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Myths about Sexual Assault Reports

False reports of sexual assault are dramatically overestimated. Poorly constructed studies and a lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual assault contribute to this problem. In rigorous research, rates of false reports are consistently very low, ranging from 2% to 10%. This is similar to rates of false reports for other crimes.

In spite of these statistics, misconceptions are repeated in many ways. False reports are a common trope in fiction (see Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, numerous TV shows such as Law and Order) and receive significant media attention: the UK tabloid The Daily Mail used the words 'cries rape' in 54 headlines in 2012.

This page will describe research on this issue and identify the major misconceptions related to reporting sexual assault. 

How often do false reports occur?

Reliable studies consistently measure the rate of false reports as 2% to 10%. For example, an analysis of ten years of cases reported to a University police department involved setting coding criteria in advance, reviewing case summaries, meeting with police officials to review the cases in more detail, and establishing coding reliability by comparing the classifications made by two research teams across all 136 cases. This study found that only 6% of the cases were false allegations (Lisak et al., 2010). A 2014 study of sexual assault cases reported to the Los Angeles Police Department used quantitative and qualitative methods to review reports and analyze detective interviews. The study found that 4.5% of cases were false reports. These results are consistent with other well-constructed international studies.

As with any crime, false reporting of sexual assault does occur; however, it is very rare. When it does occur, it is both incredibly harmful to the falsely accused and extremely damaging to survivors of sexual assault who find themselves subject to stereotypes and disbelief as a result.

Men of color experience greater conviction and incarceration rates for all crimes, including sexual assault. While there are times when a white woman falsely accuses a man of color of sexual assault, these disparities are often the result of systematic racism and negative stereotypes about men of color as well as stereotypes about "real victims." For example, the Central Park Five were African-American and Latino boys who were wrongly charged and convicted by police and prosecutors intent on finding someone responsible for the rape and severe beating of a white woman who was jogging in Central Park. The survivor in this case was so badly beaten that she couldn't remember anything that happened. Terrible injustices like these must be acknowledged and addressed at the same time as addressing the injustices experienced by sexual assault survivors. 

How are reports of sexual assault misclassified?

A false report of sexual assault is a reported assault that was never attempted. A report can only be determined to be false if an investigation finds evidence that it is more likely than not that no assault occurred, or if the complainant directly admits that the reported assault did not occur. A false report is not the same thing as an 'unfounded' or 'recanted' report, and many assaults are misclassified as false reports by law enforcement and media. Despite clear guidelines from the FBI, many studies have found routine misclassification and enormous disparities among police agencies in how cases are classified. (International Assoc. of Chiefs of Police, 2005).

Below are some examples of misclassified reports:

What gets misinterpreted as a false report?

Dropped charges of sexual assault are misinterpreted: High-profile cases, such as Steubenville, demonstrate that victims regularly face ongoing harassment, threats and intimidation when they report the crime. Victims on college campuses have these experiences as well and many victims drop the charges to put a stop to ongoing harassment or out of fear that they will lose their friend group.

Reactions to trauma: When someone experiences a trauma like sexual assault, it is normal to have difficulty recalling what happened in a coherent way because the brain stores traumatic memories very differently from normal memories. People may remember certain aspects of the assault at one point and recall other aspects at a later time. Gaps in memory and intense focus on certain details (attentional narrowing) are common reactions to trauma but aren't widely understood.

Self-blame: Self-blame is a coping strategy to deal with the powerlessness and helplessness experienced by all trauma survivors. Furthermore, victims may have done things to survive and to try to minimize harm once they felt there was no escape - like freezing, negotiating the use of a condom - and these survival strategies are profoundly misunderstood. Self-blame is a common means of trying to regain control over the assault. 

How do these misinterpretations and misconceptions affect survivors?

Widely held, inaccurate beliefs about the prevalence of false reporting are present in all groups, from college students to police officers. Survivors know this, and 95% of college students choose not to report their assaults so as not to face the vitriol that many survivors experience.

The blame and distrust frequently directed at survivors is often referred to as secondary victimization because survivors experience additional harm from friends, family and systems. In a survey of survivors who reported to police departments, secondary victimization was common: 87% of survivors felt blamed for their assault after speaking with the police; 70% experienced officers who said that the survivor's dress or behavior caused the assault; and 69% experienced officers who discouraged making a report.

A separate survey of survivors who did not report to police asked them to provide reasons for not doing so. The most common reasons included uncertainty that the authorities would consider the incident serious enough, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, fear of hostile treatment by the authorities, and not knowing how to report the incident.

When people hear about a sexual assault case, they often move to making a decision about true or false/right or wrong; when in fact, we don't have to be the ones who make that judgment. If a friend tells you that they have been sexually assaulted, provide them with support and compassion. Listen and validate their experience. Offer them the resources that are trained and confidential to help them decide what to do next. Learn about sexual assault and how to respond to a friend and keep in mind this information about sexual assault reporting. 

Related Links

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault
A webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Justice with researcher Rebecca Campbell.  Dr. Campbell explains the underlying neurobiology of traumatic events, its emotional and physical manifestation, and how these processes can impact the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault.

How to Help a Friend

Byron Hurt’s blog: Rape, A Loaded Issue for Black Men

Rape in a Small Town
This Providence Journal article describes the harassment and discrimination that victims and their families can face when they report sexual assault.

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