An Alarming National Trend: Refutation of Brownmillers’ “only 2% are false” claim

by Stewart Schultz

From Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will

“A decade ago the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports noted that 20 percent of all rapes reported to the police were determined by investigation to be unfounded.’ By 1973 the figure had dropped to 15 percent, while rape remained, in the FBI’s words, the most underreported crime.’ A 15 percent figure for false accusations is undeniably high, yet when New York City instituted a special sex crimes analysis squad and put police women (instead of men) in charge of interviewing complainants, the number of false charges in New York dropped dramatically to 2 percent, a figure that corresponded exactly to the rate of false reports for other crimes. The lesson in the mystery of the vanishing statistic is obvious. Women believe the word of other women. Men do not.”

This is a fine example of the inimitable feminist scholarship decried recently by feminist Barbara Dority. The statement that “the rate of false rape accusations is 2%, the same as for other crimes” is asserted as established, current fact by feminist rape crisis centers and women’s groups across North America. Occasionally these groups acknowledge Brownmiller as the source, but for the most part they give no clue of either the origin of the statistic or its scope, usually implying that it stands for the U.S. as a whole, or Canada as a whole, or even all of North America:

Yet on what is it based? According to Brownmiller, this datum is referenced as Remarks of Lawrence H. Cook, Appellate Division Justice, before the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Jan. 16, 1974 (mimeo), p. 6.

One would imagine that such an oft-cited statistic would at least have passed peer review in an established social science journal. On the contrary, it is nothing more than a mimeo of some remarks made by a judge to a gathering of lawyers, regarding events in what appears to be a single precinct of New York City sometime in 1974.

We have no idea what actually happened, only Brownmiller’s personal interpretation. She implies that the previous rate of false accusations found by N.Y.C. police was 15%, that cited by the FBI reports. Yet in fact we don’t know what that percentage was. Nor do we know the annual or precinct-by-precinct variation in the percentage. Hence we don’t know how dramatically it dropped, or whether any drop was statistically significant. Even if there was a drop, there’s no reason to conclude that it had anything to do with the gender of the investigators. A more mundane explanation might be the increased zealousness to clear a case that one would expect of a special investigatory unit in a politically charged situation, where their recommendations are likely to be public record.

In providing a statistic of false rape accusations, Brownmiller had two choices. She could have sided with the Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI (15-20%), the agency probably more experienced in law enforcement than any other federal agency, or the mimeographed comments of an appellate judge (2%), who probably had no law enforcement experience and saw only those cases that made it to court. Faced with this choice, she sides with what amounts to nothing more than a second-hand anecdote. It’s clear what she wanted to believe; if the figures were reversed, is there any doubt that the mimeo never would have seen the light of day? How many contradictory mimeos did Brownmiller pass over?

There still is no published data that contradicts the FBI figure of 15%. I’ve done a computer search of over 1500 social science journals from January 1974 to April 1991, and found no paper that explicitly attempts to measure the false accusation rate in the U.S. or Canada. The only figures we have to go on appear to be the Uniform Crime Reports or the raw data/guidelines from local offices. The UCRs show that only about 50% of all rape accusations are cleared by enforcement agencies. Since the majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victim, this figure is by no means inconsistent with a 15% rate of false accusations. Obviously this rate will be extremely difficult to quantify accurately, especially in a way that gives a reasonable estimate of a national average, and I’m not surprised that nobody has attempted it.

My only point is that the 2% figure has virtually no substance, and what little published evidence there is points to a considerably larger figure.

My source for the analysis was was Stewart Schultz schultz@unixg. ubc. ca, while the Brownmiller quote was supplied by Cindy Tittle Moore tittle@zola.ics.uci.edu. The discussion originally appeared in soc.feminism around August 29, 1991.

Susan Brownmiller replies
Ms Brownmiller emailed us and took exception to the above article. I invited her to send any additional citations that strengthen her claim. She writes:

From sueb@echonyc.com Tue Jun 27 15:29:58 1995
From: Susan Brownmiller [sueb@echonyc.com]
Subject: Re: Slander
To: throop@cs.utexas.edu: (David R. Throop posted this information)

The cite from the New York City Rape Analysis Squad was reported by Judge Lawrence Cooke to the NY Bar Association in 1974. Cooke was a leading appellate justice at that time. Cooke, the Bar Association, and the NYC Rape Analysis Squad were impeccable sources. The information was fresh & exciting. It had appeared nowhere else. The person who attempted to discount it in the post you reproduced denigrated New York State’s leading appellate justice, a city agency, and me.