Much mention has been made recently (mostly by men) of false rape accusations, and how frequently they occur. During Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony last week, several senators apologized for the damage supposedly inflicted by these claims (which, by affirming their belief in Kavanaugh’s denials, they implied were false) on Kavanaugh’s life and reputation. In an editorial for the New York Times, opinion columnist Bret Stephens, after misinterpreting a statistic regarding the prevalence of false rape allegations, wrote: “Falsely accusing a person of sexual assault is nearly as despicable as sexual assault itself. It inflicts psychic, familial, reputational and professional harms that can last a lifetime. This is nothing to sneer at.”
But how common are false rape allegations, really? What constitutes “false?” And what evidence is there of the “psychic, familial, reputational and professional harm” suffered by those people on the other end of those accusations? The Cut spoke to Joanne Belknap, a sociologist, criminologist, and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and to Sandra Newman, a novelist with extensive research expertise in false rape allegations.
How common are false allegations of rape or sexual assault?
One commonly cited figure holds that 5 percent of rape allegations are found to be false, but that figure paints a very incomplete picture, says Belknap. Typically, this figure comes from studies done on college students, an estimated 95 percent of whom do not report their assaults to police. Overall, an estimated 8 to 10 percent of women are thought to report their rapes to the police, which means that — at the very highest — we can infer that 90 percent of rapes go unreported, says Belknap. Obviously, only those rapes that are reported in the first place can be considered falsely reported, so that 5 percent figure only applies to 10 percent (at most) of rapes that occur. This puts the actual false allegation figure closer to 0.5 percent.
Of course, these figures are estimates, and Belknap doesn’t doubt they’re imperfect — we can’t count what isn’t being counted. But her research suggests that, if anything, we underestimate the number of rapes that go unreported.
Why might a rape allegation be deemed false?
Though “false accusation” is often used synonymously with “made-up accusation,” there are many factors that might result in an allegation being deemed “false.” One is that the woman who initially made the accusation chooses to recant it — which doesn’t necessarily mean that she was lying. “If you don’t want to go through a police investigation, for any reason — and there are many many reasons why you might not want to, it’s really traumatizing — then the easiest and quickest way to get out of it is to recant and say you were lying,” says Newman.
Police might also deem an accusation “false” if there are details they find incriminating on the part of the accuser. Belknap described one story she heard from a rape crisis counselor, who’d spoken with a survivor whose assault was deemed “false” because she’d allowed her eventual rapist to remove her ski boots for her after skiing. “Just because the police say something is an unfounded rape, because they don’t think it happened, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” says Belknap. “There are plenty of police officers who are getting trained on this, and then there’s a whole history of police perpetrating sexual violence, including while on the job.”
How do false rape report rates compare to false reports of other crimes?
In his column, Stephens shared a misrepresented statistic, stating that false rape allegations are “at least five times as common as false accusations of other types of crime.” However, even the abstract from the very study he links to presents a more complicated figure — the authors write that a 5 percent false-report figure (which, again, is a misleading figure to begin with) is “at least five times higher than for most other offence types.” Most, but not all, as Stephens implies.
To put that data into perspective, Newman consulted data on wrongful murder convictions. “It seems to be extremely rare for anyone to be wrongfully convicted as a result of a false accusation of rape,” she says. “I was only able to find 52 cases in 25 years where a conviction was later overturned after a wrongful conviction based on false rape allegations. In the same period, there were 790 cases where people were found to be wrongfully convicted of murder.” For what it’s worth, 790 divided by 52 is 15.2, meaning that by Newman’s data, you were 15 times likelier in that 25-year period to be wrongfully convicted of murder than of rape. And, let’s keep in mind, rape allegations resulting in convictions are already vanishingly rare: Newman cites a study that found that, of 216 assault complaints classified as false, only six led to arrest, and only two led to actual charges. (And even then, they were eventually deemed false.)
Newman calls statements like Stephens’s the “typical histrionic statement that we get about false accusations of rape, which is surprisingly absent from discussions of false accusations of other crimes.” There is, she says, simply no evidence to support the idea that false rape accusations routinely result in serious consequences.
If someone believes Dr. Ford, but they also believe Brett Kavanaugh, then who is committing rape?
Throughout the hearing and during their arguments afterward, a number of senators stated that while they believed something “bad” had indeed happened to Dr. Ford, they also believed Judge Kavanaugh. This apparent contradiction implies that while these men were willing to believe in the abstract concept of rape, they were not willing to believe that a man they knew — a man like them — could commit rape himself. “People don’t want to believe that wealthy, entitled, white men who are judges, who are coaches of their daughters’ basketball teams, would do something like this. And they do,” says Belknap.
Some of them must, given what we know about the percentage of men who openly admit to sexual assault. “We know a lot of men are guilty of rape,” says Newman, referencing studies that cite a range between 6 percent and 38 percent of men who have admitted to sexually coercive behavior. “And a lot more men than that have committed something that would look really bad if it ever came out: they’ve groped someone at a party, or they’ve done one of those things you don’t want to represent them for the rest of their life.”
Men who have an “irrational fear of being falsely accused of rape,” Newman suggests, are aware that they — or men they know, and love, and respect — are guilty of such things, and are operating on that ingrained guilt. By that logic, it’s less disruptive to disbelieve Dr. Ford than to believe her.
Of course, that is one option. The alternative explanation is that they do believe her, and do believe Kavanaugh is guilty, and are going to vote for him anyway.
Describing a conversation with a colleague of hers, Belknap points out one last factor that makes false rape allegations so unlikely, and so uncommon. “A faculty member on campus who is also a rape survivor said to me years ago, ‘I never felt like the administrators didn’t believe me. I just felt like they didn’t care.’”
The original version of this post cited work which incorrectly stated that 5 percent of 10 percent is 0.005 percent. The correct percentage is 0.5.