What percentage of rape reports are false?
This may seem like a straightforward question, but in fact determining the percentage of false rape reports is complex. In the Online Training Institute (OLTI) module, False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issues to Successfully Investigate Sexual Assault, it is clearly stated that a report of sexual assault can only be determined to be false based on the evidence from a thorough investigation:
The determination that a sexual assault report is false can only be made if the evidence establishes that no crime was completed or attempted. This evidence will only be available after a thorough investigation, not after only a preliminary investigation or initial interview with the victim.
When methodologically rigorous research is conducted based on this definition, estimates for the percentage of false reports converge around 2-8%.
- For example, Dr. David Lisak and colleagues analyzed sexual assaults reported to a major Northeastern university over a 10-year period to determine the rate of false reporting. Of the 136 reports taken during that period of time, 8 reports, or 5.9% were found to be false (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010).
- In a study of sexual assault cases reported to the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008, researchers found that rate of false reports was 4.5% (Spohn, White, & Tellis, 2014).
- In a multi-site study of 8 US communities involved in the “Making a Difference” (MAD) Project conducted by EVAWI, data were collected by law enforcement agencies for all sexual assault reports received in an 18-24 month period. Of the 2,059 cases that were included in the study, 140 (7%) were classified as false.
- Statistics even appear to converge internationally. In an analysis of 2,643 sexual assault cases reported to British police, 8% were classified by the police department as false reports. Yet when researchers applied the official criteria for establishing a false allegation, this figure dropped to 2%. These criteria specified that there must be either “a clear and credible admission by the complainant” or “strong evidential grounds” (Kelly, Lovett, & Regan, 2005).
In reality, no one knows – and in fact no one can possibly know – exactly how many sexual assault reports are false. However, estimates narrow to the range of 2-8% when they are based on rigorous research of case classifications using specific criteria and incorporating various protections of the reliability and validity of the research.
Kelly, L., Lovett, J., & Regan, L. (2005). A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in Reported Rape Cases. Home Office Research Study 293. Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.
Lisak, D., Gardinier, Nicksa, S.C., & Cote, A.M. (2010). False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women, 16 (12), 1318-1334.
Spohn, C., White, C., & Tellis, K. (2014). Unfounding Sexual Assault: Examining the Decision to Unfound and Identifying False Reports. Law & Society Review, 48 (1), 161-192.
Is it ever appropriate to prosecute someone for filing a false report of sexual assault?
Far too often, victims summon the courage to report their sexual assault, only to be disbelieved, mistreated, and later charged with false reporting or associated crimes such as obstruction of justice, interfering with law enforcement, or providing false statements. These victims are placed in a heartbreaking double bind. The only way to have their sexual assault investigated is to engage with the criminal justice process and provide investigators information and evidence – including information about their own behavior that may be embarrassing or even illegal. All too often, these factors lead investigators to begin doubting the victim’s credibility, and the legitimacy of the report.
Even when victims feel increasingly uncomfortable, they will often continue to participate in the interview, and investigators will continue to collect information as if they are still investigating the sexual assault. Yet unbeknownst to victims, the investigator may have begun investigating them for a criminal offense. In other words, the victim is now a suspect, but they are not aware of this, and not typically advised of their Miranda rights or other constitutional protections.
EVAWI examines these difficult issues in a training bulletin entitled, Raped Then Jailed: The Risks of Prosecution for Falsely Reporting Sexual Assault. The document also addresses the question of whether it is ever appropriate to prosecute someone for falsely reporting sexual assault, and how to weigh the public interest and risks involved. EVAWI also offers a webinar on the topic with the same name: Raped, Then Jailed.