A news report in the Guardian today gives extensive airspace to Women Against Rape (WAR), a maverick feminist organisation which (despite its name) seems to devote vastly more time to campaigning on behalf of false accusers than against sexual assault, flavoured with the occasional bizarre foray into defending a fugitive alleged rapist.
Dramatically, the headline screams:
109 women prosecuted for false rape claims in five years
The report goes on to explain that authorities in the UK prosecute alleged false accusers ”more aggressively” than other countries, while hinting darkly at sentences of draconian severity and recount cases where women reporting rapes have been supposedly bullied into retracting their complaint and then prosecuted for making a false allegation. There is talk of miscarriages of justice and violations of human rights. WAR’s spokesperson Lisa Longstaff is quoted as saying:
“It’s appalling that when over 90% of rapists are getting away with it and two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners, women who report violence are being imprisoned… From Rotherham to Westminster, police dismiss victims and press them to retract their allegations.”
There are some dissenting views quoted in the article, but the message of the piece as a whole is clear: people who report genuine rapes to the police are at risk of being disbelieved and wrongly prosecuted themselves as false accusers.
It’s a frightening prospect. One of the success stories of recent years has been the massive increase in the proportion of sexual assaults being reported to police. Over a couple of decades in which crime surveys record that numbers of sexual assaults occurring has been broadly stable and possibly slightly in decline, the numbers of reported rapes have risen from around 6,500 per year in 1997 to over 22,000 last year. This has been achieved by challenges to the shame and stigma attached to being a victim, combined with genuine improvements in how police and prosecutors handle cases, including treating reporting victims with greater dignity and belief. It surely goes without saying that this trend cannot be greatly helped by media coverage suggesting that victims filing reports risk being prosecuted.
What makes this narrative so utterly appalling and infuriating is that it is so clearly untrue. While honest anti-rape campaigners fight hard to challenge and refute the many damaging rape myths that still persist in society, WAR, seemingly with the active assistance of some journalists, are actively constructing a pernicious and damaging rape myth of their own.
Let us begin with the headline numbers at face value. 109 cases in five years is an average of about 22 prosecutions per year. Over the past five years there have been around 85,000 reported rapes. In other words, over the past five years there has been one prosecution for false allegations for every 780 reported rapes.
The Home Office’s own commissioned research into rape case attrition (the closest they’ve ever come to researching the actual prevalence of false allegations), and conducted by the self-identifying radical feminist professor Liz Kelly, estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Even if we take the lowest of those numbers as the true figure, this means that on average about 340 false allegations are made every year. On that basis, fourteen out of every fifteen false allegations go unpunished.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows the topic. Last year the (then) Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer published a fascinating qualitative research project into the nature of false allegations. It is widely quoted as demonstrating that false allegations are very rare, in truth it does no such thing, but what it does do is demonstrate how incredibly reluctant the authorities are to prosecute false rape allegations and paints a pretty grim and sad portrait of the kinds of cases which are coming to the attention of the authorities.
As the report (combined with the CPS guidelines) makes clear, police should only refer cases to CPS where there is firm evidence that a false report of rape was made, not just an absence of evidence that a rape occurred. Furthermore, CPS will not usually take cases to court if the alleged false reporter is very young, emotionally or psychologically vulnerable, easily manipulated or has learning difficulties. They also only prosecute where the evidence of falsification is so strong that there is no realistic possibility of a miscarriage of justice.
The study only examined the nature of 132 cases where the evidence of falsification was sufficiently strong for police to forward the case to the CPS. Of those, 35 were prosecuted for either perverting the course of justice or wasting police time. The other 97 cases were dropped. (Eight of the total cases involved male complainants, incidentally)
I’m aware there will be some reading this who will be baying for more stringent efforts to prosecute false allegations, to punish offenders for longer, for a stricter interpretation of public interest. I disagree. I have looked at this issue hard over many, many years and (rather out of character) I think the authorities in this country get it about right.
I do not write this post as a sudden loyal champion of the wonders of the British judicial system. I write it because I would like you to take away one clear message and, if you can, pass it on to others – especially anyone who might read the Guardian. The message is this:
If you are a man or a woman who is raped or sexually assaulted and you decide to report it to police, whatever else might happen, you will not be wrongly charged for making false allegations. The odds of that happening are so small as to be close to non-existent.
There are countless problems in how we investigate and prosecute rape cases in this country. This is not one of them.
There are countless myths about rape, its nature, its circumstances and its victims. The last thing we need is to create a new one. Let’s stomp on this myth before it takes hold.