The unraveling of a dramatic rape story at the University of Virginia that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine fueled a backlash against the anti-rape movement. Statistics from studies that looked at sex assault on college campuses were called into question.
In the interest of fact-checking that debate, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has analyzed current national research on sexual assault among college students – its prevalence, false reporting rates, and the state of campus and criminal justice for the offense.
Today’s question: How common is false reporting?
Many people who work in the sexual violence field will tell you that the rate of false reporting of rape is roughly in the same ballpark as false reporting of other crimes. But it’s impossible to know whether that’s true. And that’s because there are very few studies of false reporting of crimes other than sexual assault.
There are a few good reasons for this. Sexual assault, and especially rape, is frequently committed behind closed doors and with no other witnesses apart from the accused and the accuser. A case’s credibility often rests on whether the accuser is believed or not, so it makes sense to wonder about false reporting – though it has the unfortunate effect of subjecting sexual assault victims to scrutiny and skepticism that victims of other crimes don’t face.
False reporting does happen. But how often? You can find estimates varying widely from less than 1 percent to 40 percent and higher.
But a lot of the research out there relies on shoddy methods, is ancient, or both.
Men’s rights groups frequently cite a 1994 study conducted by (now retired) Purdue University sociologist Eugene Kanin, using 109 rape allegations made to the police department of a small Midwestern city from 1978 to 1987. Kanin found that 41 percent of the cases were false, based on the determinations of police officials. In all those cases, he said, the accusers recanted their allegations.
Like other small-scale, local studies, this one can’t be generalized to all rape cases. But Kanin’s study has also been blasted by other researchers in the field for its methodology. David Lisak, a former psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has written that the study “violates a cardinal rule of science” by failing to describe Kanin’s efforts to evaluate the criteria of the police department. He also questions the police department’s practice of routinely asking accusers to undergo a polygraph – a practice that has been outlawed in many states because of its potential for intimidating victims into recanting their allegations.
Other studies have based their conclusions on police departments’ determinations that rape cases are “unfounded.” But “unfounded” isn’t the same as a deliberately false rape report and can include cases, Lisak notes, in which a person truthfully recounts an incident that nonetheless may not fit the legal definition of rape.
To confound matters further, police officers in some jurisdictions have been knocked for inappropriately not finding cases – without an investigation – because an accuser engaged in risky behavior, was unwilling to cooperate in the prosecution, delayed reporting, or had inconsistencies in her account.
A 2010 investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that Baltimore police deemed 30 percent of their rape reports unfounded – five times the national average – sparking concern that reports weren’t being investigated. The Sun’s investigation sparked major reforms in the department, and rape reports and investigations soared.
One of the most recent and transparent studies on false reporting was published in 2014 by Arizona State University criminologist Cassia Spohn and two co-authors. They analyzed 81 unfounded rape cases from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008, and found that the LAPD was making the appropriate call around three-quarters of the time. Some of the cases were uncertain. And in 10 cases, reports were filed as “unfounded” when there was evidence that the accuser had recanted due to fear or lack of interest, or when there was evidence a crime had indeed occurred.
Spohn’s study estimated that the rate of false reporting of rape to the LAPD in 2008 was around 4.5 percent.
That’s consistent with a 2010 review of international literature by Lisak and two researchers from End Violence Against Women International, Kimberly Lonsway and Joanne Archambault, concluding that methodologically rigorous research converges at a false reporting rate of around 2 percent to 8 percent.
Notably in Spohn’s study, the fabricated rape reports seemed to fit a pattern; many of the accusers alleged they were attacked by strangers, or with a weapon, or by multiple assailants. In other words, they seemed to tailor their descriptions to fit the stereotype of “real rape” – perhaps in order to be more believable.
The Bottom Line: We don’t know how many rape reports are false. But much of the research showing high rates of false reporting of rape crumbles under close scrutiny. Recent studies with up-to-date and transparent methodology show rates of false reporting that are quite low, though not non-existent.