Monday, April 14, 2014

Are false rape allegations rare or rampant?

When it comes to statistics about rape, there is one very popular dogma among those concerned about justice in our legal system.

It is the idea that false allegations of rape are either rare or rampant. Since "rare" seems to be winning, let's start there as a baseline.

The idea shows up in numerous places, on Twitter:

And in numerous articles:

In the period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were 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.

Even BuzzFeed has picked up on it. (Belated trigger warning: it's BuzzFeed...)

Despite one of their own doing a decent job of speaking to these statistics, he narrative is popular on FreeThoughtBlogs as well. Zvan has written several posts on the subject.

And the idea is most recently cited by "A Million Gods":

False rape allegations are relatively rare. In the UK the Crown Prosecution Service between 2011 to 2012 prosecuted around 5400 rapes and 35 false accusations.

Even Jason T, a man falsely accused of rape, keeps a "6%" number in his pocket when the issue of false allegations comes up:

it’s more grievously harmful to name the person on the off chance that they fall into the ~6% of false rape claims than it is to screw up that person’s chances at harassing or raping even more people.

And of course, the godfather, PZ Myers, also likes to drop the same statistics:
Isn’t it fascinating how many men are absolutely certain that most rape accusations are completely false, that it’s just wicked women conspiring to bring men down? Yet when you look at the numbers, you know that data that skeptics are supposed to care about, the frequency of false rape accusations is low, about 6-8%.
Let's get something straight very quickly.

All rape statistics are bad. Always.

It makes no sense whatsoever to look at these numbers and make a determination about how likely people are to lie about rape. 

Let's investigate some facts that inform what we think about "false allegations".

1. Rape is underreported

Estimates of underreporting vary. It's difficult to measure what people do not want you to measure. However it seems like an educated assumption is that there is some number of victims that have enough evidence to bring a conviction in court that simply do not choose to tell anyone.

Let's say we see a shift in circumstances and some number of these people do come forward. What does this do with the "false allegation" rates that are always cited? 

They drop. However if real numbers of false allegations did not drop, the true risk of being a victim of a false allegation would have not changed. Funny how that works.

2. "Guilty" is not always guilty

Any view of reality that relies on the criminal justice system not making mistakes is just broken. 

The truth is that a conviction does not always mean that a crime occurred nor does it always mean the person in jail is actually guilty of said crime.

This is particularly evident in the United States which makes a habit of executing a lot of people and then wondering if several of the judgments were actually based on reliable and complete information.

3. Measures of false reports do not encompass all false reports

Let's say a charge of sexual assault fails to arrive at a conviction. Does this mean the accusation was false? No.

Imagine for a moment that someone accused O.J. Simpson of a crime. If it happens that Simpson is found not guilty, does the criminal justice system then prosecutes the accusers for bearing false witness?

The following scenarios are possible:
  • The victim of the crime is telling the truth and the perpetrator is convicted
  • The victim of the crime is telling the truth and the perpetrator is not convicted
  • The "victim" is lying and an innocent person is convicted
  • The "victim" is lying and an innocent person is found not guilty
  • The "victim" is lying and an innocent person is convicted. Later, "victim" charged with false report.
  • The "victim" is lying and an innocent person is found not guilty. Later, "victim" charged with false report.
Notice that there are two cases where the victim is lying but is not proven to be a liar. In criminal justice metrics, this is not counted as a "false report".

One can easily imagine that not every false accusation will invert itself as an charges targeted at the reporter. The allegations, if plausible enough, can simply remain as the victim's testimony. That is, not everyone that is lying are found to be liars as the system does not exist to prove that events did or did not happen. The system simply exists to judge the likely guilt of the accused.

4. Not all allegations are reports

Three words are generally used interchangeably:
  • Allegation
  • Accusation
  • Report
The English language in this case is painful. Statistics used generally follow reports. That is, allegations that are documented in a police report.

The trouble is that people are easily accused of a crime without the justice system as we typically understand it being involved at all.

In this age, allegations are gathered not only by police, but also by:
  • Schools
  • Employers
  • Bloggers
  • Social networks
For those keeping track, the Atheism+/FreeThoughtBlogs cabal of ne'er-do-wells have themselves been party to allegations against of sexual assault leveled against several people. 

