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A false accusation of rape is the intentional reporting of a rape by an alleged victim when no rape has occurred. Studies have found that police classify between 1.5 and 90% of rape accusations as unfounded, unproven or false, however researchers say those determinations are often dubious. The "conventional scholarly wisdom," according to American law professor Michelle J. Anderson, is that two percent of rape complaints made to the police are false. The United States Justice Department agrees, saying false accusations "are estimated to occur at the low rate of two percent -- similar to the rate of false accusations for other violent crimes." However, others say eight percent or more of rape accusations are false, and as a scientific matter the answer remains unknown.
It is extremely difficult to assess the prevalence of false accusations. Not 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.
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."
David Lisak's study, published in 2010 in Violence Against Women, classified as false 8 out of the 136 (5.9%) reported rapes at an American university over a ten-year period.
The Finnish Police estimates that over one in five rape reports are false accusations. The Helsinki Police Department states that false rape accusations have risen in like manner with female alcohol consumption in the country and that many false rape accusations are made when intoxicated. Many of the false rape accusations identify the perpetrators as a man or men with an immigrant background.
A study of 812 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.
|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 USA, 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 judgement. 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" due to the fact that 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".
A 2005 study, "A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases" was the largest and most rigorous study to date commissioned by the British Home Office on UK rape crime, from the initial reporting of a rape through to legal prosecutions. The study was based on 2,643 sexual assault cases (Kelly, Lovett, and Regan, 2005). Of these, police departments classified 8% as false reports.
The researchers noted that some of these classifications were based simply on the personal judgments of the police investigators and were made in violation of official criteria for establishing a false allegation. Closer analysis of this category applying the Home Office counting rules for establishing a false allegation and excluding cases where the application of the cases where confirmation of the designation was uncertain reduced the percentage of false reports to 3%. 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." Moreover, they added:
The interviews with police officers and complainants’ responses show that despite the focus on victim care, a culture of suspicion remains within the police, even amongst some of those who are specialists in rape investigations. There is also a tendency to conflate false allegations with retractions and withdrawals, as if in all such cases no sexual assault occurred. This reproduces an investigative culture in which elements that might permit a designation of a false complaint are emphasised (later sections reveal how this also feeds into withdrawals and designation of ‘insufficient evidence’), at the expense of a careful investigation, in which the evidence collected is evaluated.
FBI reports from 1996 consistently put the number of "unfounded" rape accusations around 8%. In contrast, the average rate of unfounded reports for "Index crimes" tracked by the FBI is 2%.
However, "unfounded" is not synonymous with false allegation. Bruce Gross of the Forensic Examiner says that:
This statistic is almost meaningless, as many of the jurisdictions from which the FBI collects data on crime use different definitions of, or criteria for, "unfounded." That is, a report of rape might be classified as unfounded (rather than as forcible rape) if the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect, if the alleged perpetrator did not use physical force or a weapon of some sort, if the alleged victim did not sustain any physical injuries, or if the alleged victim and the accused had a prior sexual relationship. Similarly, a report might be deemed unfounded if there is no physical evidence or too many inconsistencies between the accuser's statement and what evidence does exist. As such, although some unfounded cases of rape may be false or fabricated, not all unfounded cases are false.
In 1994, Eugene J. Kanin of Purdue University investigated the incidences of false rape allegations made to the police in one small urban community between 1978 and 1987. He states that unlike those 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.
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. 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 whose investigation procedures are condemned by the U.S. Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These procedures include the almost universal threat, 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."
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."
DiCanio (1993) states that while researchers and prosecutors do not agree on the exact percentage of false allegations, they generally agree on a range of 2% to 8%. Edward Greer (2000) estimates a much higher percentage of false accusations. Writing in the Law Review of Loyola of Los Angeles, Greer writes:
"Despite the difficulties in measuring wrongful accusations, there is indirect data available that is highly suggestive that far more than two percent of rape accusations are false. In a significant fraction of instances, the accusers recant their charges; in others, where no formal recantation occurs but where rape may have occurred, there are good reasons to believe that the accusation must nevertheless be wrong about the identity of the assailant. One illustration of this phenomenon are the instances where DNA testing has determined that the man actually imprisoned for rape after trial was not the individual the victim claimed was the assailant."
According to a single survey of 20 American law enforcement officers done in 2004, the typical person making a false accusation was "female (100%), Caucasian (100%), 15–20 years of age (10%), 31–45 years of age (25%), or 21–30 years of age (65%)". A false accusation may be perpetrated out of a desire for attention or sympathy, anger or revenge, or to cover up behavior deemed "inappropriate" by their condemning surrounding culture.