Can I Really Believe People Who Say They Have Been Raped or Sexually Abused?
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
The short answer is yes. If someone tells you they have been raped or abused, believe them. A slightly longer answer is almost definitely. Research shows that 92 – 98% of allegations are true and, on top of that, the number of assaults is far greater than the number of allegations. If you look at false allegations compared to total number of assaults (including those that are never reported), less than 1 in 100 allegations would be false. Why is it important to mention that? Well, that is a longer answer. Please settle in for a bit of a discussion. As discussed in a previous post, people from all walks of life experience sexual assault and abuse. That includes children from religious communities. In fact, some research suggests that the majority of those who are incarcerated for child molestation see themselves as religious. But, people in fundamental religious communities often find themselves ignored when they try to report sexual crimes. Why is that? Well, for one, those who live in fundamental religious communities, like the Amish, often find it difficult to get access to the outside world to make a report. Their lives are controlled to such an extent that they cannot report the abuse or assault to law enforcement; their only option is to report to a family member, friend, or church leader – and those reports often lead to the survivor, rather than the perpetrator, being silenced. (See previous posts for more on this silencing.) However, the second reason that they are ignored is that those in the outside world – law enforcement, social workers, teachers, and so on – don’t believe them. There is a saying among some that sexual assault is the only crime where you have to work to prove you are victim of a crime. While that may seem like an exaggeration, there is plenty of research that shows people think false allegations are far more common than they are. It is especially concerning when it is law enforcement that believes this, as it is law enforcement officers that can officially label a report as false. Quite a bit of research has been done on false allegations of rape (of adults) and child molestation. Although some of that research shows that there is a high number – around 40% - of false allegations, the majority of the research has shown the number is around 2 – 8%. It is important to note that even that high number – 40% - means the majority of allegations are not false, and a lot of research has noted that few sexual crimes are reported at all (about 35%). Hearing that 40% of allegations might be false, though, is scary, and people pay more attention to that number than the 2 – 8% that most research reports. Before we can figure out why research ranges from 2% - 40%, though, we have to talk about the biggest problem in understanding false allegations: How should we define false? When most people talk about false allegations, we think the allegations have been proven to be lies. However, not all research uses that definition. Instead, they use a classification created by some law enforcement agencies that combines truly false and those that are baseless. Baseless allegations are those that cannot be proven to meet the legal criteria for charging someone. That does not mean they are false; it just means the case cannot move forward for a variety of reasons. So, the research that reports such high numbers of false allegations often combines false and baseless allegations together. That does not allow us to see the true number of false allegations, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police encourages law enforcement agencies to stop combining false and baseless allegations. Several authors have pointed out that law enforcement officers do not always follow their own guidelines for classifying cases and that they often decide a case is baseless or false because of their own biases in what a “victim” should be or do. [One of the best summaries of this issue is in Lisak et al. (2010)]. Combining baseless and false allegations into one group makes everyone think false allegations – allegations that are proven lies – seem more common.
Although law enforcement biases may lead to this inflated view of false allegations, it is important to remember that law enforcement officers can only do what they are trained to do. They need to be trained on how child molestation and sexual assault survivors respond to their assaults; they need to be trained on how to compassionately and accurately interview those survivors; they need to be trained in best practices for classification. This training helps law enforcement officers make more accurate decisions. Additionally, researchers and journalists need to admit to their own biases. One person wrote a news article that incorrectly made false allegations of rape sound far more common that they are. That one person managed to perpetuate a myth that false allegations of rape are common based on his own biased interpretation of someone’s research. Those misinterpretations can cause damage by making survivors less likely to report and by causing others to be less likely to believe reports. So, how common are false allegations? Not that common. Statistics from major law enforcement agencies show that they are not that common, and that the far greater threat is sexual assault and abuse not being reported. However, research also shows some patterns among those who make false allegations. Those who make false allegations of rape as an adult often have a history of fraud and child molestation when they were children. Just think, if someone had helped them when they were child victims of molestation, they may have been able to receive the help they needed, reducing the odds they would go on to make false accusations or commit fraud. False allegations of child molestation made by children are also uncommon. Children’s spontaneous false allegations have been estimated as about 2%; however, parents in contentious child custody cases may make false allegations of sexual abuse and children are more suggestible to making false allegations when they are pressured or coerced by adults to do so. (They are also more suggestible to denying a true allegation.) So, what should you do if someone tells you they were raped or molested? Believe them. Not every single report is true, but the vast majority are, and far more sexual crimes go unreported than those that are reported. If it is a child telling you about child molestation, report it to a local agency, like ChildLine. If it is an adult telling you about being raped, connect them with a local sexual assault support agency. More than likely, the report is true, and you have helped someone begin to heal. On the rare chance someone lied to you about being raped or molested, you have done nothing wrong in reporting what you have been told to others who are trained in working with those who have been abused or assaulted.