Some names that come to mind:
  • Michael (Anonymous victim, no corroborating witnesses accounts)
  • Ben (SciAm and Slate took down articles containing obvious factual errors, more details in question)
  • Christie (Accusations proven false)
What do these names have in common? No police reports. 

Are the allegations true or false?

It is difficult to say, however it would be very stupid to suggest that the allegations are somehow more likely to be true given that the "false report" rate is low in some Crown Prosecution Service study.

That would be akin to saying that some accusation of murder made on Twitter is plausible because the NYPD does not actually prosecute many people for filing false murder claims. It's just completely different data.

Let's move away for a moment from the world of primarily online allegations. There is more to the world than blogs.

An illustrative example of where allegations are often handled is perhaps an incident at Sarah Lawrence college.

The allegation made to both police and the school was that a young black man had raped a young white lesbian woman. The woman did report the incident to all relevant authorities in a timely manner and evidence was gathered.

The suspect was arrested, but later released as there was said to be inconsistencies in the accounts meant there was not enough evidence to prosecute. One could assume that this does not qualify as a "false report" at this stage as far as crime statistics are concerned.

The story becomes stranger as even though the police have decided to not move further with the case, the pair are put in front of a tribunal at the college. The administration assures students that the campus is a safe space. Unsatisfied with the messaging and the speed of justice, the accuser writes an "Open Letter to Dean Green". A poem includes phrases "tying nooses", "hanging your boys up" and "legs stop twitching".

When both the suspect and the Dean are black, these are not the right words to choose.

The resolution of this incident is not key to what one needs to witness - the justice system that received the most focus was the one at the college level.

Colleges, employers and similar organizations are able to do several things:
  1. Keep more secrets than the justice system
  2. Make decisions without knowing all details
  3. Use punishments that are injurious - but so injurious as to be extremely cruel if misapplied
  4. Move very quickly - the goal of the institution is largely to save face
  5. Place the "secrecy problem" on the accused - challenging punishment would make allegations more public
Given these factors, it's easy to imagine a lot of instances of sexual misconduct being entirely handled outside the justice system. As institutions grow in power, this option becomes more attractive.

Even allegations of serious sexual assault could avoid referrals to the police if there is the willingness to institute policies concerning conduct that are more sensitive than the law of the land. The only thing that the investigators would perhaps really need to hear was an admission that unwanted communication of a sexual nature happened.

5. Eight percent is not "low"

Assume for a moment that the other problems with the data do not exist and allow us to run with the numbers cited by PZ Myers and Jason.

The authorities of the land stand at the podium and state:

"We've crunched the numbers and it turns out that 6-8% of rape allegations are demonstrably false. Not insufficient evidence, not of questionable guilt, not failure to reach a conviction -- simply false. In these cases, the most heinous crime committed was the filing of the report."
A citizen concerned with rights, identifying as feminist or not, would be outraged at this discovery.

Are police coercing victims to recant their stories? Which gender is more likely to file a false report? Is the justice system operating a victim-blaming boys club or are they laughing in the face of men that claim to be raped by women?

Instead of the number coming up as a frightening statistic, it is most often provided as a number somehow "proving" that the "men's rights activists" are exaggerating how pervasive false rape allegations are.

It is true that one can find in the expanse of the internet some people that believe that nearly every charge of rape is completely bogus. Presumably these people think that a lot of people in jail are innocent. It is difficult to have a conversation with these people.

Occasionally a light shines on the data as the social justice crowd realizes that the false report metric could be due to coercion by the authorities.

However the soundbite arrived on by the social justice warriors is not quite:
"It's difficult to arrive at conclusions based on rape statistics. Underreporting is rife, the authorities may be fudging data. Something must be done!"
Instead it more closely follows:

"What if that all 'false reports' are due to the authorities coercing victims into retracting their stories? That would mean feminism's critics are even more wrong!"

Somewhere along the line we've lost our minds.

Compromised numbers, compromised behavior

The numbers on rape. They're bogus. That's something that is clear.

Let's now examine the stereotypes, behaviors and fears that people that actually put credence in the numbers actually harbor.

