men, masculinities and gender politics

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False accusations of rape

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It's the question that comes up at almost every rape awareness presentation I've ever done. It's almost always a man who asks, though I've had women ask as well: "What about when a girl lies about rape to get back at a man?"

This is usually followed by a personal story about a friend who were falsely accused, and the damage his reputation suffered as a result.

I think one of the things that scares people is the arbitrariness of the charge. In theory, anyone could make a false accusation. Rape is a crime that often leaves little or no evidence. Maybe the girl originally consented, then decided the next day that it was rape. Maybe she's making it up so she won't look like a slut.

Regardless of the motivation, false accusations scare us. We worry about our reputation. What will our family think? We'll be condemned without a trial. Take Craig Fry, a special education teacher from Leslie, Michigan who was charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct. The charges were dropped when it was discovered the teenager who made the accusation had lied. She has now been charged and sentenced for the false accusation, but what of Craig Fry? His name appeared in the Lansing State Journal on numerous occasions. He was dragged through the court system. Mr. Fry died in June of a heart attack. The State Journal quotes Mr. Fry's fiancé as saying the false charges "took their toll on him."

This is a horrible position to be in, and I can't imagine the fear, humiliation, and shame Craig Fry and his family endured throughout this process.

But I also know that this case has received more attention in the local news than any other rape case in recent years (with the exception of the Kobe Bryant case). Why is that? Why is a false accusation sensational enough to earn ongoing, in-depth coverage when the average rape gets a single article or a brief mention on TV?

I think it's because we're afraid. I've had men attend rape education seminars with the sole purpose of learning how to protect themselves from manipulative, blackmailing, vindictive women who would "play the rape card," as one Michigan State University student wrote a few years back. As the Craig Fry case demonstrates, it happens. This is a valid fear.

But is it a realistic one? In Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, she says that only 2% of reported rapes turn out to be false, the same rate as other crimes. In other words, there's no more reason to fear a false accusation of rape than there is a false accusation of car theft.

Some people question that figure. So-called "Men's Rights" organizations often sponsor and publish studies that show 50% or more reported rapes are false. Careful reading shows these studies to be highly inflated. For instance, they rely on police statistics regarding unfounded reports. However, unfounded includes those reports which the police decide are not strong enough to press charges and make an arrest. It doesn't mean the accusation is false, simply that there isn't enough evidence to move forward. Unfortunately, given the nature of rape, this is a common occurrence.

A report in the Columbia Journalism Review finds the rate of false reports to be closer to 8%, according to the FBI (Haws, 1997). Let's go with that number, roughly one in ten, as a nice middle ground.

Of course, only a few rapes are ever reported. The 1999 National Crime Victims Survey estimated that only about one third of sexual assaults are ever reported. Other studies find far lower numbers, but we'll go with one in three. Do the math. 1 in 10 reported rapes are false. Only 1 in 3 are ever reported. In other words, for every false report of rape, you're looking at twenty-nine true rapes.
But those false reports are what so many of us fear. Not that the men and women we love have a very good chance of being one of those twenty-nine victims. No, we're afraid of that false accusation that will ruin our lives.

It's easier to dwell on the false accusations. Rape is a horrible thing, and it's not something we like to think about. It's easier to assume a woman is making it up than it is to think about what she might have gone through.
So we're afraid. We worry about becoming the next Craig Fry. We cringe inside when we read about all of these rapes on campus, because what happens if some girl gets the idea to punish us that way?

It happens. It's a legitimate fear. But it's not one I've got a lot of sympathy for. Not compared to the people who lived every night in fear that their father, mother, or some other relative would come in and molest them. Not compared to the women who struggled through fear, violation, and helplessness after a boy they trusted turned out to be a rapist. Not compared to the vast number of men and women who did speak out about their victimization, only to be labeled liars and sluts.

Let me make one last point. As tragic as Craig Fry's case is, the system eventually worked. He was vindicated, and his accuser was arrested and sentenced.

If only the system worked half as well for victims of rape....