Understanding False Accusation Statistics

172 points99 commentssubmitted by genobeam to r/MensRights

This post is a response to the claim that “2-10% of rape accusations are false”. This statistic is among the most misused and misunderstood statistics in the gender politics world. Given the prevalence of this number in false accusation conversations, it's important to understand where it comes from and what exactly it means (and doesn't mean).

What is a False Accusation?

Most of the confusion stems from a misuse of the term “false accusation”. In common parlance the term is used to refer to any accusation that is fabricated. In this sense accusations exist in a binary where accusations are either fabricated or not fabricated, that is to say: false accusations or true accusations. “2-10% of rape accusations are false” by this definition incorrectly implies that 90-98% of accusations are true.

However, when studies are sited stating “X% of accusations are false”, generally a different definition is used. The most commonly used definition comes from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and is defined as follows:

"The determination that a report of sexual assault is false can be made only if the evidence establishes that no crime was committed or attempted. This determination can be made only after a thorough investigation. This should not be confused with an investigation that fails to prove a sexual assault occurred. In that case the investigation would be labeled unsubstantiated. The determination that a report is false must be supported by evidence that the assault did not happen. (IACP, 2005b, pp. 12-13;)"

There is an important distinction here: Only those accusations that have undergone a thorough investigation and been determined to have not occurred are included in this definition. It is by this definition that the “2-10%” claim arises (although even within these numbers there are varying definitions, more on that later).

The other 90-98% of cases are either “baseless” (an indecent, while truthfully recounted, does not meet, in the eyes of investigators, the legal definition of a crime), “unsubstantiated” (insufficient evidence to determine whether or not a crime occurred), “open” (investigation ongoing or perpetrator not arrested) or “cleared” (an arrest was made and charges were levied). 34.5% of rape cases were cleared in 2017, which means the other 65% of cases were either open, baseless, false, or unsubstantiated.

Even if a case is cleared, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the accusation is true. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), only about 12% of arrests lead to convictions. All-in-all about 5% of accusations lead to convictions. Certainly some guilty of rape go free due to lack of evidence, crimes going unreported, and a multitude of other factors. However, claiming that only 2-10% of accusations are fabricated due to the "false accusation" rate, is just as misleading as claiming 5-35% of accusations are true based on the conviction/clearance rate.

It should also be mentioned that a conviction does not necessarily mean that the accusation was true. The Innocence Project has exonorated 288 people convicted of sex crimes since 1992. Even guilty pleas do not necessarily prove that the accusation was true. (The accused plead guilty in 26 of the 288 sex crime exonerations by the Innocence Project). Many experts assert that inaccuracies exist within the police categorization of false accusations; similarly inaccuracies exist within convictions.

The following are examples of factors that do not automatically qualify an accusation as false (Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women, 16, 1318-1334. doi:10.1177/1077801210387747):

"Law enforcement organizations have also issued guidelines on what does not constitute a false allegation (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 1997, 2004; IACP, 2005b). Examples of factors that do not, by themselves, mean that a case is a false allegation include:

• A case in which the victim decides not to cooperate with investigators. Victims make such decisions for many reasons (Jordan, 2004; Lea et al., 2003).

• A case in which investigators decide that there is insufficient evidence to proceed toward a prosecution. Rape cases, particularly nonstranger cases, are very difficult to investigate and prosecute, and many investigations are aborted because of these difficulties and because of the perception that successful prosecution is unlikely (Clark & Lewis, 1977; Frazier & Haney, 1996; Frohmann, 1991; Spohn, Beichner, & Davis-Frenzel, 2001).

• A case in which the victim appears to make inconsistent statements, or even lies about certain aspects of the incident. Traumatized individuals tend to recall events in a fragmented fashion, which makes apparent inconsistencies likely (Halligan, Michael, Clark, & Ehlers, 2003); victims may well try to hide certain facts, for example, use of an illegal drug or a particularly humiliating act they suffered—out of fear that they will be treated with suspicion or simply because of the intense shame they experience (Jordan, 2004).

• A case in which a victim makes a delayed report of the incident or in which a victim was extremely intoxicated. Delayed reporting is extremely common in rape cases (National Victim Center and the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992), and there is evidence that intoxicated individuals are at increased risk of being targeted by sexual predators (Abbey, Zawackia, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2004; Macy, Nurius, & Norris, 2007; Ullman, 2003).

Any of the circumstances listed above can be present in a case that is ultimately determined to be a false allegation, but the presence of any of these circumstances does not by itself mean that a case can be so classified. "

This report is often sited in false rape statistics, but these factors are brushed aside. The report itself brushes these factors aside by offering up explanations of why accusers may commit behaviors such as lying to police, but ignoring that these factors could possibly be present if the accuser was fabricating the entire accusation. The report even refers to accusers as victims in each of these cases, implying that the accusation is always true, regardless of evidence to the contrary. These factors may be present in cases where the accusations are true, but they also could be present in cases where the accusation was fabricated.

