Sep 18 2011

Rape Myth #1: She’s Probably Lying

The following is a repost that was originally published here. Not only is it relevant to my recent discussion with an MRA, but it’s time for me to get back into blogging about rape myths.

ResearchBlogging.orgTawana Brawley. Duke University men’s lacrosse team.

If you see a rape allegation in the news, those words aren’t far behind. They are talismans, touchstones for the idea that we must never, ever forget that women lie about rape. These women lied; therefore, women lie.

The truth is, of course, that some women do lie about having been raped. That shouldn’t surprise us. People make false accusations about every type of crime, even murder, where it is excruciatingly difficult to do. If no woman ever lied about being raped, the gender might have some collective claim to sainthood.

The difference with rape is the reminder. Name someone who gave an acquaintance a gift then accused them of robbery. Find me a blog post about a robbery where one of these people is mentioned. Name someone who is used to demonstrate that insurance fraud occurs–every time a large insurance payout for theft makes the papers. Name one of those audacious people who tried to frame someone for a murder that never happened, even in fiction, then show me how their name comes up every time a body isn’t found.

It doesn’t happen. We’re not told that people lie about these things. We’re told that women lie about rape.

The implication in the “women lie” narrative is that we must be particularly on our guard against false accusations of rape, that any particular accusation is unlikely to be true. But is it?

The Rate of False Report
The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.

Their results were interesting in two respects. The first is that all the credible studies produced rates close to the standard figure. Rates ranged from 2.1% to 10.9%, with the college study falling in the middle at 5.9%. The numbers on rape just don’t support the idea that extra vigilance is required for this crime over others.

The second finding of the study is even more striking. In the authors’ own words, “It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected.” Those studies that relied on sorting done by the police produced the highest rates of rape. Those that examined the details of the cases labeled as false and required evidence of lies, rather than merely suspicion, produced the lowest rates. The 2.1% represents accusers who were charged with making false reports, the strictest criteria. (See this post for some thoughts on applying the presumption of innocence equally to accusers and accused in cases of rape.)

What Is A False Report?
The paper from Lisak and his coauthors discusses the criteria that must be met in order for a police report to be classified as false, noting that official statistics frequently include cases not meeting the criteria. Liz Kelly, in a separate paper released in 2010, examines two “attrition” studies, studies that track the ways in which rape cases fall out of the criminal justice system. Aside from convictions, how can rape cases end up classified?

  • Declined to prosecute: Not enough evidence has been turned up to comfortably persuade a jury. Although the legal standard here is “reasonable doubt,” prosecutors also face human prejudices when making these decisions, their own and those of potential jurors.
  • Uncooperative victims: The victim has stopped cooperating with investigators or refuses to testify. This will include cases where the victim doesn’t want to be responsible for the rapist going to prison, common in all types of domestic assault. It will also include cases in which dealing with the criminal justice system has become too traumatic. More discussion on that later.
  • Victims deemed not credible: The police or prosecutor have decided that the victim is not to be believed. The victim may have personal characteristics that are considered untrustworthy (such as mental illness), or may have memory impairments (such as intoxication) making a clear picture of the rape difficult. This may also cover victims who withhold details of the rape or events leading to the rape out of embarrassment or fear of incrimination. I’ll also discuss this in more detail in the next section.
  • No crime occurred: This is different than false reports. This category includes incidents that may have occurred but did not rise to the level of a crime in the jurisdiction involved (for example, failure to stop sex when consent is withdrawn is not codified as a crime in legal statutes in the vast majority of the U.S.). It also involves complaints by third parties that did not hold up when the “victim” was interviewed and cases in which someone went to the police for help determining whether they had been sexually assaulted, usually after a period of unconsciousness, but no evidence of sex was found.
  • False reports: The reporter has plausibly recanted, or substantial evidence exists to show that the accusation is unfounded.

Only the last of these is actually a false report. The rest of them either don’t involve an accusation, or they exist in that murky land where we don’t know what happened. So how do so many of them end up being included in the false report statistics?

Making the Numbers

It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected.

Both the Lisak and Kelly papers include multiple studies that compare actual police classification procedures to international standards. To put it briefly, they don’t measure up. Depending on the location, any of those other classifications, aside from reports ending in convictions, might end up being included in official figures on false reports.

