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False Rape Reports

After my Rape and the Police post, I said I’d do a follow-up on false reports of rape.  I do this for two reasons.

  1. False reports do happen, albeit rarely.  Rare or not, they’re worth discussing.
  2. By posting this discussion here, the next time I talk about rape and someone starts to derail the conversation by talking about false accusations, I can redirect the commenter to this post.

The issue of false accusations used to come up every time I spoke to men about rape.  It’s come up in almost every rape-related blog post I’ve written.

I worked with one rape counselor who told me flat-out she didn’t believe anyone would ever falsely accuse someone of rape.  However, I find there’s nothing so heinous that someone, somewhere, hasn’t done it.  (After all, look at the number of people who commit rape.)

I’ve been told only 2% of reported rapes turn out to be false, but I’ve never found a reliable source for that statistic.  A 1996 FBI report found that “Eight percent of forcible rape complaints in 1996 were ‘unfounded’ …”  This includes complaints found to be “false or baseless” … and therein lies a problem.

What qualifies as an unfounded report?  Many reported rapes aren’t prosecuted because those in the legal system don’t feel there’s sufficient evidence.  That doesn’t mean the accuser lied.  Likewise, is “baseless” the same as “false”?  How do we categorize or even identify cases where victims are bullied or intimidated into retracting their statements?

Playing fast and loose with definitions is how you get “Men’s Rights” groups reporting highly inflated numbers of false reports in order to show that rape is exaggerated and used as a weapon against men.

I believe false reports of rape are rare, but they do happen.  I wrote about one case in Michigan, back in 2004.  A student falsely accused a teacher of rape.  The teacher’s name was published in multiple newspaper articles.  The accused teacher’s fiancee was quoted as saying the false charges “took their toll on him,” and he later died of a heart attack.

I can’t imagine the fear and the anger and the stress he must have experienced.  The fact that he was exonerated and his accuser was arrested and sentenced for filing false charges doesn’t undo the pain he went through.

Here’s another example from Maine, which was reported only yesterday.  A woman allegedly made up a story of being raped by five men after a fight with her partner.  I can’t help noticing this line…

“[Police Chief] Craig said he plans to have the woman charged with filing a false report and plans to push for the maximum penalty.”

… and thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if police departments took real rape cases this seriously?

Lying about rape is a horrible thing.  It hurts the one accused, and it hurts victims of rape by giving fuel to those who would use false accusations to deny the reality of rape.  I have absolutely no sympathy for someone who deliberately and maliciously makes up an accusation of rape, for whatever reason.

I wonder though, how many anecdotal stories of false accusations are truly false.  When someone comments how a friend’s cousin’s buddy was falsely accused of rape, what does that mean?  Were charges filed and dropped?  Did the accuser retract her (or his) accusation?  Did the accused say “She’s lying!” and everyone simply chose to believe him?

False accusations are in many ways the reverse of rape cases.  Rape as a crime tends to be underreported and disbelieved.  Stories of false accusations, on the other hand, seem to be both widely believed and incredibly common … which makes sense, in a way.  After all, the first thing someone’s going to say when accused of rape is, “Oh, she’s lying.”

Discussion welcome, as always.  But as with other rape-related discussions here, I’ll be watching the comments and will moderate as needed, so please keep things respectful.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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graymary
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:01 pm (UTC)
I remember a morning where a man rushed me on my way to the bus stop. I managed to get away; I ran further up the road to a "safer" stop. I was in tears all the way to work, and I talked to my supervisor about it. She, of course, encouraged me to make a report.

I called while I was at work, and I got... basically nothing. I detailed what happened, detailed what I saw (middle-aged white male, baseball cap, white shorts), and detailed the area. The police officer sounded not disbelieving, somewhat concerned, so I'll give him that.

And then he asked me to show an officer the street in person after I'd gotten home from work, and that's when the doubt started.

The whole time I felt like I was lying. It was awful. Nothing had happened, just someone had attempted to hurt me/grab me, and yet I spent the rest of the day wondering if I'd just made it up. Maybe he was just crossing the street (you know, diagonally straight towards me really quickly with his hands out) -- maybe I'd get someone in trouble that didn't deserve it.

