No crime seems to cause as much of a controversial reaction as a rape case. Unlike other crimes, it seems like the knee jerk reaction is to accuse the victim of lying. “Crying rape,” which refers to women allegedly falsifying a rape charge, is a term commonly tossed around. Victims of any other crime, attempted murder, kidnapping, arson, burglary etc., aren’t met with this mouth-frothing suspicion and rage, so why rape victims?
The sentiment of disbelief toward rape victims has been around for hundreds of years, but has risen to a fever pitch in recent years. Just look at the vicious skepticism any victim in a high-profile case received, from the Steubenville case to Woody Allen’s daughter. Over fifty women in the past ten years have come forward with the same story of rape or sexual assault at the hands of Bill Cosby, yet the public continued to ignore them until Cosby himself finally admitted it.
A growing concern is that men need to be worried about false accusations. Paranoia about widespread fake rape charges is not limited to men’s rights activists (MRA) fringe groups bored with sending death threats, but is actually quite common within the general public. A 2011 study shows that 40.2 percent of the surveyed felt rape accusations were often false. The unmerited suspicion of false charges unfairly clouds judgment within law enforcement, legal systems and the public eye. The reality is that false rape charges account for a very small percentage of all rape charges, and that number itself is often considered unreliable due to bias.
Let’s Look at the Numbers
Despite the idea that falsified rape charges are prevalent, there is very little statistical evidence to support the claim of common fraudulent accusations.
Getting straightforward evidence pointing toward a single number is difficult. Given that many of the studies done on false rapes have employed subjective research methods or failed to base data off of actual investigations, finding accurate numbers includes wading through the outliers.
However, compiling the methodically sound, credible sources suggests that percentages of false estimates converge around the 2-8 percent mark, worldwide. The “Making A Difference Project” conducted a large-scale study, lauded for its precautions taken to protect the validity and reliability of its research, and found 7 percent of the 2,059 cases evaluated to be false. The most vigorous and largest study, done by the British Home Office and spanning 2,643 cases, found 2.5 percent of cases to be false. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts say 5.6 percent. An Australian study released in 2006 recorded a 2.1 percent false reporting rate. In 2007, an EVAWI project reported 6.8 percent.
A few studies, on the other hand, present staggeringly high numbers. For example, Professor Eugene Kanin’s 1994 study suggests that 41 percent of the rape charges made in his study were false. Police Surgeon N.M. Maclean performed a study in 1979 that found 49 percent false allegations. The percentage shoots up to 90 percent in C.H Stewart’s 1981 “A Retrospective Survey of Alleged Sexual Assault Cases.” However, all of these figures have been thoroughly debunked. In Kanin’s study, detectives, not evidence-based investigation, decided whether victims’ claims were false. Maclean employs questionable criteria for finding false cases, such as a victim not looking sufficiently disheveled. A scintillating gem from Stewart’s survey is “It was totally impossible to have removed her extremely tight undergarments from her extremely large body against her will.”
Many statistics used to justify high percentages of false rape accusations are from subjective, non-systematic research, namely the personal opinions of law enforcement officers or researchers. These studies don’t base their findings off of cases that have undergone investigation, but from judgments of detectives or officers. No jury verdict was delivered, but the victims were deemed liars all the same.
Controlling for subjective variables, such as personal judgments of victims based on mental illness, inconsistent statements or drinking, results in significantly fewer false accusations. For example, the previously mentioned British Home Office study originally found 8 percent of the accusations to be false. After controlling for the personal judgments of police officers, and using official criteria for a false allegation, the number shrunk to 2.5 percent.
Even though there isn’t statistical evidence to substantiate the idea of widespread false rape charges, some people still believe it’s a very prominent problem. We have an automatic attitude of disbelief toward rape victims that directly affects investigations and trials. For example, a New Zealand study shows that police viewed 86 percent of women reporting a rape with suspicion. Victims are preemptively met with excessively hostile skepticism.
Why does this happen? We, as a society, have preconceived notions of what “real” rape is. When a case lacks the factors we associate with rape, we see it as impossible.
What are some signs of a “real” rape?
- Victim and suspect are strangers
- Physical violence/a weapon are involved
- Evident signs of a struggle/physical injury
- Victim is hysterical and immediately reports the crime
- Victim is absolutely certain about every detail of their testimony
- Victim doesn’t alter their account of the attack
- Victim behaves appropriately traumatized when recalling attack
However, these factors don’t necessarily apply for many rape cases. According to The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence, most prosecutors say their cases usually have the following factors, known as “red flags,” which make people more skeptical of the case’s legitimacy. When a case has red flags, victims have difficulty telling a credible story, because they must overcome jurors’ expectations, not just meet them.
- Rape is committed by someone known to the victim
- Most victims don’t physically resist
- No signs of physical injury
- Victim does not immediately report to the police
- Victim is not hysterical when recounting attack
- Victims fail to give a linear account, focus on sensory detail
- Victim omits or exaggerates part of their account
- Victim displays erratic behavior
- The suspect doesn’t fit the stereotype of a rapist
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