The following includes commentary that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised.
In the wake of my post yesterday on the pervasiveness of rape culture, several people attempted to argue in the comment section that the piece was not complete without acknowledging the important idea of false rape accusations.
I attempted to explain that their argument had been intentionally excluded, as it is 1) not supported by data as a significant problem, and 2) the kind of apologism that made women fear disbelief should they come forward. The second part, I argued, was a perpetuation of rape culture, and I would not give them a platform for it. They argued. I presented data. They presented none, and tried to comment again and again.
And I decided I would no longer publish any comments which attempted to caveat rape culture with the excuse of false accusations. Because I am typically very tolerant (sometimes too much so) about comment content, I felt I owed an explanation.
First off, the idea that false accusations are a significant problem in rape is patently untrue. For this point, we turn to data.
Some of the more virulent proselytizers of false rape accusations point to studies identifying false reporting rates of 41% or more. That would be pretty terrible, wouldn’t it? In fact, there are a series of reports out there which point to tragically high rates of false rape allegations. Unfortunately, these reports are laughable. Why?
- The sample sizes are painfully small. 1,300 participants is on the high end, while some had as few as 18. Not exactly representative.
- The data is inconsistent. Even when it’s the FBI analyzing larger pools of data on crimes committed, false accusations are largely measured according to police report labels such as “no crime” or “unfounded.” The problem with these labels is that they do not translate into a false accusation. Forensic Examiner explains :
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.
That means that the data is not reflective of recanted or disproven statements; just that the case, for whatever reason, didn’t move forward. Even when it does reflect a recanted statement, there is absolutely no data on what proportion of those occurred – not because the allegation was false – but because of rape culture influences, psychological pressure from the attacker (particularly true of date rape and intimate partner rape), or other extenuating circumstances.
- The data is also only reflective of reports of a man raping a vagina with his penis. Until early 2012, the federal definition of rape excluded such crimes as female rape of male, same sex rape, digital rape, anal rape, oral rape or rape with a foreign object (they also exclude incest for some reason). The most recent data you’ll find is 2011. That means the available data on reported cases is so far from complete, it’s not even funny.
- The data is plagued by rape culture. The studies most frequently cited by those stumping on behalf of the falsely accused have been the subject of criticism in subsequent studies for failing to qualitatively evaluate the methodologies of the case categorizations. Many found that police officers frequently used subjective judgment calls in dismissing cases as unfounded. Other studies found direct evidence of bias in such dismissals when studied in the field.
- In studies where data was not provided but gathered in the field, the methodologies used for determining a false report were suspect (and that’s putting it nicely – they would classify a report as false if the victim did not appear “disheveled”).
Knowing from the get go that our data is pretty poor, other studies have found that experts tend to agree on a range of 2-8% for false accusations. The FBI has maintained, with fair consistency, a false accusation estimate of 8% in rape cases. We’ll start there.
So 8% of reported rapes are false accusations. That looks like this.
If that’s true, then yes, we have a major issue we need to address. Here’s the next problem though – that’s only about reported rapes. In order for false accusations to be the pervasive counter-cultural revolution some claim, it would have to be a significant portion of all instances of rape. After all, if we’re looking to measure misery, we should make sure we have context.
What does that mean for our numbers? Well, the FBI believes that only 37% of rapes get reported. That looks like this.
So then, if 8% of reported rape allegations are “false”, how much of the big picture do they make up?
Just under 3%. Still not fantastic, I’ll admit, but far from justifiable as an interruption to important discourse. Still, I’m not satisfied with leaving it at that. Let’s talk hypothetically.
- Let’s give the police the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their frequency of subjective dismissal justifies an adjustment down in the false reporting rate to 7%. There’s enough out there to justify a stronger cut, but we’ll be conservative.
- And let’s say that, with only 37% of rapes being reported and sexual violence education woefully lacking, the amount of “unfounded” cases labeled as such due to lack of evidence to take it to trial – as women shower, dispose of clothing, and so forth post attack - brings false accusation rate down again to 6%.
- And lets assume – given that only 9% of cases ever go to trial and only 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail - that rape culture factors such as dress, former sexual encounters, use of alcohol, and so forth, account for enough perceived potential for reasonable doubt to derail an additional portion of those “unfounded” cases bringing down the rate once more to 4% (and that’s being generous).
I know this is all conjecture. It’s an exercise. Stay with me.
So if the percentage of reported cases with false accusations is measured at 4%, how does this egregious harm compare to the big picture?
Just under 1.5%. For the record, 2% is the average false criminal accusation rate per the FBI. This is certainly not scientific, and it can’t be. Too much of this analysis rests on the unknowable – that which is never calculated or tabbed. The point of the exercise is to show the potential impact of conservative impact expectations. The point is to show that the data used to justify these positions doesn’t do what you want it to do.
But wait, wait, wait! You might say. What about that one report with the DNA thing?
Oh, you’re talking about that adorable Fox News article with about as much merit as their “fair and balanced” mantra? Let me break it down:
- This article is old. Like, 1996 old. Like, operating on data from way before that. You’ll have to forgive me if I prefer more recent data.
- The author points out the differences in false rape accusation rates among studies and calls them irreconcilable. That’s pretty lazy. A couple of hours of reading and the ability to think critically got me there just fine (see above). But again, this is old, and other studies have come out since it was published.