It turns out PZ Myers himself was the victim of a false rape accusation:

Wait…she listened, & all she took from it was 1 or 2 sentences which she then misinterprets to mean I’m forever denying the possibility that a woman might make a false accusation? Nonsense. I’ve been threatened with a false rape accusation, one that could have totally destroyed my career.
I took it very seriously and moved quickly to provide evidence that it was false.
But of course we have to accept the personal testimony of women’s experiences. In that case, it would have been totally injust to simply say, “oh, she’s a woman, therefore she’s lying”. Most rape accusations are not false, so a priori dismissals are inappropriate, and if that woman had gone to the authorities (she didn’t, because I immediately brought in witnesses to make her effort futile) I would sure as hell hope they’d treat both of our positions with equal seriousness.

The interesting thing here is that we have two men, Jason and PZ, both apparently falsely accused of rape while simultaneously reminding everyone that this almost never happens. The conclusion is based on bad data, and even if the data was good eight percent would be a travesty -- so how exactly this is is reconciled with their existence is a mystery.

Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?

This mentality has followed Myers for quite some time, as he shares in 2010:

I won’t meet privately with students either — I always keep my office door wide open, and when I’m working with students in the lab, I find excuses to move out and let them work on their own if it turns into a one-on-one event. I just can’t afford the risk.
I was also subject to accusations of harassment, once upon a time. A female student came into my lab when I was alone, unhappy about an exam grade, and openly threatened me — by going public with a story about a completely nonexistent sexual encounter right there.
Zoom, I was right out the door at that instant; asked a female grad student in the lab next door to sit with the student for a bit, and went straight to the chair of the department to explain the situation. I had to work fast, because I knew that if it turned into a he-said-she-said story, it wouldn’t matter that she was lying, it could get dragged out into an investigation that would easily destroy my career, no matter that I was innocent.
I was in a total panic, knowing full well how damaging that kind of accusation can be. Fortunately, I’d done the right thing by blowing it all wide open at the first hint of a threat, and getting witnesses on the spot.

And he has gone as far as to document his approach to an accusation:

How I responded to that instance is just part of a protocol for how people should work together. Here’s what I do:
  • I don’t harass women, or anyone for that matter.
  • I maintain complete transparency. Not only do I not harass women, but any accusation that I do founders on the implausibility of the circumstance.
  • I deal with any potential situation by defusing it immediately. Not arguing, not protesting my innocence, not begging the person to refrain from hurting my reputation, but going straight to departmental authorities and explaining the situation. Again, transparency: the slander isn’t going to stick.
  • I bring in witnesses, preferably women too, who can testify to my innocence. And I don’t just mean people who will say I’m a nice guy, but witnesses to the incident who can describe all the details of the event.
  • I keep myself protected against false claims, which also means that I’m keeping my students protected from any harm. We all work just fine together, with nothing to hide.
  • I don’t sexually harass my students or colleagues. Period.
Not only is my reputation spotless, and honestly so, but there’s no way to even realistically bring such a charge against me. And of course the great majority of my interactions with students bear no risk of any such problems — we can trust each other. But then, there are always people like those slimy ones, that minority of nasty untrustworthy liars commenting on Radford’s thread, who are happy to distort and make false accusations, and I deal with them in the same way that I did that earlier incident: with transparency and honesty and frank admission of what actually happened. I don’t deny that such unpleasant people exist, especially when so many of them are already populating that thread and the existence of contemptible liars is so apparent. But when one has no interest in harassing people, it turns out to be relatively easy to maintain one’s integrity — I don’t have years of stalkerish behavior and complaints and administrative disciplinary actions to make excuses for, unlike some people.

Myers maintains his viewpoint is somehow consistent. 

Myers goes to great lengths to create a world wherein the allegation made against him was out of the blue - Myers is well liked by his female coworkers, and Myers does not have a documented history of harassment. The assumption here is that Myers has data that the rest of us do not, that would show us his attributes are more saintly than others that have faced charges of rape. 

Presumably we're to believe Myers over his accusers, as Myers has a binders full of women that would come to his defense. Also, PZ Myers also pays his taxes on time. 

It makes one wonder if Myers' politics is simply a ploy to immunize himself from false rape allegations.

In the same thread, Myers admits the accuser did not face any sort of penalty:

It is the only time that has happened in 25 years of teaching. And it didn’t go far at all: ten minutes of worry, and then the student recanted and apologized.
She wasn’t punished, except for the fact that she did fail the course…but that was going to happen anyway.

Funny that Myers' accuser is not tracked within the percentages that Myers loves to cite.

