Conversations about False Rape Allegations are Generally Full of Bullshit

Content Note: Discussion of sexual assault statistics and an empirical analysis of false rape allegations.

This week an article  popped up on CBC about MRA activists in Edmonton putting posters up encouraging women not to lie about sexual assault just because they regret having sex with someone. I posted it on my Facebook feed with a bunch of comments about my rage, and a few of my fellow feminist friends responded. We ended up discussing false rape allegation statistics and their lack of empirical accuracy when a male friend of mine decided to ask me the deceptively difficult question of what should a proper estimation of the rate of false accusations be? I gave a really long answer (for a Facebook post that is), and was asked to make it rebloggable. So here is my extended response (now complete with 50% more grammar!).

My short answer is that there is no answer. Simply put, there is not enough data for relevant statistical analysis that would give us any sort of accurate picture of false rape accusations. While there have been many studies conducted on this issue, they are essentially based on meaningless numbers. Many of them focus on data obtained from police stations and thus rely on unfounding rates. Unfounding means that the police have decided not to pursue a case, and they may have chosen this option for a variety of reasons other than just the belief that a false allegation has been made. In many situations, unfounding occurs because there was not enough evidence to support a court case. It is also not uncommon for sexist attitudes to influence unfounding rates. In one of my classes in law school, we compared unfounding statistics from across the province of Ontario, and it was quite shocking to see how the rates differed between jurisdictions. Unfounding rates in jurisdictions where police officers have special training in regards to sexual assault were significantly lower than in jurisdictions that do not have that sort of training (for example, Toronto versus most of the other Ontario areas), or jurisdictions that still use training that emphasises the false idea that most complainants lie (see everything written by Baeza and Turvey in the preceding link).

Additionally, police are under no obligation to report the exact reasons as to why they made their decision. So if researchers tried to undertake the job of sorting out unfounding rates, they would probably encounter the problem of simply not being able to tell which unfoundings were the result of a false allegation. Further, using this type of information for statistical analysis assumes that police officers all understand the laws regarding sexual assault and have the appropriate psychological training to be able to deal with a sexual assault victim. Unfortunately, these assumptions are largely untrue. To base our statistics on police data ignores the fact that our justice system is based on the right to be heard in the court system by an impartial and trained judge and possibly a jury of one’s peers, and that police findings, often made by only one or two individuals, are not necessarily accurate or fair assessments of whether a claim was based on a false allegation.

Could researchers use court system data instead? As someone who spends an exceedingly large amount of her time coding court cases, I am confident in saying that researchers would still be getting unreliable information. Judges do not always directly state that they think the accuser has made a false allegation, and their comments may not be recorded in a way that is easy for a researcher to definitively say that a false allegation was a problem in the case. Furthermore, as a legal researcher, I know that there is no way to confidentially say that one has canvassed all court decisions for a specific issue. One can conduct research based on key words, but being that there are no standard phrases for something such as a false allegation, any statistical information coming out of such research is inherently limited in terms of the accuracy of the statistics. Take into consideration that not all cases are reported as well, and one can see that getting a comprehensive set of data is quite difficult. Not to say that the information is useless, but that it certainly isn’t going to yield the one true answer that so many people seem to want.

Even if we could solve the problem of data collection, one has to consider the number of unreported sexual assault claims and figure out how to incorporate these statistics into the overall analysis. If the false allegation rate for sexual assault claims hovers around the average of other offences, it is still going to be diluted by the sheer number of unreported claims.

Consequently, when people claim that false allegations are X% of all claims, I just laugh because the number has no actual empirical meaning.

When thinking about false rape allegations, I also find it important to consider how wrongful convictions for sexual assault actually occur. When people talk about false rape allegations, they tend to be talking about evil complainants/women who lie about being raped in order to hurt some poor, innocent man. However, when I was doing research on wrongful convictions, I discovered that in most cases an assault had actually occurred, but the wrong person had been convicted.

When it comes to the wrongful convictions of men, the causes tend to involve systemic issues within the justice system rather than false allegations. For example, police have complainants identify suspected offenders using methods that ensure that misidentification is extremely likely because of how memory functions.  Forensic evidence, unlike in shows like CSI, can be unreliable or utilised incorrectly, and the system struggles to effectively ensure that experts used in criminal trials are actually correct. Individuals within the justice system may be corrupt or simply caught up in a tunnel vision effect that makes it difficult for them to see their own errors. The involvement of marginalised suspects, such as those who are racialised or impoverished, also tends to result in higher rates of wrongful convictions. So all the middle-class, twenty-something, white men who put up posters targeting university women should be comforted by the fact that they just don’t happen to be the victims of wrongful convictions that often. It’s not evil, lying young women who produce large numbers of wrongful convictions, but systemic failures on the part of our justice system.

