Eugene J. Kanin, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
Purdue University[Notes in brackets are added by the Ananda Answers editor]
With the cooperation of the police agency of a small metropolitan community, 45 consecutive, disposed, false rape allegations covering a 9 year period were studied. False rape allegations constitute 41% of the total forcible rape cases (109) reported during this period. These false allegations appear to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge, and obtaining sympathy and attention. False rape allegations are not the consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress situations. [False rape allegations are reported in similar numbers at college campuses; approximately 50% of rape charges are admitted to be false by the accuser.]
[The author discusses the history of unfounded rape allegations, and how legitimate cases of rape were discounted until pressure from women’s groups caused them to be taken more seriously. He describes how the pendulum has now swung significantly the other way]
Currently, the two main identifiable adversaries involved in the false rape allegations controversy are the feminists and the police. The feminists are by far the most expressive and prominent on this issue. Some feminists take the position that the declaration of rape as false or unfounded largely means that the police do not believe the complainant; that is, the rape charges are real reflections of criminal assault, but the agents of the criminal justice system do not believe them (Brownmiller, 1975; Russell, 1984). Some feminists virtually deny the existence of false rape accusations and believe the concept itself constitutes discriminatory harassment toward women (see Grano, 1990). On the other hand, police are prone to say the reason for not believing some rape complainants resides in the fact that the rapes never occurred (Payton, 1967; Wilson, 1978; Jay, 1991). Medical Examiners lend support to this police position by emphasizing the ever-present possibility that rape complainants may be lying (Shill, 1969, 1971).
This investigation is essentially a case study of one police agency in a small metropolitan area (population 70,000) in the Midwestern United States. This city was targeted for study because it offered an almost model laboratory for studying false rape allegations. First, its police agency is not inundated with serious felony cases and, therefore, has the freedom and the motivation to record and thoroughly pursue all rape complaints. In fact, agency policy forbids police officers to use their discretion in deciding whether to officially acknowledge a rape complaint, regardless how suspect that complaint may be. Second, the declaration of a false allegation follows a highly institutionalized procedure. The investigation of all rape complaints always involves a serious offer to polygraph the complainants and the suspects. Additionally, for a declaration of false charge to be made, the complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is the sole agent who can say that the rape charge is false. The police department will not declare a rape charge as false when the complainant, for whatever reason, fails to pursue the charge or cooperate on the case, regardless how much doubt the police may have regarding the validity of the charge.
In short, these cases are declared false only because the complainant admitted they are false. Furthermore, only one person is then empowered to enter into the records a formal declaration that the charge is false, the officer in charge of records. Last, it should be noted that this department does not confuse reported rape attempts with completed rapes. Thus, the rape complainants referred to in this paper are for completed forcible rapes only. The foregoing leaves us with a certain confidence that cases declared false by this police agency are indeed a reasonable- if not a minimal reflection of false rape allegations made to this agency, especially when one considers that a finding of false allegation is totally dependent upon the recantation of the rape charge.
We followed and investigated all false rape allegations from 1978 to 1987. A ranking police official notified us whenever a rape charge was declared false and provided us with the records of the case. In addition, the investigating officers provided any requested supplementary information so that we could be confident of the validity of the false rape allegation declarations.
Regarding this study, 41% (45) of the total disposed rape cases (109) were officially declared false during this 9-year period, that is, by the complainant’s admission that no rape had occurred and the charge, therefore, was false. The incidence figure was variable from year to year and ranged from a low of 27% (3 out of 11 cases) to a high of 70% (7 out of 10 cases). The 9-year period suggests no trends, and no explanation has been made for the year-to-year fluctuation.
The study of these 45 cases of false rape allegations inexorably led to the conclusion that these false charges were able to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, a means of gaining revenge, and a platform for seeking attention/sympathy. This tripartite model resulted from the complainants’ own verbalizations during recantation and does not constitute conjecture. Of course, we are not asserting that these functions are mutually exclusive or exhaustive; rather, these rape recantations focused on a single factor explanation. A possible objection to these recantations concerns their validity. Rae recantations could be the result of the complainants’ desire to avoid a second assault at the hands of the police. Rather than proceed with the real charge of rape, the argument goes, these women withdrew their accusations to avoid the trauma of police investigation.
Several responses are possible to this type of criticism. First, with very few exceptions, these complainants were suspect at the time of the complaint or within a day or two after charging. These recantations did not follow prolonged periods of investigation and interrogation that would constitute anything approximating a second assault. Second, not one of the detectives believed that an incident of false recantation had occurred. They argued, rather convincingly, that in those cases where a suspect was identified and interrogated, the facts of the recantation dovetailed with the suspect’s own defense. Last, the policy of this police agency is to apply a statute regarding the false reporting of a felony. After the recant, the complainant is informed that she will be charged with filing a false complaint, punishable by a substantial fine and a jail sentence. In no case, has an effort been made on the part of the complainant to retract the recantation. Although we certainly do not deny the possibility of false recantations, no evidence supports such an interpretation for these cases.
In addition to the foregoing, certain other findings and observations relevant to false allegations warrant comment. First, false allegations failed to include accusations of forced sexual acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse. Not one complainant mentions forced oral or anal sex. In contrast, these acts were included in approximately 25% of the rounded forcible rape complaints. Perhaps it was simply psychologically and socially more prudent for these women to minimize the humiliation of sexual victimization by not embroidering the event any more than necessary. This phenomenon has been observed previously (McDowell and Hibler, 1987).
One of the most haunting and serious implications of false rape allegations concerns the possibility of miscarried justice. We know that false convictions occur, but this study only tells us that these false accusers were weeded out during the very early stages of investigation. However encouraging this result may be, we cannot claim that false charging does not incur suffering for the accused. Merely to be a rape suspect, even for a day or two, translates into psychological and social trauma.
We may well be faced with the fact that the most efficient police departments report the higher incidence of false rape allegations. In view of these factors, perhaps the most prudent summary statement that is appropriate from these data is that false rape accusations are not uncommon. Since this effort is the first at a systematic, long-term, on-site investigation of false rape allegations from a single city, future studies in other cities, with comparable policies, must assess the representativeness of these findings.
[The author talks about other studies of women on college campuses which show an approximately 50% rate of false rape reports, similar to the study above].
Quite unexpectedly then, we find that these university women, when filing a rape complaint, were as likely to file a false as a valid charge. Other reports from university police agencies support these findings (Jay, 1991). In both police agencies, the taking of the complaint and the follow-up investigation was the exclusive responsibility of a ranking female officer. Neither agency employed the polygraph and neither declared the complaint false without a recantation of the charge.