A central tenet of advocates seeking greater accountability for sexual assault is that the complainant is virtually always the one telling the truth. As a 2014 White House report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” stated, “Only 2–10 percent of reported rapes are false.” Campus materials aimed at students make similar assertions.
But as Michelle J. Anderson, the president of Brooklyn College and a scholar of rape law, acknowledged in a 2004 paper in the Boston University Law Review, “There is no good empirical data on false rape complaints either historically or currently.” The data have not improved since that time. In a 2015 working paper, Lieutenant Colonel Reggie Yager, a U.S. Air Force judge advocate who has defended men accused of sexual assault, took a comprehensive look at the research on the incidence of false rape reports, and concluded that the studies confirming the overwhelming veracity of accusers are methodologically unsound.
For instance, consider Yager’s analysis of a 2010 study titled “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” The study is one of the few to examine false reports with specific reference to campus allegations, and is frequently cited by government officials and activists. David Lisak, a former associate professor of psychology at UMass Boston and a prominent consultant on campus sexual assault, is the lead author; when he and his co-authors reviewed the reports of sexual assault at one northeastern university to determine what percentage were false, they concluded that the figure was not quite 6 percent. “Over 90 percent of reports of rape are not fabrications. They’re not false allegations,” he said in a videotaped interview describing the research.
Yager writes, however, that about 45 percent of the cases Lisak reviewed did not proceed, because there was insufficient evidence, or the complainant withdrew from the process or couldn’t identify the perpetrator, or the allegation did not rise to the level of a sexual assault. In other words, no one could possibly determine whether these claims were true or false.
“Policy is being driven,” Yager wrote in his analysis, by the idea “that false allegations are exceedingly rare.” But we simply don’t know how rare they are. What’s more, no legal or moral system purporting to be just can make presumptions about individual cases based on statistics. For many years, feminist activists have said that the legal system and culture tend to prejudge assault claims, with an inclination toward believing men over women, accused over accuser. They have rightly pointed out the deep injustice of that bias. But it is also unjust to be biased against the accused.
A troubling paradox within the activist community, and increasingly among administrators, is the belief that while women who make a complaint should be given the strong benefit of the doubt, women who deny they were assaulted should not necessarily be believed. The rules at many schools, created in response to federal directives, require employees (except those covered by confidentiality protections, such as health-care providers) to report to the Title IX office any instance of possible sexual assault or harassment of which they become aware. One result is that offhand remarks, rumors, and the inferences drawn by observers of ambiguous interactions can trigger investigations; sometimes these are not halted even when the alleged victim denies that an assault occurred.