Some of this may be sloppy paperwork or coding, but part of the problem is the officers themselves. Kelly reports that even among those who are supposed to be experts in rape, the following attitudes can be found:

We have a lot of allegations that are then retracted, we have a lot of allegations that it comes out in the wash one way or another that it was consensual. He says it’s consensual and she doesn’t, or they’ve been together for like hours beforehand, she’s gone back to his flat. . . . But stranger rape, you immediately start to think, “Oh God, this could be a real proper sort of drag you in the car,” absolutely nothing beforehand has happened. I think subconsciously you would consider it more serious. . . . I think I’d have more belief in the victim, that that was saying it was by a stranger, that . . . it was a proper rape, rather than perhaps someone who said “It’s my ex-boyfriend, he came round,” because then you start to think things like, “Oh, she’s just getting back at him now.” (Female detective constable 2)

I have dealt with hundreds and hundreds of rapes in the last few years, and I can honestly probably count on both hands the ones that I believe are truly genuine. (Male detective constable 2)

In addition to finding that coding procedures weren’t followed, the attrition studies Kelly reviewed also uncovered investigation techniques that violated international standards. The most egregious of these was offering lie-detector tests to victims, a practice widely viewed as hostile and accusatory toward victims. Using procedures such as these is one way to inflate the number of cases in which victims stop cooperating.

The prevalence of rape myths among the police forces coding reports as false should also be cause for concern when looking at their uncorrected numbers. When the women they consider untrustworthy match the profiles for those most at risk of rape (mentally ill, developmentally disabled, intoxicated, previously victimized–although the papers don’t mention it, racial and sexual minority status fall here too), or those exhibiting rape trauma (scattered, faulty memory, embarrassed, ashamed), they are making decisions that push these cases out of the system on a prejudicial basis, not a factual one.

Then there is the fact that law enforcement is under continual pressure to reduce crime rates. That can lead to situations like that uncovered in Baltimore last year by the Baltimore Sun:

The problem in Baltimore is striking, but Baltimore is hardly the only city affected. If you need to change your crime rate, deciding that more rape accusations are “unfounded” is a simple administrative solution.

These examples are why we can’t trust raw law enforcement numbers, which provide the citations for “women lie” arguments. If a police force doesn’t know what is and isn’t rape, how can it decide which rapes are falsely reported? If a police force decides that in he-said, she-said situations, “she” is arbitrarily not to be trusted, how can we trust their decisions on whether or not she lied? If a police forces continue to endorse rape myths, why would we trust their reporting numbers uncritically?

These are decisions that have consequences. They have consequences for the recovery of victims, as being disbelieved is a risk factor for poor recovery after rape (Ullman 1996). And they have consequences for the rest of us as well. The re-offence rate for rapists isn’t entirely clear, but the low estimates put it around 20%. Kelly cites three cases of serial rapists in which early victims were recorded as having filed false reports.

Given the small number of false reports found in well-built studies, and the large number of repeat rapists, it might be time to give some serious thought to how well our societal strategy of disbelief serves us.

A Note on Real False Reports
Kelly’s paper provides some interesting detail on a sample of reports that were accurately coded as false. Unlike the stereotype, most of the false reports did not involve direct accusations of a particular person. They were stranger-rape scenarios.

Also, in both the stranger-rape and acquaintance-rape scenarios, the false accuser was generally a victim of some sort. Some had been otherwise abused by those people they accused, including prior sexual abuse. Some were reporting rape to avoid abuse they would have otherwise received, as is suspected to the case for Tawana Brawley.

None of that excuses the false reporting of rape. It simply provides an opportunity to think about what might be done to reduce the rate of false reports even further.

Kelly L (2010). The (in)credible words of women: false allegations in European rape research. Violence against women, 16 (12) PMID: 21164212

Lisak D, Gardinier L, Nicksa SC, & Cote AM (2010). False allegations of sexual assualt: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence against women, 16 (12), 1318-34 PMID: 21164210

Ullman, S. (1996). SOCIAL REACTIONS, COPING STRATEGIES, AND SELF-BLAME ATTRIBUTIONS IN ADJUSTMENT TO SEXUAL ASSAULT Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20 (4), 505-526 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1996.tb00319.x


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  1. 1

    Thank you for reposting this. Very informative.

  2. 2
    Robert B.

    Yeah, wow. An excellent article on a subject I didn’t know much about. I feel smarter now.

  3. 3

    I agree about the point about lying about rape. Its brought up much, much more often than it actually happens. In defense of the Duke Lacrosse team, a lot of the press had convicted them before they looked at the evidence. At the time there was a witch hunt mentality and anyone who said that they’d like to see some evidence before throwing them in jail was accused of hating women.