- Just because DNA exonerated someone does not mean that they were falsely accused by the rape victim. There are times where the victim has no memory of the attack, but other pieces of evidence are used to make the case. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but in terms of tackling rape culture, it’s an important clarification – this is not necessarily reflective of malicious accusations. To be fair, the article acknowledges that as well, but I want to drive that point home.
- The study looked at percentage of convictions where DNA exonerated the accused. But it was also only based on the cases referred to the FBI. Given the reasons for referring cases all the way to the FBI, extrapolating the data to apply to the entirety of the incarcerated rapist population makes approximately zero sense. Further, if we remember that only 3% of rapists ever spend a day in jail, that means that false accusations were verified in the study in 0.6% of all projected rape cases. At best. Context.
All this means that people who tout false rape accusations as a critical element of establishing balance in rape culture discussions are equating the suffering of a statistically minuscule portion of the population to a (probably understated) massive population of rape victims.
Guess what? THAT IS RAPE CULTURE.
The idea that we must pepper discourse on the suffering of the marginalized by bemoaning comparatively insignificant harms suffered by the group that has historically had a cultural and institutional advantage in the legal system reeks of privilege.
The very notion that by focusing on the suffering of the majority without excusing the suffering of a minority is a form of discrimination is nonsensical.
The fact that false accusations are perpetually injected into accounts of substantial grief as an equal comparison is a distraction at best, and offensive more often. It is the equivalent of saying, “Rape is terrible, but…”
No – there is no “but.” Rape is terrible, and that statement needs no caveat.
While that is the righteously indignant response that comes to mind when I look at this data, when the temper has cooled and I attempt to be objective, I’m not entirely comfortable with this line of reasoning. I would not want to silence the voice of a victim of admittedly rare female-on-male rape just because they were representative of a very small proportion of the sexual violence victim population, and I don’t like the idea of doing that to other people who have suffered an injustice, either.
So while I feel like the comparison of false rape accusations to the extensive harms of rape culture is a bad one, that’s not why I’m refusing to publish comments bringing it up.
The reason is that this comparison has struck fear into the hearts of sexual violence victims for decades. It makes victims feel as though they won’t be believed if they do come forward. It gives rape culture perpetrators the “backing” to say a victim “wanted” it, or changed their mind because they were embarrassed. It gives the most vile of commenters their “grounds” for claiming a victim was “obviously” lying because so-and-so could have “anyone they wanted.”
That doesn’t help rape culture, but more importantly, that doesn’t help the victims. Coming forward can be important to receiving proper medical treatment, counseling and – should they choose to press charges – justice. And it can be the difference between putting a rapist behind bars, or allowing them to rape again. I don’t want to be a part of a culture that does that.
The reason is that – for better or worse – those concerned about false rape accusations have a heavyweight ally in their corner already: rape culture itself. The culture hand-delivers skepticism for any allegation that might be made. Victims, on the other hand, have no such ally in their corner. I’m not worried about giving those concerned about false rape accusations a platform, particularly if it’s going to continue to skew the odds against sexual violence victims by perpetuating rape culture overall.
Finally, it’s about creating a safe space. When I published the post yesterday, I had no idea the level of reaction it would generate. As I am typing this, it has been viewed over 87,000 times, shared on Facebook over 10,000 times, and tweeted over 400 times. There are more than 100 comments. I have received a flood of messages both publicly and privately, thanking me for the post. I’ve also heard from dozens of rape survivors who wanted to share their story with me. I’ve been blown away by their courage and grace. Words truly fail.
Until late last night, the comment thread had been fairly thoughtful. Many expressed dismay at the information about the Steubenville case. Others lauded the broader examples of rape culture. Comments that were not purely supportive or the story of an attack were still respectful and solution-oriented (except for a troll or two that I let through… only because I enjoy putting them in their place). When comments furthering the false rape accusation caveat started coming through, I responded by saying I wasn’t going to stand for them, along with articulated [albeit truncated compared to this] reasoning as to why. The reaction? Anger over bias, and accusation of somehow worsening rape culture.
I warned them I wouldn’t stand for it. As I surveyed their condescending comments, the tone reminded me of the slut shaming surrounding the Steubenville case – all of those tweets saying she was a lying whore. And as I scrolled through the tremendously courageous stories being shared by the victims in that thread, I knew I didn’t want to be responsible for making another victim feel that way by splicing measured vulnerability with menacing rhetoric. The post had made people feel safe. I was not going to take that away.
To be clear, I don’t believe the commenters were intending to foster a hostile environment for discourse. I believe they were trying to make an argument, and either were unaware of the what their statements did in context, or don’t understand the gravity of the rape culture problem. In any case, my decision is made.
If you want to comment about false rape accusations, it won’t be on this blog.
FURTHER READING: (Not filtered for quality)
- Theilade and Thomsen (1986)
- New York Rape Squad (1974)
- Hursch and Selkin (1974)
- Kelly et al. (2005)
- Geis (1978)
- Smith (1989)
- U.S. Department of Justice (1997)
- Clark and Lewis (1977)
- Harris and Grace (1999)
- Lea et al. (2003)
- HMCPSI/HMIC (2002)
- McCahill et al. (1979)
- Philadelphia police study (1968)
- Chambers and Millar (1983)
- Grace et al. (1992)
- Jordan (2004)
- Kanin (1994)
- Gregory and Lees (1996)
- Maclean (1979)
- Stewart (1981)