False allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence
[Note: This writeup was prepared for the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (Australia) in August 2013, to inform their reporting on the results of the 2013 National Community Attitudes Survey.]
Dr Michael Flood
Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts
University of Wollongong NSW 2522
It has long been asserted and assumed that women ‘cry rape’ – that women often maliciously invent allegations of rape for malicious, vengeful and other motives (Lisak et al. 2010). The reality is, instead, that false reports of sexual assault are rare. In addition, the scale of false reporting in rape cases is no higher than for other crimes (Kelly 2010).
A report of sexual assault is false if no crime was committed or attempted. This is different from an unsubstantiated allegation, in which an investigation fails to prove that a sexual assault occurred (Lisak et al. 2010). Assessments of the extent of false allegations of sexual assault have been plagued by various problems (Rumney 2006). Some studies do not define a false allegation, or confuse unsubstantiated and false allegations, or take at false value the ambiguous or overly inclusive definitions used sometimes in law enforcement (Lisak et al. 2010). Law enforcement agencies at times have classified as ‘false’ those cases where the victim is unable or unwilling to cooperate, evidence is lacking, or the victim is heavily intoxicated. This means that meaningful data on the frequency of false reports has been lacking, and even some widely cited figures (both low and high) regarding their frequency lack strong foundations.
However, according to a recent review there are now at least seven studies which provide methodologically robust assessments of the extent of false allegations of rape (Lisak et al. 2010). These studies involved some degree of scrutiny of police classifications and/or applied authoritative international definitions of false reporting. The review notes that these studies find a relatively consistent rate of false reporting, of between two and ten percent.
Focusing on the strongest of these studies, the largest and most comprehensive study of false reports currently available is the 2005 British Home Office Study (Kelly et al. 2005). This involved analysis of 2,643 cases over a 15-year period, using a wide range of forms of data. It found that only 2.5 percent of cases met the criteria for false allegations. (This study also found that police over-estimated the frequency of false allegations, by ignoring the police agencies’ own classification rules.) Another large-scale study, this time in Australia, examined 850 rapes reported to Victoria Police over a three-year period and drew on both quantitative and qualitative data. It found that only 2.1 percent of reports were identified by police as false (Statewide Steering Committee to Reduce Sexual Assault 2006). Three earlier studies in Australia, based on police data from 1986 to 1990, find rates of false reports of sexual assault of 1.4 percent, 4.8 percent, and 7 percent (VLRC 2004).
Studies in addition to those in Lisak et al.’s review have similar findings. In European research across nine countries and involving almost 900 sexual assault cases, rates of false allegations ranged between 1 and 9 percent with most at 6 percent or less (Kelly 2010). In an examination of rape allegations in England over January 2011 to May 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence, and only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, six for making false allegation of domestic violence, and three for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence (Crown Prosecution Service 2013).
The vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Given for example that only 17 percent of women who experienced sexual assault by a male perpetrator (in their most recent incident of violence) reported it to the police (ABS 2012), the actual percentage of false cases is likely to be tiny. By one estimate, the actual percentage of false cases as a proportion of all rapes (reported and unreported) may be closer to 0.005 percent (Belknap 2010). While there has been media and community concern about false rape allegations, what is of more concern is that most rapes are not reported to the police, and of those which are, many then drop out of the legal system through case attrition.
There is also widespread support for a related misconception, that women routinely make false allegations of domestic violence against men in the context of family law proceedings. The stereotype is that mothers allege domestic violence to gain an unfair advance in disputes over children’s residence (custody) or to alienate fathers from their children. Such stereotypes are visible not only among the public in general but among professionals who evaluate disputes over children’s residence, including allegations of violence, and make recommendations regarding parenting arrangements (Haselschwerdt et al. 2011).
Contrary to the stereotype, two points are clear from the research evidence. First, false accusations of domestic violence (and other forms of violence and abuse including child abuse) in the context of family law proceedings are uncommon. Second, mothers are more likely than fathers to have unsubstantiated allegations – both false accusations and allegations without support – leveled against them, and fathers are more likely than mothers to make unsubstantiated allegations.
