Why it's so hard to quantify false rape charges.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 1 2009 12:54 PM

How Often Do Women Falsely Cry Rape?

The question the Hofstra disaster left dangling.

(Continued from Page 1)

If 8 percent to 10 percent is about right for false reporting of rape, based on what we know so far, how should we think about that number? Rumney says he's not sure whether crying wolf is more or less likely over rape than over other crimes, because the comparative research is even less conclusive. So that's a question that appears to have no answer at the moment. (A 2001 Department of Justice report says that the rate of false reports is similar for other crimes, but it also gives the 2 percent figure without a source, so we're skeptical.)

What is clear, however, are two problems that are the flip side of the same coin. False charges of rape are an absolute nightmare for the men caught in their net. And the specter of made-up allegations is a real problem for law enforcement—which means they are also a problem for women who are telling the truth. Let's take the men first. We've heard from many of them in e-mails and comments since the Hofstra incident. Here is one story, equal parts heartbreaking and thoughtful:

My girlfriend was raped several years ago.  I was falsely accused of rape less than a year ago.  I contacted her (I had known her before her incident) because I was desperate for someone to talk to who would understand what I was going through.  To my great relief, it turned out that we understood each other very well.  From the initial stages of suicidal thoughts and not being able to function to the long-term fear, mistrust, and guilt that are facts of our lives, it turns out that her experience of being raped and mine of being falsely accused of rape were very similar. … One important difference, though, is that when she was violated, she received a great deal of help (medical, legal, psychological).  Apart from family and friends, I was on my own.  My legal and psychological problems had to be dealt with by me at a time when I couldn't eat, sleep, or think (except, of course, about killing myself).

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On the law enforcement end, we heard from Steve Cullen, an Army attorney who's worked extensively as a prosecutor. He offered this cogent—and dire—explanation of the reverberations when women cry wolf about rape:

False reports have an incredibly corrosive impact on how sexual assault accusations are policed.  Police treat sexual assault accusers badly—much worse than the lawyers do—much worse than the courtroom does.  Forget what you see on "Law and Order SVU," the police end absolutely discourages victims from reporting.  Why is this so? Because cops suspect just about every victim is another false accuser, because either he/she has personally dealt with such a problem, or has heard stories from his or her cop buddies to this effect (and yes, in my experience female cops can be even worse offenders).  This police behavior is bad, and counterproductive—but it's real.  Putting a real stigma on false reports might combat this a bit—and make it a little easier for actual victims at the police station.

False reports also have a disproportionate impact on juries. How I'd hate to be prosecuting a sexual assault right now. Often in sexual assault prosecutions there's no debate as to the sex, but everything falls on proving lack of consent—and can only be proven through a convincing and persuasive victim's testimony.  Often, that victim's testimony has to overcome some less than ideal circumstances—she was drinking, people observed her flirting with the perpetrator etc. That's something she can own up to, and overcome on her own.  What she can't do on her own is extinguish jury members' memory of reading of some spectacular false accusation case in the newspaper last month. Every false accusation that makes it into the news makes it that much harder for the real victims to receive justice.

If police and juries are influenced by false reports, especially high-profile instances of false charges, like the Duke lacrosse case or the Hofstra case, why wouldn't those reports influence victims, too? Up to 60 percent of rapes go unreported. The Hofstra story will only make more women wonder if the police will believe them.

This is sobering. As, of course, is the whole topic. We're left to draw the following conclusion: False allegations of rape aren't rampant. But they don't have to be to cause terrible trouble. This is a problem that a men's rights movement shouldn't trump up. And also one that feminists can't dismiss.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Rachael Larimore is a Slate senior editor.

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