Last week, Ben Radford suggested that “no one doubts or denies” that “the vast majority of the time…a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen” and that “victims are believed-as they should be, unless further evidence and investigation reveals that it did not happen”. As Ron Lindsay noted, Radford did this without reference to any research on the matter.
I’ve previously pointed out that Radford has a vested interest in this question that he failed to declare. I also pointed out that doubt and denial are hardly unknown experiences for women who talk about having been raped. In the meantime, however, I’ve also been going over the data on the question. Having done that, it’s time to address Radford’s “no one” statement.
A little background to start. The issue of rape myths being prevalent in our society was effectively introduced to the literature by Martha Burt in her paper on her Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (RMAS). This scale was a series of 11 myths endorsed (or not) on a 7-point Likert scale. It additionally asked people to estimate, among other things, the number of false allegations made. At the time, Burt found a high endorsement (50%) for the idea that women lie about rape.
A lot has happened since then on measuring rape myths. Other scales have been created in attempts to improve measurement, such as the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMA). One of the subscales on the IRMA is the LI scale, which measures the tendency to believe “She lied.” The following are the the items on that subscale. Items marked with an asterisk are used on a shorter version of the scale.
- A lot of women lead a man on and then they cry rape.*
- Rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men.*
- Many so-called rape victims are actually women who had sex and ‘‘changed their minds’’ afterwards.
- Women who are caught having an illicit affair sometimes claim that it was rape.
- A lot of times, women who claim they were raped just have emotional problems.
Note the presence of the word “often”, the same word Radford used. Note also the “caught having an illicit affair” scenario and the presence of “emotional problems”, both also highlighted by Radford as cause for general concern, as proven by their “obscurity”.
These are specifically highlighted on a scale like these as rape myths not because they absolutely never happen. They are highlighted as myths because they are treated as salient points when analyzing rape scenarios, real or hypothetical. In other words, those who endorse them don’t just treat them as possible. They treat them as likely. They use them to dismiss rape.
People have also done qualitative research over this time period to determine whether rape myths evolve to suit their environments or over time as anti-rape interventions and training are done. In general, however, the myths endorsed in these studies still tend to fall into the same categories that are found on rape myth scales, including “She lied.”
So, given all that, do studies on rape myths tell us that “no one doubts or denies” that “the vast majority of the time…a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen”? Despite the presence of many, many studies using rape myth scales, getting an answer isn’t as simple as you might like to think. Scores on rape myth scales aren’t typically presented directly in research these days. After much early research demonstrated that these myths were prevalent in various populations (college students, juror pools, law enforcement, therapists, etc.), research these days is more likely to study attitudinal correlates of rape myth acceptance (paternalism, hostile sexism, gender complimentarianism, acceptance of interpersonal violence) and the efficacy of intervention programs in reducing acceptance of rape myths.
Still, there are recent studies that report this information directly. In 2010, Amy Dellinger Page found (pdf) that 17.1% of police officers surveyed (N=891) agreed that women falsely report rape to draw attention to themselves, and another 2.6% strongly agree. That totals to nearly a fifth of a critical population.
Karla Wiscombe, in work on her 2012 doctoral dissertation (pdf), found that “Rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men” was the third most endorsed rape myth among a sample of male college students (N=189, 20 myths tested) and fifth most endorsed among women in the same population (N=157). Additionally, “Many so-called rape victims are actually women who had sex and ‘changed their mind’ afterward” was the fifth most endorsed rape myth among this male population and ninth among this group of women. Overall average scores on the scale used are in line with reported scores on similar scales in student populations.
In 2010, reviewing how acceptance of rape myths may have changed over time, Katie M. Edwards, Jessica A. Turchik, Christina M. Dardis, Nicole Reynolds, and Christine A. Gidycz (pdf) reported:
Among college men, recent data showed that 22% agreed that “women lie about rape to get back at men,” and 13% agreed that “a lot of women lead men on and then cry rape” (Edwards et al. 2010).
That data was unpublished at the time of the paper in which it was quoted. I’ve been unable to determine whether it has subsequently been published. The authors concluded that methodological differences and changes in social acceptability make it impossible to say for sure whether rates have decreased over time. However, those numbers are still high and on par with the police study above.
