CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, December 9, 2004

What Percentage of Rape Accusations are False?

Several interesting articles on sexual assault.  The first is by CrimProf Michelle J. Anderson of Villanova, one of the legal academy's most perceptive and prolific scholars in this area.  Her latest work The Legacy of the Prompt Complaint Requirement, Corroboration Requirement, and Cautionary Instructions on Campus Sexual Assault proposes a number of reforms to make institututional discipline more efficient.  (CrimProf blogged an expose of UVa's system).  One startling point in the paper was that no reliable statistics exist on the frequency of false rape claims: "As a scientific matter, the frequency of false rape complaints to police or other legal authorities remains unknown."  (See pages 33-35).  Professor Anderson's conclusion is noteworthy in light of the often repeated claim of advocates that this information is known definitively: "false accusations account for only 2% of all reported sexual assaults. This is no higher than false reports for other crimes."  Although the article asserts that "no study has ever been published which sets forth an evidentiary basis for the ‘two percent false rape complaint’ thesis," even universities repeat this statistic, and it shows up in such important venues as the legislative history of VAWA.  Pub. L. 102-199, S. Rep. 102-197 n.48 (Oct. 29, 1991). 

The other articles in this area which caught my attention are about an Ohio case in which my co-blogger Mark Godsey is counsel.  A man is serving a long sentence for rape in spite of the absence of any physical evidence connecting him to the crime.  According to a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial on Sunday supporting an expedited parole hearing, the inmate has passed a voice stress test while asserting his innocence and the victim has repeatedly failed the same test, and the victim's former boyfriend "has come forward to say she has a history of self-mutilation in attempts to gain attention."  According to the paper, the victim now claims that "she actually died during the attack and was brought back to life by Snow White," which suggests she may be an unreliable reporter.

In my monitoring of this month's worth of Google News archives, I found stories about admitted or proved false rape allegations from California, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, two from New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and the Philippines; an alleged asylum fraud ring in the Washington area also employed apparently false rape claims.   

There were many, many more stories about actual sex crimes, and these anecdotes hardly show that false claims are common.  The stories also may suggest that law enforcement successfully identifies most false claims; here's the chapter on "Unfounded Cases and False Allegations" from the training manual Successfully Investigating Acquaintance Sexual Assault, written by the National Center for Women and Policing.  However, the stories also suggest that false accusations do sometimes occur, and in the absence of any reliable information about how often, it seems that additional research would be worthwhile. [Jack Chin]

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Part of the problem with identifying false rape lies with the lack of a common definition of what constitutes rape.

Is sex between a drunk person and a sober person rape? If it is, does it matter what the sex of the drunk person or the sober person is?

What if both people are drunk? What if the victim was so drunk that they don't remember exactly what happened?

Is there an obligation by the victim to give a clear signal that the perpetrator should stop? The most famous case of this sort being the recent one where a man in prison because he did not immediately stop when the woman said something along the lines of "I need to leave now" during the sex act.

Does verbal pressure constitute rape?

Is it rape if the victim consented at the time but then changed their mind later?

I am not going to argue the questions above because my point is not to persuade you what is or is not rape. But it is interesting to note that rape is not that clearly defined.

Posted by: Ross | Dec 9, 2004 6:33:30 AM

The 2% claim is completely bogus. It first appeared, to the best of my knowledge, in Susan Brownmiller's "Against Our Will." She cited essentially nothing more than a mimeographed handout. But because "Against Our Will" was so well received, the stat took on a life of its own.

Canada does track both unfounded and false sexual assault allegations and they tend to find false allegations at 5-6 percent (see

Frankly, what is most disconcerting about outright false sexual assault claims is that there is usually very little or no attempt to criminally sanction the person making the false charges (and some feminists who claim that criminally sanctioning those who make false charges is wrong since it will deter genuine victims from coming forward).

Posted by: Brian Carnell | Dec 9, 2004 6:34:52 AM

"Part of the problem with identifying false rape lies with the lack of a common definition of what constitutes rape."

Actually, rape is pretty well defined in the criminal justice system.

Posted by: Brian Carnell | Dec 9, 2004 6:36:46 AM

Not too many years ago, the USAF CID released a paper which concluded that one-third of their reports were false. Their requirement to prove "false" was that the reporter later recanted, a pretty high bar.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey | Dec 9, 2004 7:12:21 AM

I wonder if Dr. Anderson read:

Kanin, E.J., (1994) "False Rape Accusations", Archives of Sexual Behavior, V23, P81-92

It looks pretty good to me, and Kanin finds that 41% of reported rapes were outright fabrications, by admission of the woman.

Posted by: Bob Howland | Dec 9, 2004 7:14:51 AM

Then there are the cases where the authorities are convinced that a child has been molested, and innocent people have been sent to prison,the most famous example being the Amiraults of Boston, but there are others still in prison, such as Joseph Allen and Nancy Smith of Ohio.

