be well.

The other man is a creep: narcissistic, charming, manipulative and a liar. He is known to use all sorts of coercive methods to get sex, but not the sort that fall under the legal definition of rape. The women he has sex with (young, precocious, confident) are consenting; indeed, he’s the kind of man who makes women feel, at the time, that they are the ones seducing him — that they are the ones with all the agency and power, when in fact they have relatively little of it. (“She seduced me” is of course a defense commonly made by rapists — and by pedophiles.) When one of these women, years later — having learned of the man’s pattern, and seeing him for what he was — accused him of assault, it seemed to those who knew him that she might well have been seeking a legal remedy for her trauma: for having been used, manipulated and lied to. Maybe, on top of all that, he really did assault her. But the evidence suggested otherwise. He was never charged with rape, though he was, because of his reckless, unprofessional behavior, made to resign from his job. From what I hear, the man (now gainfully re-employed) goes on much as he did before, though more carefully and quietly, and with more plausible deniability. These days he self-styles as a feminist.

I know many more than two women who have been raped. This is unsurprising. Many more women are raped than falsely accuse men of rape. With just one exception, none of the women I know pressed criminal charges or made a report to the police. One friend, when we were both in college, called me to tell me that a guy she knew, a friend of a friend, had, during an early evening group outing when they were fooling around on a pool table in an empty dorm social room, forced himself inside her. She had said no, resisted, finally pushed him off. The evening resumed. Neither she nor I considered going to the police. The purpose of the call was simply to acknowledge that this thing — we didn’t call it rape — had happened.

Some men are falsely accused of rape; there is nothing to be gained by denying it. But false accusations are seemingly rare. The most detailed ever study of sexual assault reports, released by the U.K. Home Office in 2005, estimated that just 3 percent of 2,643 rape reports made over the course of 15 years were “probably” or “possibly” false. Yet the British police had classified, in the same period, more than twice as many — 8 percent — of these reports as false, based on its officers’ personal judgement. In 1996, the FBI also reported an 8 percent rate of “unfounded” or “false” forcible rape complaints, aggregated from police departments across the U.S. In both Britain and the U.S., the 8 percent figure was largely the result of police officers’ susceptibility to rape myths; in both countries, police officers were inclined to consider a report false if there hadn’t been a physical struggle, if no weapon had been involved, or if the accuser had had a prior relationship with the accused. In 2014, according to figures published in India, 53 percent of rape reports in Delhi from the previous year had been false, a statistic seized on by Indian men’s rights activists. But the definition of “false” reports had been extended to cover all those cases that hadn’t reached court, never mind those that didn’t meet the legal standard for rape in India — including marital rape, which 6 percent of married Indian women report having experienced.

In the U.K. Home Office study, the police judged 216 of 2,643 complaints false. In those 216 cases, the complainants had named a total of 39 suspects; six of these suspects were arrested, and charges were brought against two of them; in both cases, the charges were eventually dropped. So, in the final analysis, bearing in mind that the Home Office counted only a third as many false accusations as the police, just 0.23 percent of rape reports led to a false arrest, and only 0.07 percent of rape reports led to a man being falsely charged with rape; none resulted in wrongful conviction.

I am not saying that false rape accusations are something to shrug at. They are not. An innocent man disbelieved, mistrusted, his reality twisted, his reputation stripped, his life potentially ruined by the manipulation of state power: This is a moral scandal. And, notice, it is a moral scandal that has much in common with the experience of rape victims, who in many cases do face a conspiracy of disbelief, especially from police. Nonetheless, a false rape accusation, like a plane crash, is an objectively unusual event that occupies an outsized place in the public imagination. Why then does it carry its cultural charge? The answer cannot simply be that its victims are men: The number of men raped — largely by other men — easily overwhelms the number of men falsely accused of rape. Could it be not only that the victims of false rape accusations are usually men, but also that its assumed perpetrators are women?