Another important consideration to reflect on is whether the questions surrounding false rape allegations are significant enough to address. Generally, false reports for other crimes tend to be low and fairly standard across the different categories of offences. For the most part, no one really cares about these numbers, and yet suddenly these statistics are astronomically important when it comes to sexual assault. We need to know how many complainants lie so that we can carefully judge those that report and weigh their stories against the statistics. Or at least that’s how a lot of police training manuals suggest doing things. Looking at the high rates of attrition for sexual assault cases all throughout the legal system, however, it seems that our justice system has a very big problem with treating sexual assault complainants as people with valid and believable claims. Rather than letting a flood of lying complainants through, those claiming to have been sexual assaulted are held to incredibly high standards of proof that are not necessarily used in other crimes. The chances of someone lying about an assault and getting very far in the system are slim.

False allegations are unacceptable and should be dealt with swiftly and appropriately by the legal system. No one argues against this fact. However, the level of attention that has been focused on false rape allegations in particular is based not on evidence, but on the idea that sexual assault complainants are really dishonest people out to destroy the lives of innocent men. When stated this simply, it’s not hard to see how the conversation is more about misogyny than it is about justice.

I accept that people lie about all sorts of things. I accept that there have been false rape allegations, and that there will be false rape allegations in the future. However, I refuse to put a number to this type of incident because to do so would be irresponsible because of the inaccuracy of our available data, and the fact that fixing said data deficiencies would waste a lot of time and energy that could be better used to address more systemic and prevalent issues in the justice system. All available evidence on the issue suggests that the number of false allegations is probably very low, and that wrongful convictions do not often arise because of lying complainants. So can we all agree to stop calling women and other sexual assault complainants liars, and move on to legal reform issues that are founded on something other than oppressive beliefs?

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5 thoughts on “Conversations about False Rape Allegations are Generally Full of Bullshit

  1. I have a question about the term “unfounded.” Does it mean that there’s not enough information to make an arrest or to pursue prosecution? I think much of the “false rape debate” hinges on the legal definition of that term, and whatever variables pop up in different municipalities. What do you think?

    • Unfounding is a difficult word, and a lot of researchers with a social justice/feminist focus (including myself) find it inadequate and problematic in the context of sexual assault. Its broadest definition is that it applies to situations where the police decided not to pursue a case because they did not feel that it would lead to a successful prosecution. Usually this is because there was a lack of evidence. However, the term seems to imply that the claim itself is without merit rather than a reflection of the inadequacies of our justice system. For example, it is not uncommon for police to unfound historic sexual assault claims because there is no medical evidence and often no witness evidence to back up the complainant’s claim years after the offence has occurred. Unfounding has nothing to do with the actual veracity of that claim, but with the ability of the justice system to respond to these types of situations. The way the complainant is treated by society in general, however, is as if they had lied.

      Unfounding is also in the eye of the investigator. In the Story of Jane Doe (by Jane Doe), Jane talks about how some of the rapes previous to her own had been treated by police. In one, there was a bowl of chips that had not been overturned on the bed, so this was evidence of lying. In another, the complainant had an active sex life and enjoyed the use of sex toys, so this was evidence of a potential false allegation (of the regret type). So how the evidence is interpreted by the police is another thing that complicates unfounding, and introduces discrimination and oppressive standards into the system.

      Finally, as you said, there are different definitions of unfounding across different jurisdictions. Some places require investigators to document their reasonings and seek second opinions. Others will slap an “unfounding” on any case that they choose not to pursue without any explanation on how they may all differ. Since unfounding is widely seen as a synonym for untrue or without merit, I do agree that this allows those relying on false rape allegation statistics to use the information in a harmful manner. I think research on unfounding could be very interesting from a feminist perspective, but it certainly doesn’t tell us much reliably about false allegations. Instead, it really just shows how better documentation and training could improve the justice system overall by emphasising accountability and equality standards.

  2. This is a very thoughtful and well written response to the false accusation hysteria that abounds within the MRA mindset.

    • In my second to last paragraph, I wrote the following: “False allegations are unacceptable and should be dealt with swiftly and appropriately by the legal system. No one argues against this fact”. As a legal professional, I am always concerned when the justice system is utilised in a way that is contrary to justice. However, I am also a pragmatist. Cases such as the Duke Lacrosse one are rare (being that it’s basically the only example that anyone ever cites for false rape allegations). Much of the evidence about what went wrong with that case was related to overzealous prosecution, an issue that is less about the false allegation and more about systemic issues of corruption and tunnel vision within the legal system (as I discussed in my post as well). When the justice system is doing its job correctly, a false allegation will be caught before an investigation gets very far. Further, being that most wrongful convictions for sexual assault are not caused by false allegations, I have to question the focus on false allegations overall. I know of plenty of other methods of legal reform that would be more effective at addressing the concerns that groups such as the one in Edmonton have without perpetuating misogyny and rape myths. Instead of producing posters that suggest that women regularly lie and that men should distrust them, we should focus on ensuring helping groups such as the Innocence Project and their work on producing a better informed, trained, and efficient justice system. So yes, false allegations are serious as any misuse of the legal system is serious. But the focus they receive is disproportionate to their actual scope, and the methods many use to prevent them are both ineffective (they focus little on the justice system itself) and discriminatory (can we stop assuming rape victims are all liars?).

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