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Justice Lab

When Rape Allegations Are in Doubt

What research tells us in the wake of the Rolling Stone controversy.

On Friday, Rolling Stone magazine acknowledged doubts about the veracity of an explosive article published on Nov. 19. The piece described a brutal three-hour gang rape of a freshman woman at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia in 2012. It also emphasized the university’s failure to fully investigate the allegations, which were made by a student identified as Jackie.

But now the fraternity claims that it did not even host a party on the night Jackie says she was raped. Some of Jackie’s friends, who include women active in sexual-assault prevention efforts at UVA, have also acknowledged inconsistencies in Jackie’s version of events. What happened to Jackie remains far from clear, and both the university and the Charlottesville police continue to investigate the case.

Rape-prevention groups on campus and elsewhere have already expressed concerns that even the suggestion of a false allegation could perpetuate misconceptions about the crime and hurt efforts to persuade women to come forward when they have been assaulted. In fact, research on rape allegations suggests that only a small percentage of the rape claims presented to the authorities — not only in the United States but also abroad — are false. And those false claims sometimes originate in real crimes, perhaps of a different or lesser nature than the alleged victim initially claimed.

Last year the British government published a report that re-investigated the 159 supposedly false rape claims made in England and Wales in 2011-12. The researchers found that in many of the cases, some crime of a sexual or violent nature had taken place, often to the person who had made the allegation. Some victims recanted because they feared retaliation from the perpetrator. Others simply wanted to return to their daily routines without the pressure of a contested investigation. Many of the cases involved teenagers or drugs and alcohol.

In one case, an 18-year-old woman reported that after a night out drinking, she returned with a man to a hostel. She told the police she consented to sex with him but was then raped by his two friends who were sleeping in the same room. All three men were arrested. Several days later, the woman refused to pursue her complaint, leading the police to suspect her of lying. As police continued to investigate the incident, they turned up cell phone videos recorded by two of the men showing an unidentifiable woman — heavily intoxicated and disoriented — being pressured by all three men to perform sex acts. The video was deemed insufficient to prove either rape or a false claim of rape.

The 159 cases detailed in the report account for only about 1 percent of all rape allegations made in the United Kingdom during the period of study. And Britain is not the only country where false rape claims seem to be rare.

In 2010, a team of Boston researchers led by psychologist David Lisak published a widely cited study on rape and sexual assault allegations. The researchers used two different approaches. First, the team reviewed 136 claims made to the campus police department of an unnamed, large Northeastern university over 10 years. Second, the researchers reviewed several decades’ worth of studies on the veracity of rape and sexual assault allegations, from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia.

For the college component of the study, Lisak’s team defined a false claim as one in which a full investigation took place, and evidence showed that the reported sexual assault had likely not occurred. Full investigations included police interviewing witnesses and considering alternative explanations (other than malice) for why the details of a victim’s account did not check out. The research team concluded that 6 percent of the allegations were false. In half of those cases, the alleged victim ultimately admitted to fabricating some or all of their claims.

The team’s review of international research came to similar conclusions. It found that between 2 percent and 10 percent of all rape and sexual assault claims in those studies had proven false. A separate study, in which researchers re-investigated rape allegations made in Los Angeles between 2005 and 2009, found a false-claim rate of 1 percent.

An older paperthat, like Lisak’s, analyzed multiple studies of sexual assault allegations from around the world, by Philip Rumney of the University of the West of England, came up with a much larger range of potentially false claims, from 1.5 percent to 90 percent of all allegations. The estimate from Lisak’s team was lower and more narrow in part because they discounted studies that failed to consider potential police misconduct; another large body of evidence suggests that police often fail to fully investigate sexual assault cases and then classify such cases as “unfounded.”

The anxiety about the controversy swirling around Jackie’s story is that it may feed into assumptions among police officers and the general public that many rape claims are fabricated. In fact, rape is an underreported crime. Surveys of self-reported sexual assault victims suggest more than half never report their allegations at all, in part because they fear they won’t be believed.