    False reports and unfounded accusations are frequently lumped together. False reports are rare. I’ve heard 1 to 2%. Unfounded accusations are more common.

    While women rarely lie about rape, it is more common, but still fairly rare, that they lie about issues related to the rape. Examples I’ve read about, victim lied about using illegal drugs, or denied having an affair until after the DNA evidence clears the accused rapist and then she admits that the DNA came from the man she was having an affair with.

    Another issue that comes up some times is that the victim gives different versions of the events to the first officers responding, the hospital, the detectives and the prosecuting attorney. If the versions are widely different, it can be difficult to prosecute.

    Both sides of this issue can be irrational. Just because a woman didn’t want to tell a cop that she was using cocaine the night she was raped, doesn’t mean she was lying about being raped. Just because a prosecuting attorney refused to prosecute because a woman kept changing her account of the incident doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe her or hate women.

    The low rate of convictions in rape cases is partially caused by the fact that in many of the cases there simply isn’t enough evidence to prosecute. If the woman isn’t sure who raped her and there isn’t any physical evidence, how can you prosecute?

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Actually, there’s nothing simple about not having “enough evidence to prosecute.” In pretty much any other crime, a victim who could testify would be considered wonderful evidence by a prosecutor. If you don’t think the idea that women aren’t trustworthy is central to the problem of prosecution, you’re not thinking the issue through.

    Also, the changing of small details in retelling is incredibly common after trauma of any sort. Trauma messes with your head. Generally, however, these aren’t the sort of details that are actually relevant to rape, such as whether consent was given. Again, they wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if trusting women weren’t considered risky business.

  5. 5

    I’d add that witnesses tend to make mistakes, period. Especially when primed by careless or biased questioners. Usually we think witness testimony is more trustworthy than it really is… but not for rape victims.

    Sample article on the unreliability of witness testimony:


  6. 6

    I agree that the vast majority of reported rape cases are real. I’ve found people are surprisingly honest in this respect. When I started teaching college at a, ahem, starter school, my high failure rate and general societal issues in the area made me fear false accusations of sexual harassment. None have come, nor have any been directed toward my colleagues.

    But one of the reasons I think the “women can lie” reminder comes out is because of the nature of the accusation. The accusation of rape, by itself, can destroy careers, break apart families, and traumatize the innocent. To be accused of theft doesn’t put your picture in the paper. Mothers don’t pull their children from your view because you’re a suspected embezzler. Even the accusation of murder, once cleared up, can be put in one’s past. But rape has a special affinity for the “guilty until proven innocent, and then just creepy” crowd. No matter how much comes out against the accuser (she’s looking for attention, money, or some other benefit), the people accused are still seen as sexual predators. Most of us understand that the Duke team was innocent, but how many people refuse to accept that? How many people have been made to hate and vilify these boys because of one lie?

    My humble opinion is that this can be cleared up and fixed if we stop media from convicting people prematurely. An accusation of a crime should not be allowed in the news. If I am accused of rape (or bank robbery, or whaling in Oklahoma on a Sunday), it should be illegal to circulate this story, in the process violating my basic human rights to privacy and liberty, until I am convicted. Court records and reporting should be allowed only defacto in cases of guilt or at the request of the accused. I think that in this way, we can protect the victims and the innocent.

  7. 7

    Actually, there’s nothing simple about not having “enough evidence to prosecute.” In pretty much any other crime, a victim who could testify would be considered wonderful evidence by a prosecutor. If you don’t think the idea that women aren’t trustworthy is central to the problem of prosecution, you’re not thinking the issue through.

    I was thinking more about the situation where the woman never saw her attacker or was so drunk or drugged that she has difficulty remembering what happened.

    If the woman knows she was raped but can’t identify anyone and there’s no physical evidence, the cops can’t do much.

    Widely different versions of a crime can cause problems. If she says the guy was a 6’4″ white guy to the first person and a 5’4″ black man to the 4th person, it does tend to hurt the woman’s credibility.

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    If she says the guy was a 6’4″ white guy to the first person and a 5’4″ black man to the 4th person, it does tend to hurt the woman’s credibility.

    And this happens with what sort of frequency that it’s such a compelling issue that it needs to be brought up here? This, just like your unseen stranger who left no trace, are diversions when we’re talking about the disbelief victims face. To be clear, that is what we’re talking about here.

