The Science of False Rape Allegations

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%.



Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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      1. jynnan_tonyxx: Well, if it is a criminal case and the person who is the only prosecution witness recants, the case is probably dead. The defense would present the victim’s recanting as reasonable doubt, so the prosecutor will drop the case. In the media, I agree people accept confessions far too easily. Most people cannot accept that anyone could be pressured into confessing to something they did not do (be it a false allegation, a murder or anything in between). There is no shortage of cases where people were pressured or tricked into confessing crimes they did not commit, but I don’t get the impression that people are widely skeptical about confessions.

        In the case of proven false rape allegations, there are a lot of people out for satisfaction in seeing a false accuser severely punished. Every recanted accusation is a chance to fulfill that fantasy. Needless to say there is rarely such enthusiasm for punishing police or prosecutors for pursuing a weak case (I have yet to see a strong case proven false after conviction).

        1. John Shanonhouse:

          Don’t get me wrong, I understand how recanting an accusation unravels a case from a legal perspective. I was tihnking more in terms of public reactions (as seen on blog comments, social media, etc) and the qualities of society that help shape those reactions.

          A woman who says she was raped is strongly doubted; a woman who retracts an earlier rape accusation is believed almost without question. And yet, as Rebecca notes above, a woman is far, far more likely to be raped than to lie about being raped. That disconnect strikes me as a problem (to say the least).

          1. jynnan_tonyx: the reason I am tagging you in my reply is my browser is acting funny. I was supposed to reply to you and it bumped me to replying to Rebecca. Got to love those antivirus updates…

            I figured that was what you were writing about. The only other point I have to add to the discussion is to say I would not trust the social media commentary as representative, at all, of society’s opinions. There are enough people obsessed with their “punish the false accuser” fantasy that they will show up all over every news story where the accuser recants or fails to show sufficient enthusiasm for the prosecution of the accused.

            I have no idea what to do about this.

        2. What you have seen is DNA evidence exonerate men convicted for rape when the victim or eyewitnesses made a mistake. The Innocence Project has freed a couple of men for this.

          But what you usually see is people bullying rape victims out of charging their rapists. Or, as taken to extremes by the Lynnwood, WA police department, threatening a woman with charging her with false reporting unless she recants, then charging her with false reporting when she DOES recant, in spite of physical evidence that backs up her story. Then a couple years later the rapist is arrested for another assault, and they find pictures of the WA woman taken during the assault: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/disbelieved_accused_of_making_a_false_report_and_publicly_shamed_now-vind/

          1. Great post. Though a number of studies on DNA tests of those convicted do fairly high exclusion rates, but those are generally not false reports, but rather misidentified suspects in stranger rapes.

            The Lynnwood case sounds awful! I hope that she is successful in her case against the Lynnwood Police, and that the department has since gotten proper training on best practices, and is following them.

  1. Rebecca Watson,

    Glad that you were able to fix it so that the video works. good job by the way.

  2. Do we have any idea how these statistics stack up with all false reports of crimes? I’ve been looking and so far no luck. The results of searching for “false crime reporting statistics” is overwhelmed by results of false rape reports, as if that’s the only kind of false crime reports there are, which is almost certainly not the case. It might be interesting to know whether 2%-8% is high, low, or about the same.

    1. According to the Wikipedia article on “false rape allegations”, the % of false reports of violent crime is nearly identical to false rape allegations.

      However, the actual % of false rape allegations is unknown, every study done has lousy methodology, and frankly, there is probably no possible way to know the real %. As it happens, we don’t really know the % of false allegations of other violent crimes either, for the same reason.

      approximately 37% of rape allegations end in prosecution, and approximately 18% end in conviction. This statistic seems to vary with the source (likely different countries see different conviction rates) There is unfortunately no certain way to know whether the 82% of remaining allegations are true or false. My gut tells me that most are probably true, but turns out my gut doesn’t count as scientific evidence. This is why “scientific studies” on this matter tend to use very dubious data points such as “in the opinion of the arresting officer” and the like. (Apparently an arresting officers “gut feeling” is scientific evidence…)

  3. How much eyewitness accuracy should ever be demanded? It sounds as if many ‘false’ reports are actually mis-reports. Perhaps acquaintance rapes shifted onto ‘strangers.’

    Even if false reports were actually common. Shouldn’t that inspire MORE investigative rigor, rather than less?

  4. What about multiple independent reports? The odds would reduce to less than 1 in 1000.

    Nice summary, Rebecca, this is valuable info.

  5. What bothers me about the Conor Oberst story (and, indeed, all stories of “false” rape accusations) is how lopsided the skepticism is.

    When a woman says she was raped, she’s pelted with all of the usual nonsense we’ve come to expect: she was leading him on, she changed her mind after consensual sex, etc.

