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October 01, 2014

Valuable Perspective on False Rape Accusations

Have been meaning to link to this excellent piece on false rape accusations for some time now. Here are the two strongest points:

False rape accusations are a lightning rod for a variety of reasons. Rape is a repugnant crime—and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

More than a quarter-century ago, feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon wrote that “feminism is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men”; today, Jessica Valenti urges us to “believe victims en masse,” because only then will we recognize the true prevalence of sexual assault. But a de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Here's the second, which is just outstanding:

...official data on what law enforcement terms “unfounded” rape reports (that is, ones in which the police determine that no crime occurred) yield conflicting numbers, depending on local policies and procedures—averaging 8 percent to 10 percent of all reported rapes. Yet the truth is even knottier than these statistics suggest. The answer to “How common are false allegations?” depends largely on how false allegations are defined. Do we count only cases in which a police report—or a complaint to some other official authority, such as a college administrator—is shown to be deliberately false? Do we include informal, word-of-mouth charges like the one against Oberst? What of he said/she said cases in which the truth is never known?

Not all reports classified as unfounded are necessarily false. In some cases, women who were victims of rape were disbelieved, pressured into recanting, and charged with false reporting only to be vindicated later on—the kind of awful story that adds to people’s skittishness about discussing false accusations. Some police departments have been criticized for having an anomalously high percentage of supposedly unfounded rape charges: Baltimore’s “unfounded” rate used to be the highest in the nation, at about 30 percent, due partly to questionable and sometimes downright abusive police procedures, such as badgering a woman about why she waited two hours to report a street assault. By 2013, an effort to provide better training and encourage full investigation of all complaints reduced that rate to less than 2 percent.

On the other hand, “unfounded” statistics do not capture all false allegations—only cases rejected at the earliest stage (correctly or not) because of what investigators believe to be strong proof that no crime was committed. This does not include cases in which charges are filed but rejected for prosecution (between a quarter and nearly half of all cases), or the relatively small number of prosecutions that end in dismissal or acquittal. Of course not all such cases involve innocent defendants—probably not even most; but surely some do.

A similar pattern can be found in a recent study often cited as evidence of the rarity of false accusations: a 2010 paper by psychologist David Lisak, which examined all 136 sexual assault reports made on a northeastern university campus over a 10-year period. For 19 of these cases, the files did not contain enough information to evaluate the outcome. Of the 117 cases that could be classified, eight—or 6.8 percent—were determined to be false complaints; that conclusion was reached when there was substantial evidence refuting the complainant’s account. But does it mean that 93 percent of the reports that could be evaluated were shown to be truthful?

More than 40 percent of the reports evaluated in Lisak’s study (excluding the ones for which there was not enough information to classify them) did result in disciplinary or criminal charges. However, 52 percent were investigated and closed. Lisak told me that the vast majority of these complaints did not proceed due to insufficient evidence, often because the complainant had stopped cooperating with investigators. His paper also mentions another type of complaint that did not proceed: cases in which “the incident did not meet the legal elements of the crime of sexual assault.”

Both sides of the political spectrum are prone to hyperbole, exaggeration, and moral panics. Last week we read something that seems particularly on point:

...why then do 69% of Americans believe that the NFL suffers a "widespread epidemic of domestic violence problems"? The answer is rooted in how we think. Humans are prone to rely on examples and experiences that can be easily recalled. The idea is that if we can remember it, it must be important. This mental shortcut is termed the availability heuristic. A key drawback of the heuristic is that it leads us to overestimate the prevalence of memorable events. Here, you can legitimately blame popular media. Because plane crashes are widely covered, many erroneously view flying as more dangerous than driving. Thanks to Shark Week, people are wearier of sharks than deer. Because 91% of people have seen, read, or heard something about Ray Rice's domestic violence, they overestimate the problem of domestic violence in the NFL.

But it's not just the media - it's also the new media: bloggers, Tweeters, Facebook posts, anything that goes viral. Exposure does not suggest relative frequency. Last week Grim made an interesting point whilst rebutting an unusually idiotic (and that's a high bar) op-ed by Jessica Valenti:

...the figure for frat boys who admitted to rape or attempted rape is nine percent. Now one way of expressing that is that 91% of frat boys are not rapists. That means that 97% of the general population of college men are not rapists. That's a pretty substantial percentage. We may not be all the way to where we want to be, but we've still established that the overwhelming majority of these men don't commit rape.

Now apply that same logic to false rape accusations and think about that for a moment.


Posted by Cassandra at October 1, 2014 08:33 AM

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Comments

Well, the logic would seem to be that the overwhelming majority of women don't make false accusations of rape.

Of course, that's also because the overwhelming majority of women don't make any accusations of rape truly or falsely.

The question then, is, of those small proportion of women who make an accusation of rape, what proportion make false accusations. And based on the articles, that number is completely unknown, and may even be unknowable.

It would seem unlikely to me for this proportion to be very high. If, even among this small subset, the proportion of revenge seeking behavior were large, I would expect to see much more revenge seeking behavior through law enforcement generally. My expectation would be that the rate of false accusation (given an accusation was made) would be small but not negligible.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 1, 2014 01:30 PM

It would seem unlikely to me for this proportion to be very high. If, even among this small subset, the proportion of revenge seeking behavior were large, I would expect to see much more revenge seeking behavior through law enforcement generally. My expectation would be that the rate of false accusation (given an accusation was made) would be small but not negligible.