As with consideration of sexual assault allegations above, we must distinguish between lack of support for an allegation and evidence that the allegation is false. ‘Unsubstantiated’ allegations include both unfounded and false allegations. Unfounded or undetermined allegations do not have sufficient evidence but may still be true, while false allegations are intentionally false. Empirical data on the extent of false allegations are limited, with more studies on the frequency of allegations of violence and abuse than on the substantiation of abuse (Johnston et al. 2005).
Three studies provide evidence regarding the character of allegations of domestic violence (by adults against adults) in family law proceedings. A Canadian study of family law cases in which written decisions were produced over a three-year period identified 42-recorded cases of spousal abuse alleged against men. Seventy-four percent of these were substantiated. Only two cases of spousal abuse alleged against women were identified, one of which was substantiated (Shaffer and Bala 2003). A US study drew on documentary records describing 120 divorced families referred for child custody evaluations and custody counseling. This found that allegations by mothers against fathers were more likely to be substantiated than allegations by fathers against mothers (67 versus 55 percent) (Johnston et al. 2005). In other words, counter to some popular perceptions, men were more likely than women to make allegations of domestic violence (and substance abuse) in family law proceedings which were not substantiated. However, this study could not determine rates of false allegations, as it could not distinguish among ‘unsubstantiated’ allegations between those which were false and those which could not be determined due to lack of evidence (Johnston et al. 2005). In another US study of 3,086 randomly selected divorces in Oregon over 1995 to 2002, while most accusations of domestic violence were made by mothers, fathers were four times as likely as mothers to make accusations which were unsubstantiated (Allen and Brinig 2011).
Although the VicHealth survey question focuses on domestic violence, a related stereotype concerns child abuse, again that mothers often make false accusations of abuse in the context of family law proceedings. Five studies assess allegations of physical or sexual abuse of children, including the second of the two above and four further studies. Some studies distinguish between unfounded and false allegations, while others treat these together as unsubstantiated allegations. These five studies find varying rates of false allegations, but none support the belief that false allegations of child abuse are common in family law proceedings or that mothers are more likely than fathers to make them. A 1990 US study found that 51% of the allegations of sexual abuse made by mothers against fathers, and 58% of the allegations made by fathers against mothers, were unlikely or indeterminate (Thoennes and Tjaden 1990). A 1993 Canadian study found that of allegations by mothers against fathers regarding sexual and physical abuse of children, 27% were substantiated and 1.3% were false, while of those by fathers against mothers, 10% were substantiated and 21% were false (Bala and Schuman 1999). A 1999 Canadian study found that 23% of sexual and physical abuse allegations were likely to be intentionally false (Bala and Schuman 1999). In a 2003 Australian study, 11% of allegations were found to be false (Brown 2003). While mothers made allegations twice as often as fathers, these were four times as likely to be substantiated, and fathers and mothers were equally likely to have made false allegations. Finally, in Johnston et al.’s US study above, 26% of allegations of fathers’ child abuse and 46% of allegations of mothers’ child abuse were substantiated, in the only one of the five studies here to find a lower rate of substantiated allegations (but not necessarily false accusations) against fathers.
The widely held misconception that false allegations of violence and abuse are a common occurrence has direct and harmful consequences. It contributes to the enormous problem of underreporting by victims of rape and abuse, informs negative responses to victims who do report (whether by family and friends or personnel in legal and other systems), and excuses perpetrators. False allegations of violence and abuse are far less common than false denials of their perpetration (Jaffe et al. 2009). Despite the research evidence, a culture of scepticism persists in which the words of women are met with disbelief and denial (Kelly 2010). While there is evidence that there is entrenched resistance in some occupational cultures within the criminal justice system to accepting the reality that false allegations are rare (Kelly 2010), there is also evidence that it is possible through intensive training to lessen professionals’ victim-blaming and negative attitudes towards violence against women (Darwinkel et al. 2013).
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