False allegations of sexual and domestic violence: the facts

Summary:

Most allegations of domestic and sexual violence are made in good faith. False allegations are rare.

Contents:

Introduction

Defining false allegations

A report of domestic violence or sexual assault is false if no crime was committed or attempted. It involves a deliberately false allegation or report.

A false allegation is different from an unsubstantiated allegation, in which an investigation fails to prove that a domestic or sexual assault occurred (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010, p. 1319).

Fuzzy definitions

One key problem in assessing the extent of false allegations is that some studies do not define what a false allegation is, and some law enforcement records rely on ambiguous or overly inclusive definitions (Lisak et al., 2010, pp. 1319-1321). One common confusion is between ‘unfounded’ and false cases. Unfounded or unsubstantiated cases are ones in which there is a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Genuinely false cases are a subset of these, and involve a deliberately false allegation or report.

Some law enforcement data mistakenly classifies cases as “false” when the victim is unable or unwilling to cooperate, evidence is lacking, the victim makes inconsistent statements, or the victim is heavily intoxicated (Lisak et al., 2010, p. 1321). There is evidence that law enforcement agencies routinely have misclassified cases and have often mistakenly lumped together unfounded and false cases in the same category. Therefore, we should not rely on law enforcement classifications without scrutinising how these have been produced.

Myths and controversies

One common myth regarding domestic and sexual violence is that women routinely make false allegations of violence, to serve their interests or gain some type of advantage. The claim that false allegations are common comes particularly from anti-feminist “men’s rights” advocates.

Robust studies of the extent of false allegations find that they are rare, as described in more detail below. However, to support their claim that false allegations of domestic violence and/or sexual violence are common, anti-feminist advocates and others typically do one or more of three things.

  • MRAs assume that all unfounded or unsubstantiated cases comprise false allegations. That is, they assume that every case of domestic or sexual violence that comes before the courts and does not result in a conviction must therefore involve a false allegation.
  • MRAs take at face value the estimates of rates of false allegations made by some police and law enforcement agencies, despite researchers’ emphasis on scrutinising the basis for such estimates (Lisak et al., 2010, p. 1322).
  • MRAs cherry-pick studies showing higher rates of false allegations, regardless of their methodological flaws and critiques of them, while ignoring studies showing low rates of false allegations. (See here for a particularly bad and inaccurate example, by a member of the National Coalition of Free Men, John Davis.)

Some widely cited figures on rates of false allegations, including some that are very low and others that are very high, are based on poorly designed studies: lacking detail on how they arrived at their rates, based on faulty assumptions, or involving poor analysis (Lisak et al., 2010, pp. 1323-1334).

There are, however, a range of studies on false allegations that do allow detailed examination of how they arrived at their estimated rates. These consistently find that false allegations are rare.

The evidence: False allegations are rare

False allegations are rare, according to robust studies of sexual violence cases in the criminal justice system. Robust studies clearly define what constitutes a false report, clearly explain the source of data used, and make some effort to evaluate the data they receive from law enforcement agencies (Lisak et al., 2010, p. 1324). A scholarly journal article by Lisak et al. reviews seven studies of false allegations of sexual assault that meet these criteria.

This research finds that the prevalence of false allegations of sexual assault is between 2% and 10%. In other words, studies that involve some degree of scrutiny of police classifications and/or which apply authoritative international definitions of false reporting find a relatively consistent and low rate of reporting.

Lisak et al.’s review documents seven studies finding the following rates of false allegations of sexual assault, from lowest to highest: 2.1% (Australia), 2.5% (Britain), 3% (Philadelphia), 6% (Toronto), 6.8% (USA), 8.3% (Britain), and 10.9% (Britain) (Lisak et al., 2010, pp. 1324-1327). Their own study, examining all cases of sexual assault reported to a major US university over a 10-year period, finds a rate of false allegations of 5.9%. In more detail, and in order by year of publication, the eight studies are:

Citation

Location

Rate

(Clark & Lewis, 1977)

Toronto

6%

(McCahill, Meyer, & Fischman, 1979)

Philadelphia

3%

(Grace, Lloyd, & Smith, 1992)

Britain

8.3%

(Harris & Grace, 1999)

Britain

10.9%

(L Kelly, Lovett, & Regan, 2005)

