False Reports of Sexual Assault Are Rare. But Why Is There So Little Reliable Data About Them?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that false rape reports drastically exceed those of other crimes.
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Hundreds of protesters rally in the Hart Senate Office Building while demonstrating against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill September 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Hundreds of protesters rally in the Hart Senate Office Building while demonstrating against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill September 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of allegations by Christine Blasey Ford and others against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, many speculated that the hearing devolved into a case of "he said, she said."

"It's a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of," President Donald Trump said earlier this week. Then, at a rally on Tuesday: "Think of your son. Think of your husband."

These comments tap into a common misperception, casting survivors of sexual assault as liars out for revenge, and their attackers as victims. Trump is not its only proponent: On Thursday, the New York Times published an op-ed by conservative columnist Bret Stephens, praising the president for his defense of sons and husbands everywhere. In "unpacking" this position, Stephens called upon the authority of research: "Yet false allegations of rape, while relatively rare, are at least five times as common as false accusations of other types of crime, according to academic literature," he writes.

But the one study that Stephens cites here—which relies on limited data—falls into a familiar trap among attempts to quantify false reports: failing to contextualize the federal government's often-unreliable data.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that false rape reports drastically exceed those of other crimes—in fact, many researchers argue there is no clear academic consensus on false rape reports' prevalence, period. Recent studies have critiqued the literature on this subject for using unreliable data or unscientific methodologies.

What we do know is this: False reports are rare, ranging from 2 to 10 percent of all reported sexual assaults. This figure comes from a commonly cited 2010 study, published in the peer-reviewed international journal Violence Against Women. This meta-analysis evaluated more than 20 previous studies and concluded that most misrepresent the rate of false reporting by not accounting for police departments' mistakes. (The researchers also conducted their own study, based on 10 years of reports at a single university—rare for a field that relies on Federal Bureau of Investigation data—putting the rate of false reporting at just under 6 percent.) "The greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected," study author David Lisak writes. "Cumulatively, these findings contradict the still widely promulgated stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence."

Why is there so much disagreement? For one, researchers relying on federal data often conflate "unfounded" reports—when law enforcement labels an accusation false or "baseless"—with entirely false ones. The FBI's broad label of "unfounded" includes accusations that have been investigated and dismissed as not meeting legal criteria, without being proven false. This confusion results in inflated numbers, the kind Kavanaugh's defenders cite—such as one debunked study that puts prevalence at 41 percent.

Drawing from the last published Uniform Crime Reporting data on "unfounded" reports in 1996, the FBI says the unfounded rate for "forcible rape," at 8 percent, is higher than the average for all other crimes measured, at 2 percent. However, the agency has since modified its guidelines to narrow this definition. Criminal justice professor Philip Rumney, writing in the Cambridge Law Journal in 2006, questions these numbers, which come from law enforcement agencies across the United States: "Among such a large number of agencies there is likely to be a significant variation in recording practice," he writes, citing the Philadelphia Police Department, which "dumped cases," labeling them "unfounded," in order to "reduce workload" for nearly two decades.

This was no isolated incident. As Lisak explains, FBI data is often unreliable:

Despite these guidelines, numerous studies have discovered that the misclassification of cases by law enforcement agencies is routine. Cases in which the victim is unable or unwilling to cooperate, in which evidence is lacking, in which the victim makes inconsistent statements, or in which the victim was heavily intoxicated frequently get classified as 'unfounded' or 'no-crimed.'

Even agencies that do not deliberately mislabel accusations make mistakes: Officials often misclassify accusations that have been delayed, or dismiss contradictions in a victim's statement as falsehoods—even though these inconsistencies are often the "artifact of police interviewing techniques," as researchers write in one 2012 study. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, police departments are urged, but not required, to exclude reports such as these from their count; research shows that they often do not.

In the end, reports labeled "false" can be very dangerous—but for victims of sexual assault, not the "young men of America." Misconceptions about false reporting contribute to underreporting, a very real and widespread phenomenon. If you believed police, pundits, and the president will dismiss your account without proving it false, why would you report it?

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