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    Donovan, you might be surprised if you actually listen to why people are still pissed off at the accused Duke students. The accuser may have lied in this case, but the racial slurs and their other behavior that pissed her off didn’t exactly come out of charm school. But if you’d really like to see the acquitted walk away from rape cases better, I suggest you work on improving the justice system to the point where rapes are tried and convictions obtained some significant fraction of the time. There’s nothing for getting people to trust in justice like letting them see justice being done.

  10. 10

    And this happens with what sort of frequency that it’s such a compelling issue that it needs to be brought up here? This, just like your unseen stranger who left no trace, are diversions when we’re talking about the disbelief victims face. To be clear, that is what we’re talking about here.

    I’m not disagreeing with you at all. If I was on a jury my inclination would be to believe the accuser unless there was a good reason not to. In a case where the only real issue was consent it comes down to credibility. You may or may not get a conviction on a he said, she said type case but morally you should try.

    There have been women prosecuted for making a false statement when they were attacked by a unseen stranger who left little trace of himself. Bill Lueders wrote a book about this exact situation. In this case, the police officer in charge thought she was lying because she changed a few minor things in her testimony and some of the things she said didn’t make any sense to him. Significant changes in testimony is a legitimate reason to mistrust the accuser. Minor differences should be expected.

    My point is that not every case where someone decides not to prosecute is a case where they don’t believe women. There are legitimate reasons to either not believe a woman or to believe that a woman is honest but mistaken. There are legitimate reasons not to prosecute. Not trusting someone simply because they are a woman is not one of them.

  11. 11

    The accusation of rape, by itself, can destroy careers, break apart families, and traumatize the innocent.

    But is it really more damaging to an individual than accusations of drug distrbution, murder, theft or any other crime? I know you believe it is but I don’t see that in the media or elsewhere. True among the left leaning rape is generally recognized as the horrible violation of another human being that it is but that’s hardly universal.

    And other crimes (for example drug distribution) will piss off parents to the point where you will be blacklisted, so it isn’t as if rape would be unique in damaging an individual’s reputation.

  12. 12
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    First, thank you for reposting this, Stephanie

    The accusation of rape, by itself, can destroy careers, break apart families, and traumatize the innocent.

    You mean unlike rape?

    No, I get that this is not what you were getting at.
    I think the problem with rape lies the other way round:
    If somebody is acquited of murder, we are pretty confident that they are indeed innocent and that the prosecution made a mistake (well, unless we’re talking about high profile very rich people). We are pretty confident that actual murder cases go on trial. We are pretty confident that actual murderers get sentenced.

    With rape we’re not. And deep down, most people know that. Even those taking the stance “we’ll never know what happened between them, he said -she said” acknowledge that what she said may very well be the truth. We are pretty sure that most rapists don’t even go on trial and that those who go on trial are much more likely to get off than a murderer, or even a drug dealer. So we are sceptical if somebody is acquited, we know that they are ost likely guilty. That’s why the accusation sticks.

  13. 13

    If somebody is acquited of murder, we are pretty confident that they are indeed innocent and that the prosecution made a mistake

    Um, no we’re not. Our system (the US, anyway) is designed to avoid convicting the innocent, not to punish the guilty. Crim law class is replete with criminals getting off for all sorts of reasons, many of them ludicrous. Is that common? No. But I don’t think it’s freakishly rare either.

    That said, this is a great posting on the topic, Stephanie. If the police are ignoring potentially valid claims, filtering out cases based on their own biases it can be highly damaging to society. And of course they are, because a large part of their job by necessity involves initial filtering of cases. I think the argument you successfully make here is that they need to be much better trained and should be disabused of myths surrounding rape.

  14. 14
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Can I just add that a lot of this stuff that applies to rape accusations also applies to DV accusations.

    I reported my abuser multiple times, and I was treated like I was “just an hysterical woman”, told to “calm down”, and even threatened with arrest if I insisted on pressing charges against him.

  15. 15

    Can someone say more on where this comes from? Has there always been so much distrust of women reporting rape, or is it a newer phenomenon?

  16. 16
    Stephanie Zvan

    I would say it comes from relative status. Among women, lower status translates to a lower likelihood of being believed, and before the Civil Rights Era (and possibly still), a white woman was more likely to be believed than a black man.

  17. 17

    To WMDKitty, I can’t believe that officials wouldn’t listen to you. It has to be hard to come forward, but then to even have your accusations turned around like that. That’s horrible. I hope you find the sanctuary you deserve.