Annotated Bibliography of False Allegations of Sexual Assault and Abuse
deZutter, A., Horselenberg, R., & van Koppen, P. J. (2017). The prevalence of false allegations of rape in the United States from 2006 – 2010. Journal of Forensic Psychology, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.4172/2475-319X.1000119
Article with findings that have been misrepresented
Discusses the use of “unfounded” to clear a case, rather than to truly designate it as a false accusation; however, unfounded is meant only to be used in false allegations or in baseless allegations (those that do not meet legal definitions, but are not false).
False and baseless allegations of rape (5.55%) and robbery (5.78%) were higher than other crimes.
It is still impossible to separate a true false allegation from a baseless allegation, which is not necessarily false.
Heaney, K. (2018, October 5). Almost no one is falsely accused of rape. The Cut. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/article/false-rape-accusations.html
Article includes an interview of Sandra Newman and Joanne Belknap
8 – 10% of women report, and about 5% of those may be false…this means that it is only 0.5% that are falsely reporting…5% of the 8 – 10% that do report.
Why might a true allegation be considered false? The survivor recants to avoid the trial process, the police just don’t believe someone (even without evidence they are lying)
Why do people say false allegations are more common? There is an incorrect interpretation of data, like that of DeZutter, Horselenberg, and van Koppen (2017) on the prevalence of false allegations of rape in the United States from 2006 – 2010 (summarized in this annotated bibliography). They found false rape allegations were about the same frequency as false allegations of robbery (about 5.5%), but more common than other types. However, others take that to mean false allegations are common (5.5% is not common), and they do not look at other aspects of the data, like frequency of false convictions. (You are far more likely to be false convicted of murder than rape.)
Jensen, C. J. (2019, May 31). Sex Offender 101 Handout. Retrieved from https://icdv.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/80/2019/10/2019_Sex_Offenders_101.pdf
Handout from presentation given at the 2019 Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance conference
Covers rape, child molestation, and other sex offenders
Provides statistics on frequency of child molestation and sexual assault
Only 5 – 13% of child molestation is reported by children and only 30% of those result in arrest
Rate of false allegations of child abuse are 2 – 6%, although allegations during a custody dispute are false 12% of the time, with more of those coming from the non-custodial parent
Kay, K. (2018, September 18). The truth about false assault accusations by women. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45565684
Article begins with coverage of charges against Brett Kavanaugh
Review of research on false allegations of sexual assault
The FBI has reported about 8% of sexual assault allegations are false
Bureau of Justice Statistics found only 35% of sexual assaults are reported to police
Certain profile of those who do make false reports (young teenagers trying to get out of trouble)
Levitt, A., & Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit. (2013). Charging perverting the course of justice and wasting police time in cases involving allegedly false rape and domestic violence allegations. Retrieved from https://www.cps.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/legal_guidance/perverting-course-of-justice-march-2013.pdf
In 2010, the Court of Appeal heard the case of R vs. A.
A reported that she had been abused and raped by her husband, who was arrested and charged. She later told police she did not want her husband prosecuted.
She recanted her allegation when they decided to continue with prosecution anyway, and they charged her with perverting justice. At that point, she said the allegations were true, so she was charged with perverting justice for withdrawing a true allegation.
She pled guilty and was sentenced to 8 months in jail, but that was reduced by the Court of Appeal to a community appeal.
The story of Mrs. A led the Director of Public Prosecutions to conduct an investigation of how to address rape and domestic violence allegations that may be false.
Between Jan 2011 and May 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape, but only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape. Those 35 cases were based on 121 charges of falsely accusing someone of rape; there is no indication of how many charges of rape were made.
Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1318 – 1334. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210387747
Begins with discussion of controversy over the frequency of false allegations.