Except that, very often, it is men who falsely accuse other men of rape. This is a thing almost universally misunderstood about false rape accusations. When we think of a false rape accusation we picture a scorned or greedy woman, lying to the authorities. But many, perhaps most, wrongful convictions of rape result from false accusations levied against men by other men: by cops and prosecutors intent on pinning an actual rape on the wrong suspect. In the U.S., which has the world’s highest incarceration rate, 147 men were exonerated for sexual assault on the basis of false accusations or perjury between 1989 and 2020. (In that same period, 755 people — five times as many — were found to have been falsely accused, and wrongly convicted, of murder.) Fewer than half of these men were deliberately framed by their alleged victims. Meanwhile, over half of their cases involved “official misconduct”: a category that applies when the police coach false victim or witness identifications, charge a suspect despite the victim’s failure to identify him as her attacker, suppress evidence or induce false confessions.

There isn’t a general conspiracy against men. But there is a conspiracy against certain classes of men. Of the 147 men who were exonerated of sexual assault on the basis of a false accusation or perjury in the US between 1989 and 2020, 84 were non-white and 62 white. Of those 85 non-white men, 76 were Black, which means that Black men make up 52 percent of those convicted of rape on the basis of false accusations or perjury. Yet Black men make up only about 14 percent of the U.S. male population, and 27 percent of men convicted of rape. A Black man serving time for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white man convicted of sexual assault. He is also very likely to be poor — not just because Black people in the U.S. are disproportionately poor, but because most incarcerated Americans, of all races, are poor.

The National Registry of Exonerations, which lists the men and women wrongly imprisoned in the U.S. since 1989, does not detail the long history of false rape accusations against Black men which bypassed the legal system altogether. In particular, it does not record the deployment of the false rape accusation in the Jim Crow period as, in Ida B. Wells’s words, “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.” It does not take into account the 150 Black men who were lynched between 1892 and 1894 for alleged rape or attempted rape of white women — a charge that included known consensual affairs between Black men and white women — as chronicled in Wells’s remarkable A Red Record. It does not mention the case of William Brooks of Galesline, Arkansas, who was lynched on 23 May 1894 for asking a white woman to marry him, or tell us anything about the “unknown Negro” whom Wells reports having been lynched in West Texas earlier that month for the crime of “writing letter to white woman.” In 2007, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she had lied, 52 years earlier, when she said that a 14-year-old Black boy named Emmett Till had grabbed and sexually propositioned her — a lie that spurred Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his brother to abduct, bludgeon, shoot and kill Till. Roy Bryant and his brother were acquitted of murder, despite the overwhelming evidence against them; four months later, they were paid $3,000 for the story of how they did it by Look magazine. There is no registry that details the uses of false rape accusations as a tactic of colonial rule: in India, in Australia, in South Africa, in Palestine.

It might seem surprising, then, that false rape accusations are, today, a predominantly wealthy white male preoccupation. But it isn’t surprising — not really. The anxiety about false rape accusations is purportedly about injustice (innocent people being harmed), but actually it is about gender, about innocent men being harmed by malignant women. It is an anxiety, too, about race and class: about the possibility that the law might treat wealthy white men as it routinely treats poor people, especially poor people of color. For poor Black men, and for poor Black women, the white woman’s false rape accusation is just one element in a matrix of vulnerability to state power. But false rape accusations are perhaps a unique instance of middle-class and wealthy white men’s vulnerability to the injustices routinely perpetrated by the carceral state against poor Black men, women and children. Well-off white men instinctively and correctly trust that the legal justice system will take care of them: will not plant drugs on them, will not gun them down and later claim to have seen a weapon, will not harass them for walking in a neighborhood where they “don’t belong,” will give them a pass for carrying that gram of cocaine or bag of weed. But in the case of rape, well-off white men worry that the growing demand that women be believed will cut against their right to be shielded from the prejudices of the law.

That representation is, of course, false: Even in the case of rape, the state is on the side of wealthy white men. But what matters — in the sense of what is ideologically efficacious — is not the reality, but the misrepresentation. In the false rape accusation, wealthy white men misperceive their vulnerability to women and to the state.

Excerpted from THE RIGHT TO SEX: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan. Copyright © 2021 by Amia Srinivasan. Published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

The Specter of False Rape Accusations