Britain

2.5%

(Heenan & Murray, 2006)

Australia

2.1%

(Lonsway & Archambault, 2008)

USA

6.8%

(Lisak et al., 2010)

USA

5.9%

 

To highlight two of the recent studies here, for example:

  • The 2005 British Home Office Study is the largest and most comprehensive study of false reports currently available. It involved analysis of 2,643 cases over a 15-year period, using a wide range of forms of data, including interviews with victims, police statements, forensic reports, and interviews with police officers. The study found that only 2.5% of cases met the criteria for false allegations. It also found that police over-estimated the frequency of false allegations, by ignoring the police agencies’ own classification rules (L Kelly et al., 2005).
  • The 2006 Australian Study was a large-scale study of 850 rapes reported to Victoria Police over a three-year period, and drawing on quantitative and qualitative data. Only 2.1% of reports were identified by police as false (Heenan & Murray, 2006). (In addition, three earlier studies in Australia, based on police data from 1986 to 1990, find rates of false reports of sexual assault of 1.4 per cent, 4.8 per cent, and 7 per cent (Friedman, Langan, Little, & Neave, 2004, p. 112).)

Studies since Lisak et al.’s review continue to show similar findings:

  • In European research across nine countries and involving almost 900 sexual assault cases, rates of false allegations ranged between 1 and 9 percent with most at 6 percent or less (L. Kelly, 2010).
  • In an examination of rape allegations in England over January 2011 to May 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence, and only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, six for making false allegation of domestic violence, and three for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence (Crown Prosecution Service, 2013).

Most allegations are made in good faith

The evidence, therefore, is that most allegations of sexual violence are made in good faith.

There is no doubt that false allegations of rape and domestic violence sometimes are made. When false allegations do occur, many are not motivated by malice, but by motivations such as fear or a need for assistance (Tidmarsh & Hamilton, 2020, p. 4).

At the same time, there are histories of members of privileged groups making false allegations of violence against members of disadvantaged groups, such as false accusations against men of colour by white women, and against gay men by heterosexual men alleging ‘gay panic’

Nevertheless, there is nothing to suggest that false allegations in general are common. Nor is there any evidence that women make false allegations more often than men.

Studies finding high rates of false allegations

The studies that find high rates of false allegations of sexual assault are characterised by serious methodological flaws. Kanin’s (1994) study is one of the most well-known studies finding a high rate of false allegations, in this case of 41%, of rape cases investigated by the police department of a small US city. Kanin’s study also has been strongly and widely criticised:

  • It provided little information about the methods used to evaluate the police department’s system for classifying cases.
  • It did not use a definition of a false report. It provided no details about Kanin’s scrutiny of the police department’s decision-making process.
  • It did not use any systematized method for analyzing the police reports (e.g., a coding system) or any system of independent raters or coders to guard against bias.
  • It was based on classifications by a department that routinely used a polygraph or lie detector with alleged victims, a procedure that is now “specifically discouraged by the U.S. Department of Justice and […] widely viewed as an intimidation tactic that frequently persuades already hesitant rape victims to drop out of the criminal justice process.” (Lisak et al., 2010, pp. 1323-1324).

The actual scale of false allegations

Most victims of (actual) sexual assaults do not report their victimisation to police. Of sexual assaults reported to police, a tiny proportion make it to trial. Given this, the actual percentage of false cases in the legal system is likely to be tiny. By one estimate, the actual percentage of false cases as a proportion of all rapes (reported and unreported) may be closer to 0.005 percent (Belknap, 2010).

Australian research documents that most victims of rape and sexual assault delay diclosing or reporting or never disclose their experiences. “83 percent of Australian women did not report their most recent incident of sexual assault to the police (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2013; Cox 2016), and only six in 10 women who experienced sexual assault sought advice or help from others (ABS 2013)” (Tidmarsh & Hamilton, 2020, p. 3). In addition, “both national and international research consistently demonstrate that incidents of rape and sexual assault are significantly under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-convicted” (Tidmarsh & Hamilton, 2020, p. 3).

False allegations of violence and abuse are far less common than false denials of their perpetration (Jaffe, Johnston, Crooks, & Bala, 2008). For sexual assaults that do make it into the criminal justice system, the vast majority of actual perpetrators, including those later found guilty, claim that the allegations are false. False denials of actual perpetration are common.