Posted by: Lona Manning | Dec 9, 2004 7:27:53 AM

As a former member of the "USAF CID", more accurately known as the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), I can attest to that paper that disclosed that "one-third" of our rape accusations were false. And, yes, the bar was set pretty high in that "withdrawal" of the accusation was the standard.

Of further interest though, was that AFOSI had designed a list of questions (developed by a psychologist) to be used in any rape investigation. The purpose of this investigative "tool" was to assist the investigator in determining if the accusation was true, as opposed to gathering evidence of the crime(which was done at the same time).

I found this list very helpful in determining the veracity of an accusation (as did all agents), but unfortunately, its existence was brought to the attention of the media, and the subsequent backlash by feminist groups resulted in AFOSI doing away with it. (This was back in the 1980s, so I don't know what they are doing now.)

Based on my personal experience I would say that the number of false accusations is much higher than 2% - more in the 20% to 30% range.

And, while rape may have a well-established definition in the legal community, I am not sure that definition translates well into the "real" world. Date rape where alcohol is involved is not as clear an issue in reality as the law would have us to believe.

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2004 8:38:21 AM

Like “Dave” I was a criminal investigator for 24 years in the AFOSI and worked many rape investigations from murder rape, (thankfully, only one) to "date rapes" (more common than most people would believe)

Per policy every allegation of rape was thoroughly investigated and most were eventually resolved.

During the course of that career I took numerous allegations of rape that were later disproved; 20 – 30% sounds pretty accurate.

In general I became suspicious of a rape allegation that solved more problems than it created.

For example, the allegation “solved” an unexpected pregnancy or “explained” a venereal disease or a hickey or provided an excuse to be gone unexpectedly for a weekend.

These types of allegations almost never had any physical signs of trauma and seldom included weapons other than a claim of being overcome by physical force.

Posted by: Jim in Texas | Dec 9, 2004 9:19:59 AM

I echo Jim's statement . . .

"In general I became suspicious of a rape allegation that solved more problems than it created.

For example, the allegation “solved” an unexpected pregnancy or “explained” a venereal disease or a hickey or provided an excuse to be gone unexpectedly for a weekend. "

I ran into these circumstances all the time. I am not sure if these reasons apply to the general population, but they certainly were not uncommon in the military.

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2004 10:48:25 AM

>> "Part of the problem with identifying false rape lies with the
>> lack of a common definition of what constitutes rape."
> Actually, rape is pretty well defined in the criminal justice system.

True, but people who feel victimized and report rape be reporting incidents which don't meet the standards for rape demanded by the law. Sexual activity often come with emotional entanglements, and it is very possible for someone to feel used and abused, without the activity meeting the forcable coercion standards required for a rape conviction.

I wouldn't be surprised if the the majority of withdrawn complaints are the victims recognizing that while the sexual activity may not have been fully consentual, they weren't raped in the the legal sense.

Posted by: Krusty Krab | Dec 9, 2004 12:25:14 PM

Warren Farrell, in his book The Myth of Male Power (1993, p.322), cites an Air Force study that investigated 556 charges of rape by servicewomen. In that investigation, 27% ADMITTED that their accusations had been false either before or after being confronted with lie detector tests.

Farrell cites "False Allegations," Forensic Science Digest, V. 11, no. 4, Dec. 1985, p. 64, by Charles P. McDowell. Farrell says the Digest is a publication of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in D.C.

Farrell's book compiles a huge amount of information on feminist issues. On rape, he cites a lot of anecdotal and descriptive information, addition to the Air Force study. All together, quite an important book, and a great resource.

Posted by: Alec Rawls | Dec 9, 2004 1:06:59 PM

I see that earlier commentators refer to the Air Force study I just gave the citation for. As for the discrepancy between their statements that a third of accusations were found to be false and my citation that 27% ADMITTED to have made false accusations, all of these numbers are conservative estimates of the actual % of false accusations. As Farrell describes it, when investigators looked into the cases where women did not admit to have made false accusations, they came to the conclusion that a full 61% of all the accusations were probably false.

Posted by: Alec Rawls | Dec 9, 2004 1:18:13 PM

I believe Charles McDowell was the author of the list of questions I mentioned in my earlier post.

My estimates, based on my personal experience, were betweeen 20% - 30%, so I am pretty darn close to the results of that study.

As to the use of polygraphs in rape investigations. If I remember correctly we rarely put victims on a polygraph. Usually we did that to subjects in cases when there was a substantial amount of doubt as to what "really" happened. Still, I can recall polygraphing at least one victim.

The combination of questions designed to check the veracity of the complaint, good investigative techniques (AFOSI is one of the best criminal investigative agencies in the world), and polygraphs no doubt resulted in the discovery of a substantial amount of false accusations which might be overlooked in the general population.

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2004 2:26:00 PM

Charles "Nick" McDowell was the unfortunate person Dave referred to:

"unfortunately, its existence was brought to the attention of the media, and the subsequent backlash by feminist groups resulted in AFOSI doing away with it."