But it gets even stranger - as Myers also mistrusts women at conferences:

Except…I was really surprised the first time a woman at a conference offered me her hotel key. I know I’m not personally attractive or otherwise appealing in any physical way, and it was simply that eroticism of intellectual stimulation, as you mentioned, and the impulse to indulge in a fleeting crush. You know speakers get a little edge from that position when I’m getting sexual opportunities!
It felt like cheating, didn’t actually represent my ideal (all of my physical relationships have also been serious emotional relationships), and just generally seemed like something we might all regret when the first brief flush of enthusiasm wore off. So I’ve always gently turned down those offers.
I don’t want to give the impression that I turn them down, so everybody else ought to, too. I’m really just saying that there’s some weird primate psychology going on, and we ought to be wary of it.
As for numbers, it doesn’t happen at every conference, it’s probably happened to me 8? 10? times? Thereabouts. A couple of times a year.
I suspect it’s much more common for younger, handsomer speakers who aren’t geeky bearded weirdos. And I would imagine most of them would also turn down the offers, but I don’t know — maybe I’m a horrible weirdo in another way too.

Why is what PZ Myers has to say on this subject important?

Is PZ Myers an awful person for saying these things?

No, PZ Myers is not an awful person. 

This is important because PZ Myers is simply average. Normal. Much of what Myers says is simply taken for granted in academic and professional environments. 

Where the hypocrisy arises is that PZ Myers also represents a very specific type of social justice warrior. 

People like Myers are a large part of why rape cases that show up in the media very quickly turn into battles within groups online. 

On one side, there are those peddling the "believe survivors" and "rape culture" slogans, that ultimately believe that it's insulting victims to show anything but overwhelming sympathy and trust. This is the gang most excited about false rape allegations being deemed "rare"

On the other side, there are those that would go as far as to view every accusation with the assumption that the "victim" is using the legal system for money or revenge. This is the gang most excited about false rape allegations being deemed "rampant".

The issue becomes especially troublesome when social justice warriors like PZ Myers are themselves are primary sources of sexual assault allegations. An anonymous email goes to an energetic social justice warrior and immediately it appears on a blog or Tumblr post. This is seen largely as an effort to "give a voice to the victims". The overall effort is to purge evildoers without a conscience from their respective communities.

Perhaps it a coping mechanism - these men view themselves as unquestionably the "good guys" in the reality they've created only because they've been so viciously accused of being one of the "bad guys". The "weird primate psychology" is that these people then feel compelled to frequently prove to their peers that they are their betters. It's as if they cannot again be the accused if they are now frequently the accusers.

The Adam and Eve of social justice warrior

Let's say there are two archetypes of social justice warrior. Or, if you prefer, tropes. Also, let's just use the gender binary. Adam and Eve. Hopefully they can distill what we've seen over the past few years in this various "progressive" movements in support of "intersectionality".

First, Eve. Eve is the typical well-educated, well-intentioned woman that rightly believes that there is a lot of work left to do when it comes to gender equality. 

Eve talks big about "feminism" as an all-encompassing social project. Viewing the growing "men's rights" movement as obvious adversaries to feminism's goals, Eve will go as far as to say that "feminism" will do more to solve racism than its critics.

The problems occur when Eve loses a handle on where we're going in regards to objectification. Or porn. Or physical assault. Or Islam. And things get particularly uncomfortable when Eve's own stated politics collide with her risk assessments.

More relevant to this post is the subject of Adam.

Adam, in this case, may be an individual like PZ Myers.

Adam is well-educated and looking to make an impact. He is keenly aware that men have an easier time of landing high paying careers. He is also cognizant of the fact that a lot of violent crime is committed by men. Despite many advances, he still understands the many ways that women have it rough in modern society.

On his platform, Adam is ready and willing to be a terrific ally for "feminism". Adam understands that key to empowerment is being heard, and works to bring many women's voices to the table. Adam also knows that if women are going to be a part of the future, they will need representation in the science and technology fields that will dominate in the coming years.

The problem is that Adam also exists in the real world.

Pulled aside from gender politics, placed in an environment with only beer and other males, Adam describes his own approach to keeping the cushy job the patriarchy gifted him with.

Here the real grenade is thrown down. Here it is openly admitted that women are entirely capable of being selfish, amoral, mentally unstable, prone to regret and not in control of their sexual desires.