Where did the 2% estimate come from?

It's worth digging into the bottom end of the 2-10% false accusation rate.

The number comes from a report which sampled 850 cases from Australia between 2000 and 2003 from "Heenan, M., & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria, 2000-2003. Melbourne, Australia: Office of Women’s Policy, Department for Victorian Communities". This report does not use the standard definition of false accusation discussed above, but defines its false accusations by only those cases in which police took action against the accuser.

" In 17 (2.1%) of cases, the case outcome was clearly categorized as a false report, and the alleged victim had either been charged or had been told that she (there were no male victims among these 17 cases) would be charged unless they desisted with the complaint. There was a much larger proportion of cases where police were confident or reasonably confident that the allegations were false, but there was no attempt to institute charges against the alleged victim." (emphasis added)

By the report's own admission the number of false reports is higher than 2.1%, yet that number still gets cited. Of the 850 cases sampled in this study, only 15% led to charges (the report does not specify how many of the charges led to convictions). 46.4% resulted in "no further police action". Combined with the complaints withdrawn, 61.5% of cases did not proceed past the report or investigation stage.

Who's side are the Police on?

One of the consequences of misinterpreting statistics about false accusations is that the police appear to be either extremely inept or downright malevolent toward accusers. This assessment of police often goes hand in hand with explanations of why the conviction rate for rape is so low. The logic usually goes like this: "only 5% of accusations lead to convictions, therefore the police failed 95% of the time.". However, this logic ignores the fact that the majority of cases simply lack sufficient evidence to lead to a conviction.

There is also evidence that police often are not impartial, but actively side with the accuser in these cases. A huge recent example of this partiality toward the accuser can be seen in the collapse of several rape cases in England and Wales, in which police withheld vital evidence from defense lawyers. The Crown Prosecution Service revealed that vital evidence was withheld in 47 cases of rape and sexual assault. More than 3,600 cases had to be examined after several rape trials collapsed due to this withholding of evidence.

Police policy in England and Wales is to automatically refer to accusers as "victims", which may undermine impartiality and lead to miscarriages of justice. Police are also instructed to believe a victim's account as a matter of policy.

Even though there are institutionalized biases towards accusers, the narrative around police tends to be that police work to protect the accused.

What about Unreported Crimes?

According to the Department of Justice's 2017 Victimization Report only 40.4% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017 compared to a reporting rate of 44.9% for all violent crime. (note that this number varies wildly from year to year. 23.2% of rapes/sexual assaults were reported to police in 2016 according to the same report). It's hard to judge this data, given that it's self-reported survey results. Certainly there are many cases of sexual assaults and rapes that are not reported to the police, but there are also false accusations that are not reported. Keep in mind that someone accused of sexual assault or rape may lose their career, their relationships, their education opportunities, and have other aspects of their lives severely damaged without the accusations ever being investigated by police. Given that unreported accusations have not been investigated, it's hard to say whether unreported sex crimes carry a similar, lower, or even higher rate of false accusations than reported cases.


  • The definition of "false accusation" used in the 2-10% statistic does not include any cases categorized as baseless accusations, unsubstantiated accusations, nor accusations where the investigation was dropped due to lack of cooperation from the accuser. Cases where the accused is arrested and found not guilty are not included, cases where the accused is arrested and the charges are dropped are not included, and cases where the accused is falsely imprisoned are also not included. Any of these categories could contain fabricated allegations
  • The rate of fabricated accusations cannot be determined simply by looking at the number of cases where the police designated the result as a "false accusation"
  • False accusations, baseless accusations, unsubstantiated accusations, cleared cases, and convictions are all imperfect determinations and can contain errors. All of these categories may contain miscategorizations or faulty determinations. Each category may contain both cases of fabricated accusations and true accusations.
  • Police in some cases have shown a bias in favor of the accuser
  • Unreported crimes are not necessarily true nor harmless to the accused
  • 2% is a faulty number to use as a minimum even for the police designated definition of false accusation


Since this post has received some traction I will add a little more background about why I posted it. Also some people have brought up the /r/MensLib post by u/lefthandedlunatic which also discusses this topic and is currently the 3rd most upvoted post in that subreddit's history. I also will directly address that post below and invite u/lefthandedlunatic to participate in this discussion.

Why is this important?

The bottom line of all the analysis above is that it's very difficult to determine how many rape and sexual assault allegations are fabricated. These crimes are serious offenses and often go unreported, so isn't any effort to increase prosecution of perpetrators a good thing?

In a perfect world all perpetrators would be punished and all innocent would go free. Unfortunately in reality there are standards that must be applied to these cases which means some number of the guilty will go free and some number of the innocent will be punished. A doctrine from 1796 states: "the law holds that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that 1 innocent suffer.”