I would not be surprised if the rate of false accusations were somewhat higher on college campuses than at police stations. Not *tons* higher, but somewhat higher because it's just plain easier to file a complaint, and in general when you remove barriers to doing something (even something ugly and unpleasant), you'll probably get more people doing it.

But the tone of a lot of posts and op-eds I've read reminds me of the tone of the "RAPE CRISIS ELEVENTY!!!11!" posts and op-eds: i.e., there's an unvoiced suggestion that there's some sort of epidemic of either rapes or false rape accusations.

That's a charge that requires evidence to back it up, but so far I haven't seen much. That's what I thought Cathy Young did a nice job with, and I also thought her interpretation was even handed and cautious.

Posted by: Cass at October 1, 2014 01:56 PM

But the tone of a lot of posts and op-eds I've read reminds me of the tone of the "RAPE CRISIS ELEVENTY!!!11!" posts and op-eds:

Perhaps it's just perspective, but I see those more as object lessons in absurdity: Much like Glenn's current "Teach women not to rape" kick. It's not a serious solution, it's just there to needle those people who think "Teach men not to rape" is a serious solution.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 1, 2014 03:45 PM

Over the weekend I was laughing at the fact that he likes to post links to anything that supports the notion that:

1. Men like sex and women basically have to be forced to have it.

2. Men are hard wired to be attracted to young girls/women.

...and then he posts items about women hitting on and having sex with young men under the age of consent pretty much every day :p

With no sense of irony. Or absurdity.

Posted by: Cass at October 1, 2014 03:53 PM

To me, the problem isn't that false accusations of rape are made. The problem is that so much of society seems to get outraged that the defendant in such cases is actually presumed innocent until proven guilty. Seriously, the absolute fury that people seem to get in when an accused rapist/sexual assaulter is not found guilty is amazing.

Posted by: MikeD at October 2, 2014 12:17 PM

The problem is that so much of society seems to get outraged that the defendant in such cases is actually presumed innocent until proven guilty. Seriously, the absolute fury that people seem to get in when an accused rapist/sexual assaulter is not found guilty is amazing.

I've definitely seen that, Mike. I do wonder how widespread that attitude is outside the radical feminist and lefty blogs? If it's any comfort, I sometimes wonder how widespread some of the reactionary stuff I see from the right really is. YAG has opined several times that it's pushback (an overreaction to some of the frothing idiocy they see from the left).

I hope that's what it is, but if you look at it that way (that it's completely understandable that people will overreact to fringe/reactionary punditry), then the overreaction to the overreaction is completely understandable too.

I'm so tired of seeing people (not you) defend basically unreasonable positions on the basis of some specious "They did it first, so anything I do back is justified". It never seems to occur to a lot of folks that both sides get provoked.

I've read some truly appalling stuff on the right too, and it sends lefties and feminists into conniptions.

What bothers me is not that there's a fringe (heck, I take that for granted!) but that there's so *little* pushback from reasonable people on the same side. That's the thing that always makes me wonder: "Good Lord. How many people actually *agree* with these twits?"

I freely admit that I pay far more attention to what people on "my side" of the ideological spectrum say than to the fringe left. I rarely read far lefty sites for the same reason I rarely read far right sites: I tend to find them to be less than well thought out and way too emotional.

What gets me is when I see more reasonable righty sites link approvingly to stuff that sounds just batsh** crazy to me (and no one says, "That is some crazy thinking").

Heck - I already *know* I disagree with the left, so it's kind of a no brainer that I'm *really* going to disagree with the fringe left 20 times more :p When I see fringe right stuff on normally more reasonable right leaning sites, I tend to wonder if that viewpoint is gaining traction?

Posted by: Cass at October 3, 2014 09:10 AM

The biggest thing that scares me about the "assume guilt" position is that I know these folks would never adopt that position towards any group they view (rightly or wrongly) as a minority.

I detest the notion that it's OK to hate, persecute, or discriminate against white males because... PRIVILEGE! It's a betrayal of everything progressives claim to believe in.

Posted by: Cass at October 3, 2014 09:13 AM

I can speak from no experience but my own. And I do not believe I travel in particularly fringe-y leftist circles. But I see this fairly regularly on my Facebook feed.

I detest the notion that it's OK to hate, persecute, or discriminate against white males because... PRIVILEGE! It's a betrayal of everything progressives claim to believe in.

That is because it's not about logic or reason, but about feeling good about your side. I point out all the time that demonizing your opponents about something hypocritical they did can feel good, but ultimately your side WILL do it too. And unless you're willing to call them on it as well, then congratulations, you're also a hypocrite. So either call out none, or call out all. And spare me the "but it's different when someone on my side does it!" No it's not.

And this is why I try my damnedest to keep myself from falling prey to demonizing my opponents. I have to constantly remind myself that they're not all evil, stupid, or ignorant. It's pretty easy to keep in mind that not everyone on my side is angelic, good, and pure of heart. Some of my biggest facepalm moments always seems to come when I'm trying to have an intelligent discussion with someone who believes differently than I, and someone drops in with "Yeah! Them Libruls are just tryin ta destroy the country!" And then, regardless of what points I was making, now I'm forced to argue with that anchor around my neck. Oh, and this works the other direction as well. I'm especially unfond of the "Conservatives hate ___" where ___ can quite literally be anything. Women, children, minorities, gays, equality, science, fairness... I don't think they actually have come up with something that "Conservatives" don't hate yet. Maybe "money", but I won't bet on that. But see, it's SO easy to strawman an opponent when you can't grasp why they believe so differently than you.

Posted by: MikeD at October 3, 2014 11:42 AM