What kind of person makes false rape accusations?

Our ideas about false accusers have little to do with reality.
Our ideas about false accusers have little to do with reality.
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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False rape accusations loom large in the cultural imagination. We don’t forget the big ones: The widely-read 2014 Rolling Stone article, later retracted, about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia; the 2006 accusations against innocent members of the Duke University lacrosse team. These cases are readily cited by defense attorneys and Republican lawmakers and anyone else who wants a reason to discuss the dangers of false allegations. What if a woman has consensual sex, and then regrets it the next day? What if a woman gets dumped by her boyfriend and decides to accuse him of rape as revenge? What if she’s just doing it for attention? Are false accusations reaching epidemic levels in today’s hard-drinking hookup culture, where the lines of consent have been blurred? Critics argue that reports of rape should be treated with more caution, since men’s lives are so often ruined by women’s malicious lies.

But my research—including academic studies, journalistic accounts, and cases recorded in the US National Registry of Exonerations—suggests that every part of this narrative is wrong. What’s more, it’s wrong in ways that help real rapists escape justice, while perversely making it more likely that we will miss the signs of false reports.

Innocent men rarely face rape charges

Let’s start with the idea that false rape accusations ruin lives, and are therefore a universal risk to men. Generally, feminists dismiss this idea by arguing that false accusations are rare—only between 2% and 10% of all reports are estimated to be false. What’s equally important to know, however, is that false rape accusations almost never have serious consequences.

This may be hard to believe, especially considering that rape is a felony, punishable with years of prison. However—to start with this worst-case scenario—it’s exceedingly rare for a false rape allegation to end in prison time. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since records began in 1989, in the US there are only 52 cases where men convicted of sexual assault were exonerated because it turned out they were falsely accused. By way of comparison, in the same period, there are 790 cases in which people were exonerated for murder.

Furthermore, in the most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports to police, undertaken for the British Home Office in the early 2000s, out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false. (Here, as elsewhere, it has to be assumed that some unknown percentage of the cases classified as false actually involved real rapes; what they don’t involve is countless innocent men’s lives being ruined.)

So the evidence suggests that even in the rare case where a man is the subject of a false rape complaint, chances are that the charges will be dropped without him ever learning about the allegations. This raises an obvious question: Why would false accusers go through the trouble of making a report to police, only to instantly withdraw it?

The reasons for false reports

In every academic study, one of the most common kinds of false accuser is a teenage girl who tells her parents she was raped to avoid getting in trouble. Unwanted pregnancy is sometimes cited by such girls, but the reason can also be trivial; the phrase “missed curfew” shows up with disturbing frequency in these cases. As a rule, it’s the parents who insist on getting police involved. Two different studies have found that almost half of all false rape complaints are lodged by someone other than the alleged victim, usually a parent.

Another kind of case which evaporates rapidly is that of a person who falsely reports a rape in the hope of getting needed medical care or psychiatric medication; in one study, six of the 55 reports classified as false by a police department in one year fit this description. Like the teens who missed their curfew, these false accusers have no interest in pursuing charges after the lie has served its purpose.

Portrait of a false accuser

Some false accusers do press charges, however, and this brings us to an unpalatable point. Because real rape victims are often mistaken for false accusers, it can be uncomfortable to insinuate anything negative about either group. But these two groups are not at all alike. In fact, rape victims aren’t even a group; they have no unifying traits. They can be young or old, black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rich or poor—anyone at all. Even a 65-year-old man can be a victim of rape.

When one looks at a series of fabricated sexual assaults, on the other hand, patterns immediately begin to emerge. The most striking of these is that, almost invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud. Indeed, they’re often criminals whose family and friends are also criminals; broken people trapped in chaotic lives.

Crystal Mangum, the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case, was the archetypal false accuser. She had previously reported another brutal rape/kidnapping in which no one was ever charged. She had a previous felony conviction, and she ultimately went to prison for an unrelated crime (in her case, murdering her boyfriend). She had trouble keeping her stripping job because the combination of drugs she was on—including both anti-depressants and methadone—made her keep falling asleep at work. Tragically, she seems to have genuinely suffered sexual abuse as a child—another feature that often appears in adult false accusers.

Four motivations

But while false accusers often have similar histories, they have various motives. These can be divided into roughly four categories: personal gain, mental illness, revenge, and the need for an alibi.

Accusers motivated by personal gain are generally the same people who slip on the courthouse steps and sue the city. Sometimes their modus operandi is to claim to be raped on government property; sometimes it’s to claim to have been raped by a government employee. In either case, the resulting suit against the government will typically only be one in a series of fraudulent claims. One such false accuser turned out to have previously filed seven bodily injury insurance claims, including three identical claims against restaurants in which she claimed to have broken a tooth on a rock in her food. Occasionally, however, the gain is not financial, as in the case of a woman who lied about rape because she thought it might help her stay out of prison on a drug charge; or the man, already in prison, who was hoping to be moved into a cell with his boyfriend.

