Rape claims, the frequency of false ones, and causes of delayed reporting
Posted October 1, 2018 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Are false allegations of rape or attempted rape common? Why would anyone delay reporting rape or attempted rape—unless, some people claim, the accusation is false and is only meant to hurt a particular person’s reputation? Because of the recent Ford/Kavanaugh attempted rape case, I visit the question of false allegations of sexual assault and violence.
Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and Palo Alto University, has recently accused Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee, of attempted rape. The alleged incident occurred many years ago, when they were both high school students. Kavanaugh vehemently denies it.
Who is telling the truth? A number of observers have refused to take sides, and are waiting for the FBI to conclude its investigation. But as The New York Times reports, because this is not a criminal investigation, the FBI investigation would be quite limited.
Some observers have already made up their mind, believing either the accused or the accuser with full certainty. One question posed by those who suspect Ford’s motives is why she waited so many years before accusing Kavanaugh of attempted rape. Even Donald Trump tweeted that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed.”
Indeed, this is a question that is often asked in cases involving allegations of rape.
In today’s post, I would like to talk about false allegations of rape, and about reasons why people might wait a long time before reporting sexual assault.
What is a false rape allegation?
False allegations of rape, from a legal perspective, typically refer to one of the following situations: “(1) a report of forced sexual contact where there was no sexual conduct at all; (2) a claim of forced contact where the actual encounter was consensual; or (3) an accusation of a particular person when the complainant knows that her assailant was someone else.”1
Even strong advocates for rape victims admit that false accusations sometimes occur. The real debate is regarding the frequency of these false claims. Some suggest that only 2% of rape accusations are false (a rate that is similar to that of non-sex offenses), while others state that the rate is higher (e.g., 8%). According to a few sources, the rate is significantly higher (e.g., 40%).
There are several possible reasons for this wide range of estimates. For one, it appears that some analyses conflate unfounded and false. Legally speaking, the term unfounded describes claims shown to be false or ones deemed not serious, verifiable, or prosecutable.
A report may be considered unfounded if: The victim did not sustain any injuries, the perpetrator did not use physical force (or a weapon), the perpetrator and the victim had a previous sexual relationship, there is a lack of physical evidence, there are a large number of inconsistencies between existing evidence and the victim’s claim, etc.2
Thus, the terms unfounded and false are not the same. Though a report might be regarded as unfounded, rape may still have taken place in actuality.
Nor do retractions of rape allegations necessarily mean that the claim was false. A victim may decide to withdraw her allegations if she is presently safe, has recovered sufficiently from the immediate effects of the trauma, or if she is warned of the potential costs of continuing with the proceedings—such as having to face “a grueling cross-examination by the defense attorney.”3,4
Finally, let us keep in mind that those rapes that are reported to the police are only a portion of all rapes that take place. According to some estimates, more than two-thirds of rapes are never disclosed.5 Which means that the percentage of false rape allegations is that of only reported rapes.
In summary, false allegations of rape appear to consist of a small percentage of rape claims, and an even smaller percentage of all rapes.
Reasons for delayed reporting
So now we have seen that false rape claims are relatively rare, we are back to the question of why anybody would delay reporting sexual assault, especially rape.
As mentioned above, the number of rape reports to the police is only a portion of all rapes committed. While some victims do report the incident immediately, others wait. A number of women will never report the incident.
For instance, in a discussion of sexual traumas, Ulmann notes that “few victims disclose sexual assault and up to two-thirds of women delay disclosing for a year or more.”6
But why? Research suggests that rape is less likely to be reported in the following instances and because of the following reasons: When the victim fears retaliation, feels embarrassed and fears further humiliation if she contacts the police, believes the incident to be a private matter, wants to avoid the stigma of being labeled a victim, was under the influence of alcohol at the time, or believes that she is partly responsible for the mistreatment she received. Furthermore, incidents that did not involve a weapon, did not result in injuries, and ones which involved a familiar person/place (e.g., raped at home by boyfriend, as opposed to raped by a stranger in a rarely visited part of the town), are reported less often.7
Generally speaking, victims of rape are more likely to come forward if they are assured that the benefits of disclosure will outweigh the costs (e.g., blame, shame, humiliation, stigma).
Similar factors, I imagine, apply to claims of attempted rape, such as one involving Christine Blasey Ford.
My view, in summary, is that the decision to report rape is generally similar to making decisions about other important personally relevant events. It is a question of costs and benefits.
The decision is made at least partly on an unconscious level. Nonetheless, some victims try to consciously evaluate the advantages and disadvantages, by asking questions such as:
-Will the police believe me?
-Will I be humiliated or re-traumatized?
-Is the legal process going to tax my resources (money, time, etc)?
-Is there enough evidence to prove my case?
-Would this process help me heal?
-What would people in my life think of me if I go ahead with the proceedings?
-Were I to report this, and pursue it legally, would I feel more or less safe afterward?
It is important to remember that the cost/benefit balance changes over time. New costs and benefits emerge. Others become more or less influential. For instance, years later, the cost of shame might pale in comparison with the cost of not being true to oneself or to one’s values.
Sometimes, even unexpected events might change the balance of costs and benefits.
Nesrine Malik, reflecting on the Ford/Kavanaugh case, writes:
"There is something of the horror movie about the story of how Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee stands accused of a sexual assault that was allegedly committed more than 30 years ago. It reminds many of us how there are men waiting to resurface from the depths of our memories."
I think that every victim has to decide for herself how to proceed. The truth of having been victimized is not time-limited. Whenever the victim is ready—days, months, or years later—she can revisit the past. The choice is hers.
Nevertheless, it would be helpful if she is clear on the advantages and disadvantages of waiting. And makes sure that she is basing her decision on accurate information, and not only fear and pain associated with the trauma she has experienced.
Finding useful information online, speaking to supportive and understanding people in her life, to support groups for individuals who have gone through the experience, or to a caring therapist, might help.
Whether an individual has experienced rape, attempted rape, or any other kind of sexual assault or abuse, reality will not change, no matter how much time has passed or who chooses to believe her. The truth of her victimization is timeless. She can speak it when she is ready.
1. Epstein, J. (2006). True lies: The constitutional and evidentiary bases for admitting prior false accusation evidence in sexual assault prosecutions. Quinnipiac Law Review, 24, 609-658.
2. Gross, B. (2009). False rape allegations: An assault on justice. The Forensic Examiner, 18, 66-70.
3. Anderson, M. J. (2001). Women do not report the violence they suffer: Violence against women and the state action doctrine. Villanova Law Review, 46, 907-950.
4. Kerstetter, W. A. (1990). Gateway to justice: Police and prosecutorial response to sexual assaults against women. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 81, 267-313.
5. Hart, T. C., & Rennison, C. (2003). Reporting crime to the police, 1992-2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
6. Ullman, S. E. (2011) Is disclosure of sexual traumas helpful? Comparing experimental laboratory versus field study results. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 20, 148-162.
7. Fisher, B. S., Daigle, L. E., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2003). Reporting sexual victimization to the police and others: Results from a national-level study of college women. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 30, 6−38.