False rape accusations loom large in the cultural imagination. We don’t forget the big ones: The widely-read 2014 Rolling Stone article, later retracted, about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia; the 2006 accusations against innocent members of the Duke University lacrosse team. These cases are readily cited by defense attorneys and Republican lawmakers and anyone else who wants a reason to discuss the dangers of false allegations. What if a woman has consensual sex, and then regrets it the next day? What if a woman gets dumped by her boyfriend and decides to accuse him of rape as revenge? What if she’s just doing it for attention? Are false accusations reaching epidemic levels in today’s hard-drinking hookup culture, where the lines of consent have been blurred? Critics argue that reports of rape should be treated with more caution, since men’s lives are so often ruined by women’s malicious lies.
But my research—including academic studies, journalistic accounts, and cases recorded in the US National Registry of Exonerations—suggests that every part of this narrative is wrong. What’s more, it’s wrong in ways that help real rapists escape justice, while perversely making it more likely that we will miss the signs of false reports.
Innocent men rarely face rape charges
Let’s start with the idea that false rape accusations ruin lives, and are therefore a universal risk to men. Generally, feminists dismiss this idea by arguing that false accusations are rare—only between 2% and 10% of all reports are estimated to be false. What’s equally important to know, however, is that false rape accusations almost never have serious consequences.
This may be hard to believe, especially considering that rape is a felony, punishable with years of prison. However—to start with this worst-case scenario—it’s exceedingly rare for a false rape allegation to end in prison time. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, in the US, there are only 52 known cases where falsely accused men have been convicted for sexual assault since records began in 1989. By way of comparison, in the same period, there are 790 known cases in which people were wrongfully convicted for murder.
Furthermore, in the most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports to police, undertaken for the British Home Office in the early 2000s, out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false. (Here, as elsewhere, it has to be assumed that some unknown percentage of the cases classified as false actually involved real rapes; what they don’t involve is countless innocent men’s lives being ruined.)
So the evidence suggests that even in the rare case where a man is the subject of a false rape complaint, chances are that the charges will be dropped without him ever learning about the allegations. This raises an obvious question: Why would false accusers go through the trouble of making a report to police, only to instantly withdraw it?
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