It is soon clear that Adam's behavior is such that he must believe that his family stands more risk to be injured by rumor than physical assault.

Adam slowly outlines his strategy to staying alive within our "gender equitable" workplaces. Build credibility with several women that one is disinterested in. Establish an identity within the brand of feminism that feels most frequently violated. Minimize the number of closed door meetings with women - "the broads" will talk and you don't want to be hear gossip or be gossip. Finally, deflect attention towards men that are already in the process of being blackballed.

It's like blending in as a "true American" while secretly reading a lot of Marx.

The offspring of this Adam and Eve duo is ill-concealed fear. The stereotypical case in the modern political arena might be the bandwagon activists that talk big about how prison sentences are not the same as rehabilitation yet do not wish to live anywhere near ex-cons. NIMBY.

Paint by numbers

The moral of the story again, of course, is that all rape statistics are bad

Just stop citing these figures in attempts to either elevate or destroy someone's story. What is the point? Instead, view the data for what it is - only a piece of the puzzle. Each allegation of serious crime needs to be viewed on its own merits instead of being prejudged by questionable data.

Finally, let's ignore the social justice dudebros that like to feign concern about rape culture while citing this bad data and claiming they are one of the scarce unicorns with a real story of a false allegation.

As you know, it does not matter how they dress it up, their behavior is still based on man's baser assumption that they have been unable to shake:

"Bitches be crazy".

If they believed otherwise, they'd behave otherwise.


  1. "there are those that would go as far as to view every accusation with the assumption that the "victim" is using the legal system for money or revenge"

    Just out of curiosity, do you possess a single example of such a person? Preferably not a borderline incoherent YouTube comment or a failed Twitter joke from an obvious drunk, but a person whose actual considered, in-the-light-of-day opinion is that basically all rape accusations are false.

    1. You ask for a single example, and then tacitly admit that many examples exist. How is it that you're so able to discern the difference between "in-the-light-of-day" opinions from jokes and people who are obviously drunk? Do they slur as they write? Can you smell their breath across the internet? The fact that you exempt them means that you admit that they exist.

  2. This is probably the best written and most well-reasoned treatment of Myers' and FTB actions that I've read since this whole sordid fiasco began. When I waded into the muck of this debate last summer, it became clear quite fast that the only thing that rape statistics are good for is to demonstrate how shaky rape statistics are.

    I go one step further, though. I believe that rape statistics can vary over time and geographical area. There may be regions where false rape allegations are extremely high and only for a period of months or years. I hesitate to speculate on the socio-cultural background of such phenomena, but the extremely wide variation in statistics available show that it is an argument not without its merits.

    I also like that you point out that 8% is not low. Hell, given the penchant for assuming guilt simply because a person has been accused, even 1% would be unforgivable. I think that you missed out, however, by not discussing the fact that there are times when an allegation is obviously false and with evidence that could lead to prosecution, but that the decision makers choose not to prosecute for various reasons. We hear so much about unprosecuted rape stats, but never once have I heard about unprosecuted false accusation stats. I'd love to see statistics on that, but they'd probably be just as flawed as those other rape stats, so we'd end up chasing our tails in the end.

  3. The rate of prosecutions for false accusations isn't relevant.

    Women are typically not prosecuted for it, and the police typically won't be able to know if an accusation is false or not.

  4. ---"Bitches be crazy".
    ---If they believed otherwise, they'd behave otherwise.

    I do not agree here, one can be paranoid about being socially slandered and falsely accused without thinking women are prone to insanity. Merely that all humanity is prone to immorality and that women have more opportunity to harness society to enforce their immoral choices.

  5. This website is gay. I am going to find out who administrates this site and rape them.

  6. I thought you were serious until you cited Jukes. You omit cases such as Elizabeth Jones of Hampshire (11 proven false allegations.) Statistics? A low of 12% and a high of 33% are what one needs to acknowledge.

    1. I didn't "cite" Jukes. If I made any statements that endorsed the quality of any statistics, then I would retract them right now. This is especially confusing as we are speaking to stats in two countries (I'm guessing Hampshire is the UK?)

  7. Your blog is really attention-grabbing for me; I will definitely bookmark your website. Thanks
    False Rape Accusations - Rolling Stone Magazine