  18. 18

    How can a bunch of people who pride themselves on their supposed rationalism take the Duke accuser and her concocted tale of rape seriously? If anything, this woman has hurt real rape victims by giving the impression that all women lie about sexual assault.

  19. 19
    Stephanie Zvan

    Emilia, I don’t think you’ve actually read this post.

  20. 20

    Hey, Stephanie, look’s what’s happened to your beloved victim.


  21. 21

    And, yet, if you analyze the FBI’s statistics you get a (still extremely large) number of about 4.5% of women who are forcibly raped in their lifetime. Yet, websites like RAINN tell us it’s 1/6. I’m going to hazard the guess that AT MOST, 25%-50% of women who are violently forced into sex won’t come forward. So, we’ll put the number at 7.5% violently raped just to be on the safe side.

    That still leaves 9% of women who are claiming some sort of rape that involves absolutely no force at all. I suppose we could chalk all those up to GHB, but that would just be disingenuous as we know the real contributor is drunk women.

    Given that there are absolutely NO women in jail for having sex with a drunk man, we know one of two things:

    1. A man is physically incapable of being too drunk for sex

    or 2. A man is always responsible for his choices when he drinks.

    I’m going to go with number two because that’s more likely – although I don’t really believe that one applies giving that two is true. Since it is true that men bear responsibility for their actions, it seems just that women also, as equal partners in society, also start bearing responsibility for their actions. If number 1 is true, we would clearly expect some women to start going to jail for having sex with drunk men – which means we really need campaigns to educate men about how drunk one-night-stands are actually them being raped. Women have clearly learned this already and I think it’s tragic that so many men are sitting in the shadows not even knowing that that time they were too drunk for sex was them being raped and that the predator who preyed upon them is still free and enjoying all the privilege that comes with being female.

    Yes, 9% – that’s the reasonable number for women who will have drunk sex in their lifetime and report it as rape, according to RAINN.

    How stupid do feminists really think people are? And how stupid do they expect us to believe women actually are? Why are our feminists, who are supposed to be fighting for equality, trying to reduce women to helpless children when they make choices when drunk? If they are helpless children when they drink, why are men not also considered helpless children when they drink?

    It’s time for reasonable people to understand that feminism is not about equality – it’s about infantalizing women by removing their capacity to make choices and exercise free will and to bear, what comes along ith those things, responsibility and accountability for their choices.

  22. 22
    Great American Satan

    Hey Bob, I know you MRAs and conservatives are mortally deficient in empathy, but maybe you’d understand things better if you actually became a woman. Transition. Live as a woman. Then don’t even go out of your way for romantic situations. Just go to work, ride the bus, go to restaurants like anybody else, and see how safe you feel after a while. See how you feel about rape hyper-skeptics and apologists.

    Heck, y’all think women have it so fucking great and tha matriarchy is so powerful, it should be a huge improvement in your life. You guys should be lining up in droves for it.

  23. 23
    John Morales

    Bob @21:

    That still leaves 9% of women who are claiming some sort of rape that involves absolutely no force at all.

    Fine; let’s grant your figures, arguendo — I here introduce you to the concept of the threat of force (AKA ‘coercion’ or ‘extortion’).

    Yes, 9% – that’s the reasonable number for women who will have drunk sex in their lifetime and report it as rape, according to RAINN.

    No; that’s according to you, unless you care to provide a citation that shows that is the case.

    How stupid do feminists really think people are?

    Dunno; how stupid are you?

  24. 24

    #21…..so Bob. You go out with buddies, drink a few, talk to a few women (or dudes, irrelevant), someone takes your wallet. You intended to spend some money, but not lose everything. Your id/licence. Credit card. Etc. You now have to figure out if you can find out which person took your wallet. Charges start showing up on your bank card account.You took a few pics with a cell phone of those that you were hanging out with all night….. You were drinking……..do you have a right to accuse those in the pictures of theft? Are you an INFANT if the police take a report from you seriously? Are you an infant for calling a lawyer?

    just checking if you want any of that police protection or legal protection of the law….or if that’s just for…..infantilized men who can’t drink responsibly…….

  25. 25

    actually, just thought of something. Is there a provision on the books that if the victim of a crime is incapacited (voluntarily or otherwise) that the penalty gets doubled or tripled? Increasing penalties against disabled, high, seriously ill, or, yes, intoxicated individuals? Shouldn’t the law protect people at their most vulnerable? food for thought…..

  26. 26

    Shorter Bob: Bitches be lying. Raped bitches are just drunk sluts.

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