Last year, Clare Gunby, Anna Carline, and Caryl Beynon (abstract; paper behind a pay wall) summarized recent research on the relevant rape myths thus:
Burton et al. (1998) found that from a sample of 2,039 young people 74% agreed that females often or sometimes ‘cry rape’ when really they just have second thoughts. The London-based Opinion Matters (2010) survey identified one in five participants aged 18–50 years agreed that most claims of rape are probably not true, with men being more likely to endorse this perspective. More recent findings have documented that 47.7% of male students aged 18–24 years, compared to 33.6% of female, agreed with the statement that a significant proportion of rapes reported to the police were false allegations (Gunby et al., 2012).
They also found in their own research that “The topic of false allegations was spontaneously raised by participants in all four focus groups without direction from the investigator, arguably demonstrating the pervasive nature of the issue”, “Whilst a subset of participants argued that the vignette was unlikely to be a false report, protests were sometimes qualified”, and “False reports were also viewed as a method for seeking revenge”. Additionally, even though many participants thought the frequency of false reports was relatively low, they still offered the suggestion in discussion that the research scenario might be an example of a false report.
Qualitative analysis like theirs can also provide prevalence information. For example, studying the headlines surrounding the Kobe Bryant rape case, Renae Franiuk, Jennifer L. Seefelt, and Joseph A. Vandello (pdf) found that 6% of available news headlines on the case (N=555) suggested that the alleged victim was lying. They additionally found that viewing these headlines, with or without Bryant’s name used, caused male, college-student participants to provide lower assessments of Bryant’s guilt relative to male participants who had viewed headlines without the myth and relative to female participants (N=78) in any study condition.
Another qualitative study of newspapers, this one covering the full text of news articles, editorials, and letters to the editor on the topic of recognizing marital rape in Bahamian law, was done in 2012 by Lisa Benjamin and Cathleen LeGrand (pdf). They found that 28% of these suggested that women made vindictive false accusations of rape. This was the top “issue” mentioned across all types of pieces. Even limiting the selection to news reporting, it remained the second most common theme, ranking barely behind the idea that sex is a marital duty, with marriage vows implying consent.
In another qualitative study in 2007, Sarah McMahon ran group discussions and follow-up individual interviews on attitudes toward rape with student athletes (pdf). There were nine teams total, five men’s teams and four women’s teams. The subject of false reports were raised in a majority of men’s teams.
During the focus groups, three of the men’s teams expressed the belief that women fabricate rape as a means of revenge. This issue was not brought up by any of the women’s teams and was not included as a question by the interviewer. Members of these men’s teams expressed the belief that certain types of women are either vengeful or simply regret having sex the next day and call it rape. One man explained,
I know there are girls out there who accuse guys of it who haven’t, first of all, who haven’t touched them, second of all, who maybe did so but they were quite willing at the time, and it’s like then the next morning, like, I just did that because I didn’t like you and now I’m going to accuse you of raping me.
His teammates agreed, and another teammate explained that he has a friend who tapes every sexual encounter with women to have proof that it was consensual “because today women are quick to call rape.”
Some teams expressed the belief that some women, particularly those who are drunk, simply regret having had sex and call it rape. One man said, “Some girls wake up the next morning and they’re like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have done that, like I wouldn’t have done that if I was sober,’ but she remembers everything. I don’t think that should be considered rape.” Another player agreed and explained that, in addition, part of the issue is that women regret having sex but men do not.
This theme was confirmed in the individual interviews. Members of the men’s teams explained that it is “known” that there are certain women who may falsely accuse them. One man said, “There are certain girls you should stay away from . . . because they get really drunk, and who knows what’s gonna happen then. Better not to risk it.”
In every recent study on rape myths I reviewed, where the prevalence of the idea that false rape accusations are a significant factor was reported, it was either widely endorsed or spontaneously raised in a significant proportion of cases. Contra to Radford’s assertions that “no one doubts or denies” that “the vast majority of the time…a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen” and that “victims are believed-as they should be, unless further evidence and investigation reveals that it did not happen”, the reality is that the specter of false accusations is commonly believed and frequently raised.