Men are far more likely to be raped than they are to be falsely accused of rape. Men are 230 times as likely to be sexually assaulted as they are to be falsely accused, as a UK 4News fact check finds.

Where the myth of widespread false allegations comes from

The myth that women routinely make false allegations of rape and assault reflects longstanding patriarchal norms and stereotypes. It has long been asserted and assumed that women ‘cry rape’ – that women often maliciously invent allegations of rape for malicious, vengeful and other motives (Lisak et al., 2010).

The myth of widespread false allegations is a reflection of a sexist culture, in which the words of women are met with disbelief and denial (L. Kelly, 2010).

Anti-feminist men’s rights advocates or MRAs have contributed to community beliefs that false allegations are common. One of the defining and widely shared beliefs among MRAs is that women routinely make false allegations of domestic and sexual violence. MRAs spread this lie through their websites, social media, and public commentary.

Why it matters

The myth of widespread false allegations causes harm. It:

  • Contributes to the enormous problem of underreporting by victims of rape and abuse;
  • Informs negative responses to victims who do report (whether by family and friends or personnel in legal and other systems);
  • Excuses perpetrators’ use of violence;
  • Feeds into widespread sexist norms about women as lying and malicious.

MRAs and male victims

Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) are particularly enthusiastic proponents of the myth that women routinely make false allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence. MRAs also claim to care about and advocate on behalf of male victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yet MRAs’ constant emphasis on false allegations undermines the support and credibility given to male victims of violence and abuse.

MRAs’ efforts contribute to the disbelief, silencing, and stigma suffered by male and female victims of violence and abuse alike.

This is only one of the ways that anti-feminist men’s and fathers’ rights groups undermine the protections available to victims of violence and weaken the sanctions placed on perpetrators, as described here. (For more critiques of men’s rights advocates and agendas, see here.)

Believing victims

What does all this mean for how we should respond to victims? We should grant a presumptive legitimacy or credence to allegations of abuse. That is, we should listen to them and take them seriously.

This means granting credibility and legitimacy to victim-survivors’ voices. It does not mean assuming that all and every allegation is true.

Further reading and references

On false allegations of domestic violence and child abuse, see

References

Belknap, J. (2010). Rape: Too Hard to Report and Too Easy to Discredit Victims. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1335-1344. doi:10.1177/1077801210387749

Clark, L. M., & Lewis, D. J. (1977). Rape: The price of coercive sexuality: Women’s Press Toronto.

Crown Prosecution Service. (2013). Charging perverting the course of justice and wasting police time in cases involving allegedly false rape and domestic violence allegations. London: Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit.

Friedman, N., Langan, A., Little, H., & Neave, M. A. (2004). Sexual Offences: Law and Procedure Final Report. Melbourne: Victorian Law Reform Commission.

Grace, S., Lloyd, C., & Smith, L. J. F. (1992). Rape: From recording to conviction (Vol. Research and Planning Unit Paper 71). London: Home Office.

Harris, J., & Grace, S. (1999). A question of evidence?: Investigating and prosecuting rape in the 1990s. London: Home Office.

Heenan, M., & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria 2000-2003. Melbourne: RMIT University.

Jaffe, P. G., Johnston, J. R., Crooks, C. V., & Bala, N. (2008). Custody disputes involving allegations of domestic violence: toward a differentiated approach to parenting plans. Family Court Review, 46(3), 500-522. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-1617.2008.00216.x

Kanin, E. J. (1994). False rape allegations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23(1), 81-92.

Kelly, L. (2010). The (In)credible Words of Women: False Allegations in European Rape Research. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1345-1355. doi:10.1177/1077801210387748

Kelly, L., Lovett, J., & Regan, L. (2005). A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.

Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1318-1334. doi:10.1177/1077801210387747

Lonsway, K., & Archambault, J. (2008). Understanding the criminal justice response to sexual assault: Analysis of data from the Making a Difference project. Unpublished manuscript.

McCahill, T. W., Meyer, L. C., & Fischman, A. M. (1979). The aftermath of rape. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books

Tidmarsh, P., & Hamilton, G. (2020). Misconceptions of sexual crimes against adult victims: Barriers to justice. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 1-18.