Some Congresswoman from Alaska, I believe, got a copy of the profile and then tried to publically hang him.

Posted by: Jim in Texas | Dec 9, 2004 3:04:01 PM

I wonder if in the case of domestic violence/rape allegations, false retractions become an issue, i.e. victim accurately accuses partner of abuse/rape, the couple reconciles, and the victim retracts the true allegation in order to help the partner. Just as we suspect a lot of retracted allegations of domestic abuse were really true in the case of violence, could the same be the case for partner rape?

The point would be that retractions are not absolute proof that the original allegation is false.

Posted by: Brian S. | Dec 9, 2004 3:45:27 PM

"The point would be that retractions are not absolute proof that the original allegation is false."

For sure. But they are arguably the "best" measurement.

The polygraph, while a useful tool, is no guarantee of finding the truth, and is not admissible anyway. Physical evidence in many cases just proves intercourse, not rape, especially in the case of date rape and even more so when alcohol is involved.

The only other measurement I can think of off hand would be the verdict of a jury. If they don't believe the victim and find the subject not guilty, then I suppose that would count as a false allegation.

I suppose grand jurys failing to return an indictment could also be included in this category.

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2004 4:05:36 PM

When you say rape is pretty well defined in the criminal justice system what do you mean? What is the general definition? For a summary of the California Supreme Court case I mentioned where the man was convicted of rape for continuing sex after his partenr said ""I have to go home." you can go to,2933,75405,00.html

Does that fit the well defined definition of rape?

I am not trying to start an arguement, just need clarification.

Posted by: Ross | Dec 9, 2004 4:07:46 PM

I know three people who have been involved with rape. My mother, my wife, and a male aquaintance from years ago. My mother's and my wife's incidents were verifiably genuine. My male friend was convicted of rape and spent 3 years in prison before his accuser recanted and he was released. From these experiences I've since figured that about a third of rape claims were probably false and it seems to bear up with some of the previous comments. My percentage excludes the fact that my male friend was himself raped while in prison for a false rape charge.

Posted by: Ken | Dec 9, 2004 6:16:25 PM

David, if the standard for an acquittal in a rape case translates into the jury's conclusion that the victim is lying, defendants in those cases are in a lot of trouble, as that would be anything but consistent with the applicable burden of proof - where the jury is supposed to acquit unless it is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the allegation is true.

I would argue, also, that the polygraph isn't even designed to "find the truth" - it is designed to detect physiological signs consistent with intentional deception. Even leaving aside techniques to "beat the machine", if you believe what you're saying, no matter how untrue it may be, you'll slmost certainly pass a polygraph with flying colors.

We know that some rape charges are false - even the 2% figure necessarily includes that concession. We also know that many rape charges are true. How the numbers break down in any given context or on the whole? I don't know, and I'm not aware of any concerted effort to develop a meaningful statistic. But I'm not sure how such a statistic would help a defendant, as each individual accusation should still be evaluated on its own merits (or lack thereof), and not on the basis of statistics derived from other cases.

Of course (in any context) to the extent that bad statistics seep into the public consciousness, resulting in skewed laws and bad public policy, we have a problem.

Posted by: Aaron | Dec 9, 2004 9:03:15 PM


Please understand I was not proposing that jury verdicts are a good way to measure false accusations. As you stated, that would be problematic at best.

I simply trying to come up with a method to measure them aside from accusation withdrawal. Unfortunately I can think of no other way at this time.

I disagree on the polygraph, however. While it is not at "truth-telling" device, it does serve as a tool to get to the truth. Just the offer of a polygraph can make a guilty person admit to the crime for one thing - that very thing happened on one of our cases recently. And when someone really "busts" a polygraph, the post-test interview very often results in the truth coming out. And in a rape case where there is little or no convincing evidence either way - when it boils down to two conflicting accounts - then it may indeed be the only way to get to the truth. Again, it is not the polygraph that determines the truth, but how the information is used afterward.

Yes, people can "beat" them - or you can have an incompetent examiner - and as a result they are imperfect and that is why they are not admissible in court as you know. But I don't think it is a stretch to say they can be used to get at the truth.

I wholeheartedly agree that any accusation should be judged on its individual merits. Statistics should not be used for the purpose of deciding if an accusation is true or false of course.

And you are correct when you say . . .

"Of course (in any context) to the extent that bad statistics seep into the public consciousness, resulting in skewed laws and bad public policy, we have a problem."

I believe that this has happened already but in the opposite direction. The almost mythical status of "date rape" in our society is, in my opinion, a result of skewed statistics and media hype. Of course it happens, and even one is too many. But as we have been discussing, many of these accusations are likely to be false or, even more likely, simply misunderstandings resulting from alcohol use or immaturity or both.


Posted by: David | Dec 10, 2004 6:12:01 AM

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