Back in March of this year an interesting article was widely shared online entitled: “Consent: Not Actually That Complicated “. The article laid out an analogy between consenting to sex and accepting a cup of tea. Frankly, as a Brit, I’m offended that tea drinking is portrayed as anything other than a deeply complex social phenomenon. But seriously, though I think there is a genuine oversimplification of complex human interaction (both tea and sex; I mean that seriously), what worried me a lot more was a follow-up where we hear about the “rape myths” regarding false accusations.
First, lets establish some things before anyone misconstrues what I’m about to say:
- Rape is abhorrent (so brave right?).
- People can withdraw consent whenever they like during or before sex and should have full expectation that anyone else involved will respect this.
- False rape allegations are not more or less important than rape allegations.
- I’m not suggesting we need to focus on protecting any particular group at the expense of any other.
- I’m concerned primarily with how statistics are used in these debates.
- I DON’T THINK ANY OF THE NUMBERS DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE MEAN ANYTHING OR PROVE ANYTHING. MINE INCLUDED. I’ll explain.
Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess (RDPP) wrote a follow up article responding to two pieces of feedback: Tea Myths and Sympathy. The second feedback response was to positive comments regarding the article. The first feedback response was about “Rape Myths”; specifically the fear that you might be the victim of a false accusation, pointing to numerous articles that support the notion that false accusations as rare. The problem is that none of these are particularly clear about the truth.
No good evidence in ANY direction
San Diego police officer Joanne Archambault, in the About News link above, gets closest to the point: “A great deal of the statistics surrounding false rape are anecdotal and second or third hand, not verifiable, not research-based.” The problem of course, is that this being true does not make false accusations a “myth”. What it means is that we have no idea what the real false accusation rate is.
The 2006 paper by Rumney reviewed assessments of various levels of credibility, all of which looked at rates of false accusations of rape from the late 60’s through to the 2000’s. The conclusion: ‘false rape accusation rates are incredibly important for establishing how we handle investigation and prosecution of rape cases and we’ve got no clue as to what the actual numbers are!’ Meanwhile, RDPP merely points to The Crown Prosecution Service’s report of 2013.
false rape accusations are about 115 times more common than false accusations of domestic violence
The Crown Prosecution Service’s report of 2013 looked at 159 charges over a 17 month period; 121 of which were related to rape, 27 for domestic violence, and 11 for both DV and rape. There were 5,651 prosecutions for rape in this time. So, RDPP points out, roughly 1 in 160 rape allegations is a false allegation. Before we begin unpacking these numbers; there were 111,891 prosecutions for domestic violence in the same period and 6 convictions for making false accusations. This puts the false domestic violence accusation rate (assuming we think these numbers should be used) at less than 1 in 18,600. In fact, again, assuming we agree with RDPP’s use of these numbers; false rape accusations are about 115 times more common than false accusations of domestic violence. But I don’t think we should be using these numbers to begin with.
We’ve already established above that the numbers for false accusations are completely inconsistent. But the Crown Prosecution report’s numbers are the numbers for CONVICTIONS FOR FALSELY ACCUSING ONLY. We already have significant issues prosecuting rape and it’s equally difficult to prosecute false allegations. When a case is not prosecuted because there is only the testimony of the victim and the accused; they do not need to conclude that either person has lied. The jurors will often merely conclude that there is not enough evidence in general (guided by the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’). To prove that an accusation was false, rather than simply not suitably backed with evidence, you would need more evidence still. This makes proving a false accusation about as difficult as proving an accusations in the first place (if not harder depending on the legislation/country).
RDPP’s case is that false allegations are rare, 1 in 160 as stated, and therefore we should put them as a low priority for concern. They include a rather pretty risk assessment chart for clarity:
But does this sound right? 1 in 160 allegations? How many allegations are there in total? The government published an overview of the data on sexual offending from 2009-2012. Within this report we see 3 year averages of 15,670 rapes reported to the police and 1,070 convictions. This means that only around 1 in 14 allegation on average are prosecuted. That leaves 14,600 cases that either didn’t reach court or for which there was no conviction (2,910 went to court). Let’s also subtract those that went to court but weren’t convicted just to give some extra leeway to RDPP: our allegations now stand at 12,760.
Now lets apply RDPP’s numbers assuming they describe a broad rate of false allegation. We should assume that roughly 1 in 160 of the 12,760 were false, or about 79.75 allegations. Except we know that RDPP’s numbers are only representative of convictions and so aren’t accurate in this case. Rumney saw numbers anywhere from 2% to 90%. I personally think 90% is so comically high that it should probably have been excluded. Instead, lets compare more conservative estimates, the next highest is 47%. A 2% and a 47% rate would mean anywhere between 255 and 5997 false allegations were made. Remember we aren’t even counting the other cases that went to court but were not convictions, which would raise this to 292 and 6862 respectively. From 79 to 255 potential false accusations is a big jump. But 79 to 5997 would be a huge jump. Again, these numbers are based on the three year averages from this report.
I think it’s odd to use the conviction rate that RDPP used because I think it is clearly incorrect. It would seem odd to assume that every case was successfully prosecuted, as this essentially never happens regarding any other crime. But given we’ve only got bad estimate to work with too, lets compare and try to put things in context. Lets contrast some estimates of false accusations against something else we might more normally worry about: the number of road fatalities (2013).
Suddenly this seems more like something we might care about. Perhaps not something you necessarily worry about as an individual (although maybe, we haven’t looked at at-risk groups) but certainly something where you might worry that someone in your life could have this happen to them. To be clear the same can be said of rape, even if we only take the conviction rate as accurate (it seems likely that the true rate is much higher):
It may seem extreme to compare false allegations to fatalities. I was unfortunate enough to watch the process unfold of a young man accused of a rape that he denied. Whether this accusation was false or not, he was found not-guilty. Regardless, his name and address was published in “news” publications. He received death threats and threats of violence and abuse. His parents and family became the victims of the same abuse. He lost his friends. There were threats that, if he was found not-guilty, people would be waiting for him to leave the courthouse so they could enact the justice he deserved regardless. Alive or dead, the life he’d built was over, not just for him, but ultimately for his family too.
As it stands, we have next to no good evidence on the true rate of rape or false rape allegations.
To those screaming, “well you just played with the numbers!!” Yes! That’s basically the entire point. I did exactly what Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess did and used data that aren’t a good representation of the truth to make statements about reality that ultimately aren’t supported by the already sketchy data. I don’t think this was done maliciously. I think we just don’t have good data.
As it stands, we have next to no good evidence on the true rate of rape or false rape allegations. A lack of real understanding can often be more scary than whatever the reality might turn out to be; this is true of rape and of false allegations. I’m not sure that we will ever have good data because of the nature of these crimes. But pretending that false allegations are a “myth” is just as dangerous and as stupid as notions like ‘woman make up accusations for attention’. If we want to find justice for victims we need to move past our emotions and significantly improve our approaches to evidence based practice in this domain. If we don’t, all we’ll have to work with are a long list of terrifying myths.