So, I never followed up with the police and showed them the exact street, the exact area. I was petrified that I'd just waste their time and that nothing would happen. (I regret that so, so much and hope no-one has been hurt on that street since. :( )

If I was so shy and so doubtful about reporting an attempted assault, I have no idea what it must feel like to doubt when reporting something far worse. Something that probably has physical evidence and something that may, horribly enough, just get thrown out in court for saying the wrong thing to the authorities.

I'm thankful I don't know what reporting a rape is like. I'm sharing my experience dealing with the authorities (or not dealing, I should say) because even when nothing happens, doubt flares up like a wildfire. But I know so many people who have been hurt and who felt they weren't able to do anything, or they didn't feel it would do any good. The fact that a few false reports undermine hundreds of reported rapes is really, really depressing and I wish there was some way to make that change.

Edited at 2010-07-21 02:02 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
From everything I understand, the self-doubt and second-guessing is normal. Really, given the way our society responds to rape and sexual assault, we encourage victims to question themselves.

"The fact that a few false reports undermine hundreds of reported rapes is really, really depressing and I wish there was some way to make that change."

The only way I know of is to talk about it, and to keep trying to educate people. With reporting and law enforcement, I'd love to see more work to help people in the legal system understand what it's like trying to report a rape or an attempted assault, and to teach them how to be more sensitive and supportive.

Change is a frustratingly slow process.
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damhan_alluidh
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
Repost.
I had an anecdote here, but removed it. Might be too personal to the person it involves, even without names.

Anyways, the men's rights groups are pretty much bullshit. focusing on trying to preserve a privileged position.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
No problem. It's hard trying to balance discussion with privacy and boundaries, especially online. Without going into specifics, the situation you mentioned sounds seriously messed up.
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la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
Right now in the UK our new government is trying to reintroduce anonymity for defendants in rape trials, on the grounds that being being accused of rape and exonerated is hugely damaging. Woemn's groups and individual women have protested and are protesting, and are being, largely, ignored -- there is talk of 'serious consideration' and so forth, but the bottom line is that any possible male suffering trumps female experience. It's retrograde, it's worrying -- and I am no longer comfortable talking about it on my blog or in person, because of the response I get (I'm 'strident', 'too involved', 'don't understand the issues' 'don't appreciate how men suffer', 'harming men who have had such experiences', 'resorting to anecdote instead of fact', 'sexist', 'making people uncomfortable'. I've been defriended, I've been asked for retractions and apologies. From this I learn that in 21st century Britain, men are still what matters and women must expect not to believed, not to be supported and not to be heard.
And I'm one of the lucky ones. I've never been raped. I know, because these fact-based men who've reproved me have told me, that two men have committed suicide over false rape allegations. I don't know how many women have committed or attempted suicide, have turned to drug or alcohol abuse, have had breakdowns, lost families and careers, developed agrophobia and so on and on as a result of having been raped. Those statistics seem not to be relevant.
damhan_alluidh
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
...
...
WTF.
How about anonymity for the women? Do they get that? You know, some protection from harassment and bullying to retract factual claims? The shear amount of social pressure to just 'sit down and shut-up' is...
Argh.

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jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
Do you believe someone who is intoxicated has the ability to give consent?
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jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
"I don't know how common false accusations really are, but I do know that men need to live with constant fear. I've seen it up close and personal."

I don't live in fear of being accused of rape, and I see zero reason that I should.

I'm not trying to minimize what your friend went through. But generalizing from one individual to say that all men must live in fear doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

I'm also curious whether the girl deliberately accused your friend, or if she simply mistook the identity of her attacker. These are two very different things. It sounds like you're saying she really was raped, but the wrong person was arrested. Which is still tragic and unfair, but isn't necessarily the same thing as using rape as a weapon.

"...the girls on campus used the threat of rape as a constant weapon against the guys."

I'm not even sure what this means.
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kewii
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
When I was in university, my roommate reported being raped. She was called a liar and posters were put up around the residences saying that an accusation had been made but that there was no basis to it.

