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What the Research Says About (the Very Rare Phenomenon of) False Sexual Assault Allegations

Pacific Standard looks at the evidence about people who make false accusations of rape, and how to get the best information during sexual assault cases.
Protesters rally in front of the Supreme Court while demonstrating against the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the court on September 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Protesters rally in front of the Supreme Court while demonstrating against the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the court on September 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

All eyes have been on Washington, D.C., over the past few weeks, as three women have come forward to accuse Brett Kavanaugh—a Supreme Court nominee—of sexual assault and misconduct when they were in high school or college. Kavanaugh denies that he was involved in the abuse the women described.

For many Americans, the allegations brought up a lot of questions about rape and assault accusations in general. How often are they falsely made? How can American organizations encourage people to tell authorities when they've been victims of sexual crimes, which researchers think are vastly underreported? Here's a quick look into the research on these important issues.

As Pacific Standard previously reported, studies show false rape allegations are uncommon and are far outnumbered by the true sexual assaults that never come to authorities' attention. Still, they happen. How consequential are they? For a story published in Quartz in 2016, writer Sandra Newman analyzed hundreds of cases published in the news, social science and government studies, and the National Registry of Exonerations. She found reassuring trends. False accusations seem easily caught; they rarely make it very far through judicial systems:

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since records began in 1989, in the [United States] there are only 52 cases where men convicted of sexual assault were exonerated because it turned out they were falsely accused. By way of comparison, in the same period, there are 790 cases in which people were exonerated for murder.

Furthermore, in the most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports to police, undertaken for the British Home Office in the early 2000s, out of 216 complaints that were classified as false. ... Only 39 complainants named a suspect ... only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false.

Newman's story also outlines common qualities of false accusers. There's one way she describes them that's often quoted: "[A]lmost invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud. Indeed, they're often criminals whose family and friends are also criminals; broken people trapped in chaotic lives."

And yet, even these characteristics aren't good reason for police departments and other institutions not to take someone's complaints seriously. People with chaotic lives and families make for easy targets for predators, Newman notes. Often false accusers had been sexually abused as children.

So how can organizations set policies in ways that help them get to the bottom of a case, including encouraging more victims to report when they've been sexually assaulted? End Violence Against Women International, a charity that offers training on how to respond to sexual assault cases, has best-practice resources aimed at law enforcement, health-care workers, school administrators, and advocates. They're based on the philosophy that the best way to uncover the truth is to develop trust and rapport with those making reports, and convey the attitude that they'll be believed, so they'll be more comfortable giving investigators the information needed to solve the case.

This way of thinking works to counteract some of the reasons people give in surveys for not reporting their sexual assaults: shame, guilt, or the concern that they won't be believed. "This doesn't mean investigators make a premature judgment, or reach a preordained conclusion," according to a statement from End Violence Against Women International. "It simply means that investigators listen carefully to the victim's report, without communicating an attitude of doubt or blame. The next step is then to follow the evidence."

The philosophy also works for friends and family, End Violence Against Women International's founder, and a retired police sergeant, Joanne Archambault, wrote during a livechat in 2015. "Our entire society needs work understanding the realistic dynamics of sexual assault and how to support victims," she wrote. "The best thing you can do for any sexual assault victim is not to judge them, tell them you believe them and ask how you can help."