One difficulty in determining rates of false allegations is in defining false. Many people will use different definitions – and not even provide the definition they used. Best practices should be studies that rely on the International Association of Chiefs of Police model policy. False allegations have evidence that the crime was not committed; unsubstantiated allegations are those that cannot conclusively prove it did happen.
The FBI relies on the Uniform Crime Reports Handbook, which combines false with baseless in a category of unfounded. Baseless occurs when investigators decide they allegation does not meet legal definitions…not when the allegation does not occur
Police will regard certain sexual crimes with suspicion, making them more likely to classify a report as unfounded, baseless, or unsubstantiated.
A common statistic comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. However, that statistic of 8% includes baseless…which are not false. These police classifications though cannot be scrutinized without access to confidential information
One review found a rate ranging from 1.5 to 90% (Rumney, 2006). However, when reviewing the studies in the review, only 7 were credible and those studies are more similar in their false reporting rates (2 – 10%).
Lisak et al. looked at case summaries for a 10-year period (1998 – 2007) at a Northeastern U.S. university and classified cases as false, case did not proceed, case proceeded, and insufficient information. There were 136 cases total, with 8 (5.9%) deemed false, although one of those eight was more complex, with the victim seeming confused about proper labels.
Morgan, R. E., & Truman, J. L. (2020). Criminal victimization, 2019. Retrieved from https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv19.pdf
Statistical report of violent crime victimization in 2019.
Although violent crime victimization dropped from 2018 to 2019, there was no change in domestic and intimate partner violence levels and less than half of violent crimes (only 41% overall) were reported to police.
Fortunately, reports to victim service agencies and to police did increase.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2012). False reporting overview. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/publications/false-reporting-overview
The majority of sexual assaults are never reported.
Due to common reactions to trauma, victims may struggle to report and find authorities skeptical of their reports.
Law enforcement training may be inadequate and perpetuate the myth of common false reports, making them more likely to be skeptical of reports they receive
Studies that disentangle the types of unfounded (false and baseless) reports commonly find a range of 2 – 10 percent are false
We need universally used definitions of false, baseless, unfounded, and unsubstantiated reports.
Newman, S. (2017, May 11). What kind of person makes false rape accusations? Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/980766/the-truth-about-false-rape-accusations/
In addition to false rape allegations being rare, they rarely have consequences for the accused.
A common theme in false allegations is the parents wanting a report made; in two studies almost half of the false reports were made by a parent. Some reports are also made by people seeking medical attention.
However, adult accusers often have a pattern of fraud or false reports and may have a history of being abused as a child. They may be motivated by revenge, mental illness, the need for an alibi, or personal gain.
It is important to remember the people most likely to make false accusations may also be the most vulnerable to predators who recognize they are likely to be disbelieved.
“The lesson to be drawn here is not that any individual’s story of sexual assault should be discounted; it’s that the vast majority of rape reports can be believed.”
O’Donohue, W., Cummings, C., & Willis, B. (2018). The frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse: A critical review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 27(5), 459 – 475. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2018.1477224
Review of research on false allegations of child sexual abuse.
Table 1 shows findings of several studies. Most found low rates of false allegations.
There is an effect of age of the child; older children are more likely to be perceived as having made a false allegation.
A large number of false allegations are made by those other than the survivor. This plays into the role of custody hearings in false allegations, as well as parents reporting what a child, especially an older child, has said.
However, there is also evidence that a large number of children do not disclose abuse, especially when they have a caregiver encouraging them not to do so.
Understanding false allegations of child sexual abuse is complicated by deciding how to define “false”, how to define child sexual abuse, and how to separate child sexual abuse from other types of child abuse.
There are two additional annotated bibliographies available on false allegations. They were not used in the preparation of this post, but you may find them helpful.
Cheung, M. (2008) False allegations on child sexual abuse. Retrieved from http://www.sw.uh.edu/_docs/cwep/bib%20False%20Sexual%20Abuse%20Allegations%20and%20Children.pdf
Wells, M. K. (2011). Updated recantation and false allegations of child abuse. Retrieved from https://www.icmec.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Recantations-and-False-Allegations-Bibliography.pdf
***Dr. Tara Mitchell joined the faculty at LHU after earning a Ph.D. in Legal Psychology from Florida International University in 2005. Her teaching, research, and service to the community center around interpersonal violence and discrimination against marginalized groups, particularly based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. She has presented research on domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and human trafficking at a variety of conferences and for several local community groups.