That ‘Only 2 to 8 Percent of Rape Accusations Are False’ Stat Is Extremely Misleading

by Jason Richwine

The independent review of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” debacle contains an authoritative-sounding claim about the rarity of false rape accusations:

[Sabrina Rubin] Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely’s sources. [emphasis added]

The linked academic study actually concludes that false rape allegations occur at a rate of 2 to 10 percent, but leave aside the typo. Readers could easily interpret the above paragraph to mean that when a woman files a complaint about sexual assault, then an assault did in fact occur over 90 percent of the time. That interpretation is wrong.

A “false” rape allegation is provably false – meaning, for example, that the accused has a bulletproof alibi or the accuser eventually recants. In many of the cases examined by the authors of the study, there was simply not enough evidence to bring charges. A rape might have occurred, but it might not have. Such cases are not classified as false.

Specifically, in their analysis of sexual-assault cases at a large university, the authors found that 5.9 percent of cases were provably false. However, 44.9 percent cases “did not proceed” – meaning there was insufficient evidence, the accuser was uncooperative, or the incident did not meet the legal standard of assault. An additional 13.9 percent of cases could not be categorized due to lack of information. That leaves 35.3 percent of cases that led to formal charges or discipline against the accused. So there is obviously a lot of uncertainty here, a lot of he-said/she-said when allegations are filed. It would be a mistake to conclude, on the basis of the existing evidence, that nine out of ten assault claims are genuine.

I have a strong aversion to misleading statistics, especially when they are used as arguments from authority to shut down debate. (See my piece from last week, “The Amnesty Numbers Game.”) What percentage of sexual-assault claims involve actual criminal incidents? I have no idea, and I doubt that anyone really does. When it comes to hot-button political and cultural issues, we need to do a better job of admitting what we don’t know.

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