In today's world there is a push to relax the standards of conviction. This is often achieved by misusing the "2-10%" statistic in order to argue that "If 100% of accusations are believed, only 10% of innocent men will suffer and that is an acceptable price for combating sex crimes".

This standard has been widely adopted by colleges who go outside the realm of law enforcement to punish sex related accusations. In Obama's 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, a precedent was set to lower the standard for punishing accusations based on "a preponderance of evidence" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt". "A preponderance of evidence" is a standard required in civil lawsuits and is a lesser burden of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt" which is the standard in criminal cases. Colleges often apply this standard to suspend the accused as soon as an accusation is levied against them. Colleges conduct investigations independently from local law enforcement, applying their own standards to these cases.

The statistic has also been used as a political tool. Justice Brett Kavanagh was accused of several sex crimes during his confirmation hearings, including dubious claims that don't hold up under the slightest scrutiny. Julie Swetnick changed her account of Kavanagh's actions against her several times, and Judy Munro-Leighton admitted to accusing Kavanagh as a way to grab attention. Christine Blaisey Ford's testimony was not supported by evidence other than her own testimony, including her witnesses claiming they did not remember the night in question, or ever even meeting Brett Kavanagh. Ford provided notes from her therapist as evidence, but they did not match her testimony. Many presume Ford of being truthful simply based on the "fact" that "only 2% of accusations are false". Whether she was truthful or not (and I'm not making a judgement here), this is not an appropriate way to apply that statistic.

What's wrong with the r/MensLib post about this?

u/LefthandedLunatic submitted a post titled "Fact Checking False Rape Accusations and Why We Shouldn't Fear a False Rape Epidemic." This post has received almost 4k upvotes, it's been crossposted and referenced by other subs such as r/Feminism and it's been gilded 5 times over. In this post, u/LeftHandedLunatic uses the two differing definitions of "false accusation" interchangeably to "prove" that false accusations are not a serious threat to men.

When you take these studies and add them to what we already know about rape a more complete picture forms:

1/6 women claim to have experience sexual assault, follow by a 1/3 reporting the assault to police, then worst case scenario 1/10 are false. Out of those false rape accusations 9/50 name a suspect, out of false rape accusations that accuse someone 15/100 get an arrest and, out of those who are arrested for a rape they didn't do only 1/3 have charges placed against them.

So 1/6 x 1/3 x 1/10 x 9/50 x 15/100 x 1/3 = 0.00005

Which mean out of all the women you meet you have a 0.005% chance of being falsely charged of Rape.

This math is based on several false assumptions. By the police definitions, "False Accusation" is a mutually exclusive category from a cleared case, which means 0% of "false accusations" lead to the accused being arrested, 0% lead to the accused being convicted. Here the OP is trying to draw conclusions from the wrong categories, because she's working on the assumption that cases not deemed "false accusations" must be true. She sites the number of "false accusations" that don't name a suspect as evidence that false accusations are not an issue, when in reality this number has nothing to do with the conversation. The suspects here that are not being named are actually false accusers.

British Home Office did a detailed study and report on the issues of false rape accusations in 2005 and found that out of the 216 cases of rape that was false in the UK, 126 of them have a formal complain filed by the accuser, 39 of them had a named suspect and only 6 of them were arrested. Out of the 6 arrested only 2 have charges and 0 of them had a conviction.

This is u/lefthandedlunatic 's description of a report by British Home Office. This study is actually talking about how often the accuser gets charged when they file a false report. The OP misrepresents this study to claim that the accused are rarely convicted in these "false report" designated cases. As mentioned above, "false report" is a mutually exclusive category from a cleared case by police language so no "false reports" lead to arrests of the accused. This study proves that those who submit false reports are never convicted, not that those falsely accused are never convicted. For reference here is the actual excerpt in question from the British Home Office study:

There were 216 cases classified as false allegations: as a proportion of all 2,643 cases reported to the police this amounts to 8 per cent; as a proportion of the 1,817 cases not proceeding beyond the police stage it is 12 per cent (see Table 4.2). In only six of these cases was there evidence of anyone being arrested, and in only two cases were charges laid, although there were at least 39 named suspects. Six advice files were submitted to CPS, with respect to possible charges being laid against the complainant for perverting the course of justice, and two were charged. Interestingly , most cases in this category had a forensic examination (82%, n=178), whilst far fewer made a formal statement to the police (58%, n=126), suggesting that this is a critical stage for the admission or designation of allegations as false.

The OP is using statistics about how the law is lenient to false accusers to try and prove that the law is lenient to men accused falsely. 4k upvotes...

She uses the number of exonerated persons from the Innocence Project as evidence that very few falsely accused people are in jail. She ignores the fact that the number of those exonerated from jail are only a portion of those falsely imprisoned, and it's impossible to know how many people are still falsely imprisoned due to false allegations.

I won't get into the rest of the post, but it's clear based on the above that this post is based on a lack of understanding of the distinction between police categorized "false accusations" and the common parlance usage of the term.