Conor Oberst, frontman for the band Bright Eyes, was last year accused of raping a woman. The woman, named Joanie Faircloth, posted a comment on an XOJane article claiming that Oberst raped her after a concert on her 16th birthday.
Oberst said he was innocent, and filed a defamation lawsuit against Faircloth. A year later, Faircloth has publicly apologized and admitted she made the story up for attention.
Oberst accepted her apology and generously dropped the defamation lawsuit.
This has reignited several tired male supremacist talking points, including the idea that false rape accusations are common, that feminists deny the fact that false rape accusations occur, and that false rape accusations occur when women have sex they regret. These have all been debunked before elsewhere, but apparently male supremacists haven’t been listening, so let’s give it another go.
First, are false rape accusations common?It’s obviously difficult for researchers to get a precise percentage here, but methodologically rigorous studies estimate that 2-8% of reports are false. In fact, the US Department of Justice uses the figure of 2%.
But reports aren’t the same as accusations…many false reports of rape are those in which the victim doesn’t name the supposed rapist or even give a specific description of them. So the number of false accusations is actually considerably lower than 2-8%.
That means that if you were to make a habit out of always believing a person who says they were raped, you would be wrong approximately 2 times out of 100. If, however, you always believed the person being accused of rape, you would be wrong about 98 times out of 100.
You can improve your odds, of course, by not automatically believing one party or the other. When evaluating a rape claim, you can use those research statistics to know that it’s extremely likely that the victim is telling the truth. You can then evaluate the information you have about the assault to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to doubt the report.
The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women has a great document describing much of the research into false reports, and they include some potential indicators. These include a report of the perpetrator being a stranger or an unnamed, vaguely described acquaintance, a report that the victim fought back as hard as they could, a perpetrator that uses a weapon or serious physical violence, a report that is solely about penis-in-vagina penetration, or a report that closely mimics another highly publicized rape.
The victim’s history can come into play as well, particularly if they have serious psychological problems or a history of chaotic personal relationships. The flip side of course is that these types of victims actually do have an increased risk of being sexually assaulted, so the Center makes it clear that any one of those indicators on its own isn’t a cause for concern, but many of them together could be a sign of trouble.
Of course, the most important thing to remember is that these evidence-based suggestions are suggestions for investigators and prosecutors. The most important thing to remember when you’re just an average person hearing about a person making a report of rape is that you are not an investigator or a prosecutor or a defense attorney or Miss Marple. You don’t have the tools to dig into a case properly. You don’t have access to all the evidence. You don’t have all the parties’ statements. You don’t have the rape kit.
So keep in mind that challenging a person’s report of rape can be absolutely devastating to the victim if they really were assaulted. Devastating. And we live in a world where there are more than 100,000 rape kits in the US alone that have never been sent to a lab for testing. 100,000 rapes that were never even properly investigated. High school football coaches are covering up for rapists on their teams. A teen girl who accused a classmate of rape had her house burned down. A study in 2004 from the Victoria University of Wellingon, NZ found that
rape complainants must still battle to gain credibility in the eyes of some police officers, and stereotypically based judgements continue to impact negatively on police perceptions and decision making.
It’s easy to see why a person would be discouraged from even bothering to report their rape, and every time a rape goes unreported, a rapist remains free to rape again.
So think of that the next time you hear a report of rape. Before you accuse the alleged victim of lying, think long and hard about whether you have all the facts, whether your accusation will have unintended consequences for rape victims, and whether the victim really is one of the 2%.