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  • Writer's pictureHeather D. Flowe, PhD

The culture of fear surrounding rape accusations

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Are men living in perilous times where they may be falsely accused of rape at any moment?

You would think so. A recent poll showed that Americans are almost as concerned about men being falsely accused of sexual assault (82% worried) as they are about women being sexually assaulted (87% worried). We now face a #MeToo backlash, with many saying the #BelieveWomen mantra has gone too far.

We can readily recount examples, such as accusations of members of the Duke University lacrosse team that were later retracted. I know from my own research that these cases feed fears that false accusations abound, that they stem from a night of hard drinking and regretted sex, revenge-seeking after breakups or rejection, or to cover-up ‘bad’ behaviour.

Fears over false accusations have been with us a long time. The English jurist Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale, for example, warned in the 17th Century that rape is a charge ``easily to be made and hard to be proved.” Reflecting on current events and statistics in the UK, where rape perpetrators are hardly ever convicted, it seems he was half right: rape is indeed hard to be proved, but charges are even harder to be made.

Indeed, there is little prospect of justice for the 773,000 adults in England and Wales who are victims of sexual offences each year (according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales for year ending March 2020). An analysis of rape convictions between 1985 and 2010 found that only 12.5% of cases reported to the police end in conviction (Daly & Bouhours, 2010). More recent figures vary depending on the definitions and datasets used, but broadly fall between 1% and 6%. Home Office data for 2019/20 had the figure at 1.6%. Whichever way you look at it, conviction rates are incredibly low, and falling.

Meanwhile, false rape allegations are vanishingly rare, and convictions for false claims even rarer. Based on the most comprehensive study of false reports, which was conducted in the UK, the claim that "countless lives are being ruined by false allegations" does not stand up to scrutiny.

This 2005 study found there were 126 formal police complaints deemed to be false among 2,643 cases reported to the police; none resulted in a conviction. The outcomes of the complaints are plotted below. It shows that in most cases, no suspect was named, and among those who were named, there were no convictions.

In a more recent CPS review that spanned a 17-month period in 2011 to 2012, a total of 121 out of 5,651 rape prosecutions were found to be potentially false; of these 35 cases were concluded as false, with 25 suspected false complainants prosecuted for perverting the course of justice, and 10 for wasting police time.

The similarity of the figures over time seems to disconfirm speculations that false claims are widespread.

Further, when it comes to convictions stemming from false accusations, official US justice figures indicate that 25 times more people have been exonerated for murder than for sexual assault or rape combined.

I used to despair when a false allegation case made the news. However, I now see it differently: People are people, and there will be people who make false claims. Further, the false allegation rate in sexual offenses is the same as it is for other types of offenses, such as burglary and assault. We should be no more preoccupied with worry about false allegations than about other types of crimes.

Given there are so few cases of false allegations, and yet, so much disproportionate worry about them begs the following question:

Why is rape held to a different standard than other crimes?

Unlike other types of crimes, many people I talk to (and some are police officers) seem to require that all false rape claims be eradicated before the justice system can take action to improve investigations and increase prosecutions.

Meanwhile, nearly every victim of rape is failed by our ineffective legal system.

Fear over false allegations is perpetuated by people who stand to gain, such as some lawyers, expert witnesses, news conglomerates, politicians, and groups that benefit from maintaining the patriarchy.

Widespread fears over false allegations are beyond all reason. Legitimate concerns are being drowned out. Unfortunately, no amount of debunking seems to matter.

Fears that are logical

What we really should be afraid of is the waste of public funds on poor criminal investigations that give predators carte blanche to harm and kill others, leaving all of us more vulnerable. We've seen too many examples in the news where a serial perpetrator was not identified soon enough by the police.

What we should really worry about is the damage being done to people because victimisations are not being prevented. The Home Office reports that violent crimes are the costliest for individuals and society, with rape having the highest cost among non-fatal offenses. Well-documented harmful effects caused by sexual violence include: death and disability arising from physical injury, damage to sexual and reproductive health, chronic diseases, mental health conditions, and health-harming behaviours, such as misuse of alcohol and other drugs.

Against this backdrop, victims in the UK, and elsewhere (e.g., U.S., Australia, New Zealand), frequently say the police who took their statements did not believe them and that going through the legal process was stressful, even traumatic.

The constant focus on the false allegation pseudo problem is leading us to neglect these real problems.

We need real answers (not apps that track women)

We need better police investigations. Police need to start with an objective frame of mind. All too often, rape myths and concerns about false allegations are at the forefront, while matters like, conducting a thorough interview and investigation to corroborate the complainant’s account, falls by the wayside.

We need to better preserve and protect memory evidence via best practice victim-centred interviewing to link serial offenses and bring perpetrators to justice, prevent future offences, and provide survivors with the fair and proper handling of their case.

Undeniably it is important to have safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions. Better interviews and better police investigations benefit everyone. I believe that adult rape complainants—who are predominantly women—can stand-up to fair evidentiary examinations to ensure due process, all other things being equal (e.g., having special measures in place for those who are vulnerable).

What I am against, however, is a criminal justice system that discriminates against victims because they are rape victims, and that re-victimises them in the adjudication process. Indeed, investigators seem to start with the presumption that the victim is lying or can't remember. The cost of this is that real victims are denied access to security and justice.

Our justice systems are, by and large, built around a supposed culture of evidence and fairness and yet when it comes to rape and sexual assault, it is anything but.

We need to overhaul how we handle rape cases and halt this insidious and baseless obsession with false accusations. Those driving it are not doing so in the name of fairness or justice. If they were, we would see similar outrage at our conviction rates and radical, meaningful change to how we support survivors and catch rapists.


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