Are Only 2% of Sexual Assault Allegations False?

milano

Actress Alyssa Milano has been among those espousing that only 2% of sexual assault allegations are false.

Ever since the #MeToo controversy broke out, there’s been a commonly repeated claim made across the social media sphere that only 2 to 8% of sexual assault allegations are false, and that because such a low number of reports are false, we ought to always believe women who report they were assaulted by default.  Even if not explicitly stated, what the people who report this are really saying is that since false allegations are so rare, the burden proof ought to be on the accused male to prove that he didn’t assault the female who is accusing him, not on the accuser to prove that he did. Even if the courts are ultimately unable to establish that he did commit the assault, we ought to assume he did anyways.

I should first point out that even if it is the case that only 2-8% of sexual assault allegations are false, it does not follow that we should therefore assume that all reports are true.  Every case needs to be evaluated on its own merits, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim that it did happen.  If you deny this then you are denying your own right to due process the next time you are accused of committing a crime.

However, when you actually read from the studies that make this claim, it becomes clear immediately that specific definitions researchers are using have been chosen so as to make it seem like men are guilty of sexual assault far more often than they actually are.  So, let’s quick talk about the various possibilities that exist when a woman accuses a man of sexual assault.

When a woman claims she was sexually assaulted there are three possibilities about her claim.  Either she’s telling the truth, she’s deliberately lying, or she is sincerely mistaken for one reason or another.  But these three possibilities apply not only to her claim about the assault but also to her claim about who assaulted her.  It’s entirely possible, for example, that a woman was in fact sexually assaulted, but for one reason or another is mistaken about who assaulted her, and in such a case the woman would be telling the truth when recounting her assault, but none the less falsely accusing an innocent man.

But there are more possibilities as well.  There in principle could be a case where a woman was in fact sexually assaulted, but has chosen to accuse someone other than the person who assaulted her.  I don’t presume to know what the reasoning for that would be, but it is something that in principle could occur.  Now in this case, a woman could be truthfully recounting a sexual assault, but deliberately accusing a man who did not commit it.

As you can see, this issue is not as simple as either the accuser was assaulted by the person she is accusing, or she was not assaulted at all and is lying.  There are other possibilities, and very rarely will an investigation be able to definitively rule out all possibilities beyond the specific guilt or innocence of the accused.  For example, suppose in a particular case where a man is accused of sexual assault, evidence is presented that completely exonerates him, such as security camera footage that proves he wasn’t even in the city that the alleged assault took place in on the night it occurred.  In such a case, it would be established that the accused is innocent, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that no sexual assault occurred.  At this point the accuser could try and claim that she must’ve been mistaken about who assaulted her.  The innocence of the accused is not in and of itself, an admission by the accuser that no sexual assault occurred.

With all this in mind, what do the academics who have reported the 2-8% statistic actually mean when they say that only 2-8% of sexual assault allegations are false.  In their paper that was published in Violence Against Women and presented at the Symposium on False Rape Allegations, the researchers who made this claim said very clearly what they meant, “To classify a case as a false allegation, a thorough investigation must yield evidence that a crime did not occur” (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa & Cote, p. 1319).

They go on to quote the International Police Chief’s Association as saying,

“The determination that a report  of sexual assault is false can be made only if the evidence establishes that no crime was committed or attempted. This determination can be made only after a thorough investigation. This should not be confused with an investigation that fails to prove a sexual assault occurred. In that case the investigation would be labeled unsubstantiated. The determination that a report is false must be supported by evidence that the assault did not happen” (IACP, 2005b, pp. 12-13; italics in original).

So, in other words, the researchers who support this claim are saying that in only 2-8% of reported sexual assaults is it formally established that no assault took place.  They ARE NOT saying that in 92-98% of cases the person accused is guilty.  Within that 92-98% of remaining cases, there are still the possibilities that the woman is mistaken about who attacked her, that she was assaulted but is lying about who assaulted her, and those cases where she is lying about being assaulted, but the court cannot establish that this is a lie.

Let’s remember that the goal of a prosecution is not to establish every specific fact that pertains to a case, but rather to establish the guilt of the accused.  If the person accused is in fact innocent, then the allegation made against them was false, regardless of whatever other details may be true with respect to the accuser.  What then are the statistical facts with respect to those men that are accused of sexual assault?

One study by Eugene Kanin of Purdue University found that 41% of all sexual assault allegations are false, when it is understood that by this it means that the person accused of the crime was innocent (Kanin, 1994).  However, Kanin’s study has been widely criticized.  This in and of itself does not make his conclusions wrong, but let’s consider an alternative, less controversial source.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in cases involving sexual assault, DNA evidence is able to exonerate the accused in at least 20% of cases, and it is exculpatory to the accused in at least 40% of cases (McElroy, 2006).  For those not familiar with legal terminology, exonerate means the innocence of the accused is established, and exculpate means that doubt is cast on their guilt to the point that they cannot be convicted, even if it does not conclusively demonstrate their innocence.  Also, don’t forget that this is simply referencing the use of DNA evidence and leaves open the possibility of other exculpatory evidence of a different nature.

The person claiming that sexual assault allegations are false only 2-8% of the time usually intends for the hearer to conclude that in 92-98% of cases, the person accused is guilty.  The reality is that in 20% of cases the accused is innocent, and in at least 40% of cases there are serious reasons to doubt his guilt.  False allegations of sexual assault are frequent enough that it is appropriate to call them common.

However, even if this were not the case, the fact remains that one must not assume innocence or guilt based on statistics.  Women are not saints who never lie, and not all men commit sexual assault.  Every case must be assessed on it’s own merits, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof is on the party making the positive claim.

And that is My 2 Cents. Take it for what it’s worth.

This article is available in video format here:

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Citations:

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. doi: 10.1177/1077801210387747

IACP. (2005b). Investigating sexual assaults: Concepts and issues paper. Alexandria, VA: Author

Kanin, E. J. (1994). False rape allegations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23(1), 81–92. doi: 10.1007/bf01541619

McElroy, W. (2006, May 2). False Rape Accusations May Be More Common Than Thought: Wendy McElroy. Retrieved from http://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=1719

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