In Depth

Fact check: the truth about false rape claims

Are malicious allegations of sexual assault on the increase? The Week looks at the statistics

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The #MeToo movement has reignited the debate about the prevalence of false rape and sexual assault allegations, amid claims that fabricated reports have become widespread.

The sceptics issuing such warnings include US President Donald Trump, who argued that the sexual assault claims made against newly appointed Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh are part of an epidemic of false allegations that ruin men’s lives. 

“It is a very scary time for young men in America,” Trump said earlier this month. “You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life, and somebody could accuse you of something.”

But just how common are false rape claims, both in the US and the UK? The Week examines the facts.

Why do some people think they’re common?

The idea that false rape allegations are a common occurrence is a “widely held misconception in broad swaths of society”,  according to a 2010 study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University.

Many people, including police officers, believe that “a large proportion of rape allegations are maliciously concocted for purposes of revenge or other motives”, the study found.

A number of high-profile cases have helped reinforce this idea, including false accusations levelled against three Duke University students in 2006, as well as a fabricated story published by Rolling Stone in 2014 about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

These cases are “readily cited” by defence lawyers, politicians and “anyone else who wants a reason to discuss the dangers of false allegations,” says author and journalist Sandra Newman.  

But research suggests that “every part of this narrative is wrong,” Newman writes in an article for Quartz.

“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,” she argues.

What does the research say?

In one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on the issue, the Home Office concluded that about 3% of rape cases in England and Wales probably involved false allegations.

The findings tally with a 2012 Ministry of Justice study, which estimated that 3% of 299 rape reports analysed were perceived to be malicious claims.

Separate research carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) during a 17-month period between 2011 and 2012 found that there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape in England and Wales. By comparison, there were just 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape during that period.

The Home Office study also revealed that police officers often distrust victims, and believe the proportion of false claims to be much higher than it is in reality.

A “culture of suspicion remains within the police”, even among some of those who are specialists in rape investigations, according to the 2005 report.  

Keir Starmer QC, the then director of public prosecutions, said false reports were “serious but rare”, and warned that a “misplaced belief” that these claims are commonplace can undermine efforts by police and prosecutors to investigate such crimes.

In the US, between 2% and 10% of sexual assault accusations are proven to be untrue, according to the 2010 study by university researchers.

The FBI, meanwhile, puts the number of “unfounded” rape accusations at around 8%.

But experts on both sides of the Atlantic warn that precise figures remain unknown, as rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, partly because of inconsistent definitions and protocols.

“There is considerable evidence of widespread misclassification by police departments and enormous disparities among police agencies in how cases are classified,” the university study found. 

The researchers say that cases in which the victim is unable or unwilling to cooperate with police, makes inconsistent statements, or was heavily intoxicated at the time of the incident frequently get classified as false allegations, as do cases where evidence is lacking.

Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas, agrees that the number of fabricated claims is probably much lower than the current statistics suggest. False reporting statistics are often used as “a dumping ground for cases police don’t want”, he told Vice.

What conclusion can we reach?

The best available evidence contradicts the belief that false rape and sexual assault allegations are a common occurrence.

False claims do occur, but they are extremely rare, making up roughly 3% of all rape reports in the UK and between 2% and 10% in the US - and even these numbers are widely considered to be inflated.

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