    But when the same woman says that her previous allegations were false, there’s no skepticism. No doubt. No second-guessing her. Her new story is accepted without question: She’s admitted to lying about being raped, and now people are free to talk about what an awful, lying, dishonest witch she is, and perhaps even offer the opinion that she’s as bad as rapists because she’s contributed to the problem of rape victims not being believed.

    No one wonders if negative attention or pressure pushed her into changing her story in an attempt to spare herself further trauma. No one wonders if she was intimidated or threatened into changing her story.

    The “skepticism” is so blatantly one-sided, so expertly focused on denying rape, that it amazes me that it’s not more obvious to more people.

    1. I think you identify why the people doubting should not be called skeptics. They are just people who don’t believe in rape. Thus a rape claim is met with disbelief, and a reversal met with “See, I knew it.”

  6. Rebecca, I should add that many of the signs of a false allegation you described above are…wow, the same things rape culture tells us make a ‘real’ rape. (Or a ‘legitimate’ rape or a ‘severe’ rape or your personal favorite unnecessary adjective that makes everything worse.)

  7. Is there any way we can create a victim-blamer call-out effort. One where a team works to call victim blamers with significant status in the legal system (judges/prosecutors/etc.) out in the media & damage their career.

    For instance: http://www.thewire.com/politics/2014/06/the-montana-judge-who-blamed-a-14-year-old-for-her-own-rape-will-be-censured/372185/

    It seems to me people who victim blame only change their behavior if their reputation or career is damaged. What do people think about this idea?

  8. “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%.”

    I really don’t think we can make that conclusion. The article you’re linking isn’t estimating the number of false rape reports but, rather, the number of rape reports that have been determined false. This is evidenced by citations such as “They then proceeded to evaluate each case using the official criteria for establishing a false allegation, which was that there must be either “a clear and credible admission by the complainant” or “strong evidential ground”, and that they seem to have deemed studies which didn’t apply that standard as ‘not sufficiently rigorous’. Trying to equate one with the other is essentially the same as trying to equate the conviction rate with the number of ‘true’ reports.

    That’s not to suggest that the actual number of false rape reports is higher. An admission may be clear and credible yet coerced; and ‘strong evidence’ isn’t always consistent. Not to mention only two of the citations in the article were even from the last decade. I just really wish we had better studies.

  9. “A woman lied about rape, therefore most women lie about rape.”. Obviously this isn’t true, but it’s the position we’re still stuck in.

  10. Re skepticism only running one-way, it’s almost laughable that — given the likes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Kobe Bryant almost certainly buying off their accusers — nobody ever suggests “why, those boys at Duke were from awfully rich families, I bet their daddies’ lawyers paid the girl to recant”. In fact, Bill Clinton may be the only American man alive who’s ever had his word trusted less than his accusers’.

  11. Rebecca Watson when referring to false rape statistics states that “it is obviously difficult for researchers to get a price percentage”. On that much I strongly agree. I would also agree with many criticisms of studies which show high numbers of false reports.

    She then sites rigorous studies put estimates between 2-8%, and sites the US DOJ uses the number of 2%. The DOJ has no rigorous studies which track “False Rape” statistics. The closest numbers these studies have tracked are reports with Police Clearances of Unfounded, and there number for this is 8%. Unfounded reports are those that are either false or baseless. Uniform Crime Report makes clear that reports can only be classified as “false” where a sexual assault that is factually proven to have never occurred or been attempted. A baseless report, on the other hand, is a reported sexual assault that does not meet the elements of a crime (http://resurrectionafterrape.org/media/False_Allegations.pdf)

    She goes on to state that “false reports of rape are those in which the victim doesn’t name the supposed rapist or even give a specific description of them.”. This would also be incorrect. The FBI and IACP have issued guidelines that exclude certain factors, by themselves, from constituting a false report (Lisak et al., 2010, p. 1320). These include:

    * Insufficient evidence to proceed to prosecution
    * Delayed reporting
    * Victims deciding not to cooperate with investigators
    * Inconsistencies in victim statements

    Her statement that “If, …, you always believed the person being accused of rape, you would be wrong about 98 times out of 100.”, not only incorrectly references a number from DOJ studies, it assumes that if an allegation was not proven false that it is true. It would be as misogynistic as hell to state that unless a suspect was proven guilty the accusation was unfounded. I am not sure why she thinks it is ok to assume the opposite.

    So how common is false rape reporting. The answer is no one really knows. But that does not prevent us from treating reports of rape seriously, and treating those who report the crime respectfully. The crime they report, and the suspect should be investigated thoroughly, and the person who reports the crime should not be treated like a suspect of false reporting. But at the same time, the accused should be provided due process, and there should be no rush to judgement.

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