Although I’ve written a fair amount about the rape prevalence controversy over the years, I haven’t discussed false rape reports. Feminists tend to claim that false rape reporting is relatively uncommon; anti-feminists and men’s rights advocates (MRAs) tend to claim that false rape reports are almost as common as true rape reports.
I haven’t said much because I’ve looked into the research and found it very inconclusive. This Columbia Journalism Review article (link via Julie Saltman at Washington Monthly) sums up the state of the research pretty well. At the low end, some studies and sources have claimed that 2% of rape allegations made to police are false. The FBI finds that about 8% are false. Some studies – most famously one by sociologist Eugene Kanin, examining rape reports in a single, small Midwestern city – have found false reporting rates as high as 41%.
(It should be noted that what many studies report as false reporting rates are in fact recanting rates. However, can we really safely assume that 100% of all women who recant an accusation were not raped? There are other reasons to wonder about the highest numbers. In some studies, police interrogation or polygraph exams were used, tactics which can sometimes lead to false confessions. In other cases, the sample considered – a tiny Midwestern city, women in the military, etc – seems likely to include many women who have a much stronger-than-average motivation to not admit they voluntarily had sex. In no case is the honesty or possible bias of the police investigators ever questioned.)
Both feminists and anti-feminists sometimes talk about this question as if what’s at issue is how honest women are. That’s a mistake – what percent of reported rapes are false says nothing about women in general, or rape in general. As Eugene Volokh points out, since relatively few (I’d argue a minority) of rapes are ever reported to police, even if very few women would ever lie about being raped it’s quite possible to have a relatively high percentage of false rape reports.
Let’s say, for instance, that only 2% of all women age 16-19 would ever lie about rape; and that any particular year, only 2% of that tiny fraction actually do falsely report a rape to the police. So 98% of all women (including relatively young and not very mature women) would never lie about rape, and even of those who might under the right circumstances, most never will. (I use the 16-to-19 age group because the risk of rape is highest there; the same analysis could apply, though, to other age groups.)
There are, however, about 8 million women in the 16-to-19 age group in the U.S., and 2% x 2% x 8 million = 3200 false rape reports per year. The National Crime Victimization Survey (2002 data, see table 3) reports that 2.7 out of 1000 people age 16 to 19, which means 5.4 out of 1000 women age 16 to 19, are raped each year. This is an estimate based on a survey, not on police reports, and it may well be low (the actual rate may be higher) [it almost certainly is higher -Amp]; but in any event, we know that the rate of rapes reported to the police is roughly half that estimated to the NCVS (compare the Uniform Crime Reports data, and remember that the UCR data aggregates rapes and attempted rapes, while the NCVS breaks them out). This means that roughly 2.7 out of 1000 women age 16 to 19 report an actual rape each year, for a total of 2.7/1000 x 8 million = 21,600 true rape reports per year.
Under this model, then, 13% of all rape reports to the police would be false (in the 16-to-19 age group), even though only 2% of all women in that age group would ever make a false rape report, and only 2% of those actually make a false rape report each year. Ninety-eight percent of all women may be completely truthful on this subject, and yet we may still have a substantial false rape report rate.
It’s also important to realize that the connection between false rape reports and false rape convictions is weaker than most people assume. First of all, it’s quite possible to make a false rape report without making a false rape accusation. For example, a teen girl seeking an alibi for staying out late – or for being pregnant – may make up a story of being raped by a stranger. But if all she claims is that a stranger raped her and she can’t identify him, then no one has been falsely accused.
Second, it’s unfortunately possible for a genuine rape report to lead to a false rape conviction. A woman who is raped by a stranger may mistakenly think she recognizes an innocent man; a lot of research has shown that all crime victims, including victims of traumatic violence, are much more likely to make mistaken identifications than most people (and most juries) believe.
Finally, the large majority of reported rapes never lead to convictions at all; and, since false rape reports probably have less evidence supporting them than true rape reports, it seems likely that they lead to convictions even less often. Even true rape reports, unfortunately, are unlikely to lead to a conviction; how much more unlikely when the report is fiction?
None of this is to suggest that it’s ever acceptable to make a false rape report; that a falsely accused man doesn’t suffer unjustly even if there is no conviction; or that any number of false accusations and convictions – however small – is acceptable. Nonetheless, the speculations by some men’s rights activists that there is a nationwide epidemic of men falsely imprisoned for rape don’t seem well founded.
P.S. It’s common, when people discuss this issue, to hear claims that “rape is the only crime where people are convicted based on the word of one witness.” That’s just nonsense; lots of crimes are based on the word of one witness (often a cop). Resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, drug dealing, solicitation… unless someone happened to take a video, these sort of crimes commonly come down to one person’s word against another’s.