False Accusations About Rape: How Concerned Should You Be


Turns out, not very.

This is not about Brett Kavanaugh. I’m working on something, so don’t worry. I did, however, want to comment on a common meme that’s floating around the internet. I’ve also heard it echoed among the television commentariat.

The claim is a response to the rhetorical empathy demanded when a woman comes forward with a story of her victimization. Very often, she does not have evidence. She was socially isolated, ashamed, afraid, unwilling to report this crime for any number of tragic reasons. Any hope of collective physical evidence or eyewitness accounts is lost over the passage of time. All that is left is the woman, her story, and the counter-narrative offered by a man or men who have every reason to lie.

Advocates for sex crime victims offer that believing the victim, most often a woman, is the best course of action. This is true, according to activists, regardless of the available evidence. First, despite some high profile examples in which false accusations were made, often with tragic consequences, such accusations are rare. Most women who admit their victimization are telling the truth, statistically speaking.

Secondly, the obstacles women face in coming forward are daunting and scary. When a woman does come forward, she should be nurtured in this process by being given the benefit of the doubt. If society is to address sexual victimization, we need to encourage more victims to come forward.

So the associated meme requests that one should think about their daughters, sisters or mothers whenever a victim comes forward to share her story. In other words, think about how you would want people to respond to your daughter, sister or mother being victimized and coming forward.

The counterclaim offered is that one should also consider one’s son, brother or father facing a false accusation made against them. Think about them having their reputations ruined, perhaps losing their jobs or even their freedom just because a woman, without evidence, accused them of a crime.

If Brett Kavanaugh is denied a seat on the Supreme Court, without objective evidence, then no male will be safe from the capricious allegations of an angry woman. Nobody will be safe. Certainly, no Republican will be able to make a nomination who does not get accused of rape.

This claim commits the fallacy of equivalence. This is a common tactic among political commentators and it is almost always false.

So I wanted to do a quick, back of the envelope, statistical analysis of the equivalence of this claim.

First, your concern about your daughter, sister, mother:

  • According to RAINN, 1:6 women in the United States are victims of rape or attempted rape.
  • The NSVRC states that 1:3 women are subject to some form of contact sexual violence
  • According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were over 323,000 Rapes or Sexual Assaults in 2016, which was a pretty typical year.

This and other data suggests that there is a reasonable level of concern that we should have about our daughters, sisters or wives being sexually assaulted. Add to this concern the fact that only about 40% of victims will report and that an appalling number of perpetrators will go free.

But what about the prospects of your sons, brothers, and husbands being falsely accused. Well, this one is a bit more difficult. Here’s where we have to do some research and some basic math. Follow me here. This doesn’t qualify as an in-depth, statistical analysis, but for the purposes of this thises, I think it is adequate.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the arrest rate among men for a sex offense in 2016 was 52.4/100,000 (Rape+Sex Offense not Rape or Prostitution).

Now, according to RAINN, out of 310 rapes reported to police, 57 will lead to arrests. I don’t have figures for sexual assault, but for the sake of this mental experiment, let’s assume that the rates are the same. I would hypothesize that this is being conservative with the numbers as an actual rape might be taken more seriously by police than a sexual assault. This may not be true, but absent enough evidence, I think it’s a safe assumption.

So this means that we can estimate the rate of reports to the police per 100,000 men at around 284.9/100,000.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, false reports of sexual violence range from 2-10% depending on the study.  Most hover between 4 and 7 percent. For the sake of the math, an estimate of 5% should suffice.

Five percent of 284.9 is 14.245 out of 100,000.

So your son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandpa has a .01425% chance of being falsely accused of sexual assault in a given year. That’s 1.4:10,000. If you want to use the high end 10% figure from the NSVRC quoted above, that brings his odds up to 2.85:10,000.

It is important to note that I’m comparing the yearly estimates for men to the lifetime estimates for women. This isn’t entirely fair. The rate for Rape/Sexual Assault for women in 2016, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey is 1.2:1,000, or to put it in comparable numbers, 12:10,000, almost nine times the number of falsely accused men.

My more math astute readers may quibble with error margins, etc. If they can get the numbers above 5:10,000 I’ll be impressed. That still would not change the narrative.

This is what a false equivalence looks like. Is it possible for your son, brother, husband, father to be falsely accused of rape or sexual assault? Sure? But it’s a lot more likely that your son, brother, husband, father, if accused, really is guilty. It’s also a lot more likely that your daughter, sister, mother, wife will be sexually assaulted if they haven’t been so already.

The bottom line is that statistically speaking, Brett Kavanaugh may not be guilty, but he probably is. If this were a court of law, when Kavanaugh could be denied the basic right of liberty, I would say all of this speculation is irrelevant. We need the facts. But this is a job interview. This may be a false or mistaken allegation, but denying him a seat on the Supreme Court will not leave the men in your life vulnerable to false allegations.

Oh, and one more thing. Can we please stop saying or inferring that Brett Kavanaugh’s life will be ruined if we believe the accusations and deny him a seat on the Supreme Court. He’s had an exceptionally successful legal career and marriage. Being denied a seat on the Supreme Court will not ruin his life. It will be no more than a professional setback at a level that almost nobody else in his profession attains. Be real. Eventually, this will blow over and Kavanaugh will still be better off than most.

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