Yesterday, under the headline, "The saddest graph you'll see today," Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post published this infographic created by the Enliven Project to put the legal issues around rape, its prosecutions, and concerns about false accusations into perspective. The graphic quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, but unfortunately, while well-intentioned, it is also misleading in significant ways that can be used to undercut its basic message, which is sound: that false rape accusations are rare.
The persistent myth that false accusations are common makes it incredibly difficult for victims to get justice—the overwhelming threat of being accused of making it all up to cover up for one's slutty ways (see recently: Steubenville, Notre Dame, Cleveland) is enough to make women simply not report. Those who do report run a very high chance of never seeing a conviction, some because police drop the case on the slut-and-liar grounds and some because juries buy the defense attorney's claim that the victim bizarrely preferred being publicly accused of being a slut and liar to quietly forgetting about a night of forced sex.
Sadly, the graphic meant to set the record straight on false accusations only confuses matters. Three major problems jump out:
The graphic assumes one-rape-per-rapist. Looking at the above picture, one might start to get the impression that every other man you meet is a rapist. Nearly one in five women have been raped, according to the latest substantive government numbers, and infographics like this might make people conclude therefore that one in five men is a rapist. In reality, a much smaller (though still troubling) number—an estimated 6 percent of men—are rapists. Your average rapist stacks up six victims. That's hard to capture in an infographic, but could be clearer by just labeling the little dudes "rapes" instead of "rapists." After all, the fact that most rapists are repeat offenders drives home how troubling it is that victims can't find justice. If more rapists saw a jail cell the first time they raped someone, the number of victims would decline dramatically.
The graphic overestimates the number of unreported rapes. It's hard to measure how many rapes go unreported, because, duh, unreported. Making it even harder to get an accurate count, a lot of rape victims don't identify as rape victims, because it's so stigmatized. Still, improved public education has made it easier for rape victims to report. RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), using government numbers, estimates that 54 percent of rapes go unreported. Tweaking the infographic to reflect this more conservative number wouldn't make the image less convincing, but it would make it more accurate.
The graphic overestimates the number of false accusations. This infographic is intended to drive home how rare false accusations are, and yet, because of a simple error, it overestimates how many actually occur. The problem is that the Enliven Project conflates "false reports," which only require the claim that a crime has happened, with "false accusations," which require fingering a supposed perpetrator. This might seem like a small thing, but this report from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, which focuses in part on teaching law enforcement to understand and root out false reports of rape, is very careful to warn against conflating the two. In its list of potential indicators of a false report, the Center specifically singles out the lack of a named perpetrator as something to look out for:
To summarize material developed by McDowell and Hibler (1987), realistic indicators of a false report could potentially include:
• A perpetrator who is either a stranger or a vaguely described acquaintance who is not identified by name. As previously discussed, most sexual assault perpetrators are actually known to their victims. Identifying the suspect is therefore not typically a problem. However, victims who fabricate a sexual assault report may not want anyone to actually be arrested for the fictional crime. Therefore, they may say that they were sexually assaulted by a stranger or an acquaintance who is only vaguely described and not identified by name.
Emphasis mine. According to the document, 2-8 percent of reported rapes are false, but the number that are false accusations is smaller. Women who make false reports want sympathy, and as victims of real rapes can tell you, accusing a real man usually gets you very little.
As I said above, the Enliven Project has the best intentions and they're on the right path. It is true that most rapes go unreported, that the public believes false accusations are exponentially more common than they actually are, and that a man's chances of being falsely accused of rape are incredibly small. All these things are important to convey, and an infographic is a great way to do it. Just fix the graphic, and the public will learn a lot.