I can tell you that the bruises and scratches on her face and arms, and the way she demanded we never walk to the school, as she was ESCORTED and KICKED OUT of our residence and university, still prove to me that she was raped.

Yes, falsely reporting rape is wrong and a terrible thing to do. However, there is never a reason to doubt a victim before even looking into their claim.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
Yes. In a lot of cases, it seems like people are unwilling to believe a rape for anything short of videotaped proof ... and sometimes not even then. It leaves me with a mix of anger, despair, and disgust.
sartorias
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
Just going by what I have heard in families, there has been a dynamic pressuring the girl into retracting because of the damage her report does to the family "Do you realize how much you're hurting Auntie Foofoo by accusing Cousin Freb, when you kids always used to be so close?" followed by "Are you sure you weren't leading him on? Do you really want to see Cousin Freb, who always helps your brother with his homework, in jail? How can we even have Christmas together any more, knowing that YOU caused Freb to go to jail, and got everyone in town talking about us?"

I'd thought that that kind of pressure was gone with the wall telephone and washing boards, but no, there's evidence it still happens now.

Edited at 2010-07-21 02:34 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
Yes. Especially in cases of incest like you describe, where the family shuns/blames/attacks the victim in order to protect the abuser. I know it's hard to accept that someone you're close to could be a rapist, but to attack and destroy someone who's been assaulted simply to protect your own comfort and peace of mind ... ugh.
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bewarethespork
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
I know one person - just one - who has falsely accused someone of rape.

Off the top of my head, I can think of about half a dozen people I know who were raped. I'm sure that if I thought hard, I could come up with at least half a dozen more.

False reports certainly do happen, and they enrage me because every person who falsely reports a rape makes it harder for an actual rape victim to speak out and be heard. But anyone who claims that false reports are anything even near common is lying, ignorant or both.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Likewise, I know one person who has talked to me about being falsely accused of rape. (Though I acknowledge people might be hesitant to disclose that to me, given my public attitudes on rape.)

I literally cannot count the number of friends and loved ones who were rape.
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cherith
Jul. 21st, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
My husband and I are currently working towards becoming Foster Parents. As part of the class we had to take (9 weeks, and worth every minute -- I think everyone should have to take the class, everyone everywhere) we learned that false accusations of all types of abuse can be very common with children in foster care. I think just about every man in our class squirmed when we had this discussion; just like they did when had the discussion on attachments, and how young kids can form dangerous attachments to their foster parents (most commonly young women and their foster fathers).

I think there's a difference between those kinds of accusations, and those of grown adults -- but I think the motives or attitudes of the accusers might come from similar foundations.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
Did they give any numbers or statistics on that? As I understand it, children in the foster system may be more likely to come from abusive backgrounds, and simply may not know how to form appropriate attachments to parents (re: the attachment issue).

I'm also curious what they said about how they respond to such allegations.
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jhetley
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
Updated reporting on the Maine case, with further details:

http://www.pressherald.com/news/back-cove-assault-a-hoax_2010-07-21.html
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jim. I got your note, but didn't get the chance to go in and modify anything in the post before it went live.
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neva_butterfly
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
Inspired by your previous entry I wrote an entire entry on false reports of rape. If I get a chance later I'll try to summarize... For me there are a couple issues here. One would be someone who truly and maliciously accuses someone of rape when no rape occurred. Secondly you might have a situation where there is a genuine confusion around the issue of consent or disagreement on what happened. A third scenario, which is the one most commonly reported in the news is the one where someone was raped, most often violently by a stranger, and the wrong person is arrested and sometimes even convicted. In only one of these scenarios could the person accusing the other of rape really be considered to be lying. However, the third scenario is no less devastating to all involved. I do not know anyone personally who has ever falsely accused anyone of rape, and I do not know anyone who says they were falsely accused. However, most of my close female friends are survivors of some sort, either of rape/sexual assault as an adult or childhood abuse, and many men I know have also been through these things. Of everyone I know who has survived rape/abuse/assault/incest, I know one who went to the police and ultimately to court over it. Almost everyone else was too scared or intimidated or was worried they would not be taken seriously.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
That's a very good breakdown, thank you. And yes, there are several different situations which can be classified as "false reports," but don't necessarily mean anyone lied.