Mentally ill false accusers can be people with severe psychosis who genuinely believe they’ve been raped; one woman claimed to have been sexually assaulted every day for three years by “every gang member in the city.” More commonly, however, they have what is called a factitious disorder: a personality disorder related to (and often accompanied by) Munchausen’s syndrome, which compels them to claim they’ve been assaulted. One such accuser was Sara Ylen, who ultimately accused at least seven different men of rape; in the incident for which she was finally arrested, she appeared at a police station with her face painted in fake bruises that wiped off easily with gauze. Like many such accusers, Ylen also falsely claimed to have a terminal illness, and spent two years in hospice care for cancer, although no doctor had ever diagnosed her with the disease.

These accusers often compulsively change their stories, adding dramatic details without regard either for the account they originally gave or the physical evidence. (Note that more common mental health problems like anxiety, depression, or non-psychotic bipolar disorder are not associated with false rape accusations.)

Revenge is another common catalyst—either as a single motive, or as the reason a particular victim was chosen. Contrary to popular belief, however, relatively few such accusers are seeking revenge for getting dumped or rejected by former lovers. For instance, none of the 52 cases of documented wrongful conviction in the US feature women scorned—although there is one “man scorned”, a remarkably persuasive character who managed to convince his girlfriend to accuse a male roommate who’d rejected his sexual advances.

Other revenge cases include a woman trading sex for drugs who was disappointed in the quantity of drugs; a man who beat his wheelchair-bound girlfriend until she agreed to accuse a man of whom he was jealous; an 18-year-old boy living with an older man who threw the boy out after an argument about the man’s reneging on a promise to buy the boy a car in return for sex; and a woman who accused a man she thought had stolen her husband’s truck while the husband was in prison. There’s also the remarkable case of a woman who accused her gastroenterologist of performing oral sex on her after a colonoscopy, because she was angry at his refusal to act as an expert witness for her in a lawsuit. She then, of course, sued the gastroenterologist too.

Accusers who fabricate rapes as an alibi are mostly the already mentioned teens in trouble with parents, although some are adults, who are typically trying to cover up an infidelity. These are the only accusers who can sometimes seem ordinary, even sympathetic—like the 14-year-old girl with cognitive deficits whose mother found her in a compromising position with a boy, and who took four months to work up the courage to admit the sex was consensual. When charges are brought in these cases, the driving force is often a third party who believes the lie and naturally wants to see the perpetrator punished—and sometimes also to cash in with a lawsuit.

What we know

A final note about who makes false accusations: While popular conceptions of this issue center on female mendacity, clearly many of these stories involve male accusers. Given the fact that men, too, can crave revenge and have personality disorders, this should be obvious. If it’s counter-intuitive, it’s because the issue has consistently been framed as one of gender warfare. But the truth is that false rape accusations aren’t salvos in any political struggle. They’re crimes, mostly perpetrated by the same men and women who commit other categories of crime, and for similar reasons.

Neither are false accusations the result of miscommunications taking place in a murky world of casual hook-ups and heavy drinking. False accusers almost never tell stories that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as an innocent misunderstanding. In a study of false rape claims made to the Los Angeles Police Department, 78% involved claims of aggravated rape—assaults involving a gun or knife, gang rapes, and/or attacks resulting in injuries.

Most of all, it should be remembered that a false accuser is a person making up a story to serve some goal. Whether the impetus is personal gain, factitious disorder, the need for an alibi, or revenge, it’s crucial to the accuser that their story be taken seriously. For this reason, it’s radically unlikely—and in practice does not happen—that a false accuser would invent a story where the issue of consent could seem ambiguous.

It’s necessary to add an important caveat: The same kinds of people who are most likely to become false accusers are also frequently targeted by predators. Teenagers, people with severe mental illness, people with criminal records—all are vulnerable to rapists, who often have a very keen sense of which victims are most likely to be mistrusted by authorities. Although the accounts of these complainants need careful scrutiny, police should take them more seriously, not less seriously, than they currently do. The lesson to be drawn here is not that any individual’s story of sexual assault should be discounted; it’s that the vast majority of rape reports can be believed.

When a woman says she’s been brutally raped by seven men at a public party on a bed of broken glass, as the UVA accuser did, and when that woman has a history of strange lies, as the UVA accuser also did, there’s nothing wrong with being skeptical. But if a woman without any history of dramatic falsehoods says she went home with a man and, after they’d kissed a while consensually, he held her down and forced her into sex—in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, you can just assume it’s true. This is not because of any political dictum like “Believe women.” It’s because this story looks exactly like tens of thousands of date rapes that happen every year, and nothing at all like a false rape accusation.