It's one of the most underreported crimes out there, if not the most underreported. No surprise, given the way we treat rape survivors.
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comrade_cat
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
To my knowledge I know one family member who was raped and one friend who was raped multiple times. I also know 2 women who were in abusive relationships whom I suspect had sex sometimes when they would rather not have, which I guess is marital/relationship rape.

My ex-girlfriend (I am female) was also the victim of a sexual assault years ago, though it didn't progress past groping. Last year she came to my job and accused 2 mutual friend/acquaintances of raping multiple women and a 3rd mutual friend of helping cover it up. I was really torn on this. On the one hand, I suspected she was lying, as she had previously told me that she had lied about me to many other people as revenge for breaking up with her. On the other hand....it was a rape accusation.

My (male) work friend, who usually comes up with very good solutions to things, encouraged me to seriously consider the accusation, asking what I would want someone to do if I made the accusation. He then suggested I email both my ex and my friends and ask for both sides of the story. Actually he suggested I ask my ex's permission first, but since according to her she had publicly confronted all these people about the rapes, I figured she was ok with me confronting them privately.

So I emailed the mutual friend whose address I had, the one accused of covering the rapes up, and got a reply back saying she didn't know anything about it and it never happened. I emailed my ex asking for more information and saying I was emailing the mutual friend and my ex said she didn't want me to email anybody, she was just telling me for my own safety. She never gave me any details on the alleged victims, just said there were a number of them. I interpreted this as backpedaling and decided I would believe the mutual acquaintances/disbelieve my ex.

Why did a victim of assault probably make a false accusation? Well, she could have been lying about the assault on her, but I didn't get the feeling that she was lying when she told me and it didn't gain her anything when we were together to tell me about an assault years ago. She did note that she didn't know how to feel about it, that she didn't feel like she was a victim. I don't think she empathized with the random hypothetical rape victim whose credibility she was cutting into when she made a probably false accusation.

I don't think I am violating anyone's confidentiality here as to my knowledge people on lj don't know my ex-girlfriends, or the accused.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
That's a very hard position to be in. All of my training and background encourage me to believe someone who discloses having been raped, and it sounds like you have the same sort of reflex.

I don't know if there's any perfect answer, but the steps you describe make sense to me. It sounds like you don't believe her because you've looked at what information you could find and made an informed decision, as opposed to not believing her because you don't want to, or you don't like her, or all of the other bullshit reasons people find to disbelieve rape, if that makes sense?
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bigherman
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
Ugh. I was working security at a non-profit fundraising event and the manager of the hired security was talking to me and the other radio coordinator about how he'd had to fly out to Las Vegas the night before because a woman at an event his company was also doing had been raped. "Well, that what she says, anyways."

AAARRRRGH!

People (men and women alike) are so quick to disbelieve a rape report in ways that applied to other crimes would be unconscionable.
jimhines
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Ugh. It's almost reflexive, the questioning and outright disbelief. Like you say, try plugging in any other crime to that kind of response, and it just becomes absurd.
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dr_phil_physics
Jul. 21st, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Jim, as always, you shine light on a subject where too many others want to look away or deflect the question. And it is tragic in my estimation that too many boys are not raised to be human beings in the first place.

Dr. Phil
mtlawson
Jul. 21st, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
Amen. The "boys being boys" crap is just nuts.
malsperanza
Jul. 21st, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
I think false accusations of rape are pretty common during acrimonious divorces, where spouses are apparently capable of saying almost anything nasty--especially if there's a custody battle and they want to smear each other. I get this info from a friend who is a divorce lawyer; I have no stats.

A specialized context, to be sure.
feanna
Jul. 21st, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
I could see how people willing to say anything would lie about that.

I could also see how with emotions flying high people are also able to DO extreme things. Bringing into this that rape is about CONTROL and a history of mutual sexual availability (that does of course not imply consent in the future) I could also see how rape might actually happen more frequently under such circumstances.
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