We will probably never know for sure what really happened between former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the chambermaid who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Manhattan hotel room on May 14. In the days after the French politician’s arrest, media commentary was strongly on the side of the alleged victim, and any attempt to question her credibility was met with indignation.
This month, reports that the case against Strauss-Kahn is near collapse after revelations cast serious doubt on the woman’s truthfulness have produced an equally swift backlash. Connections to French politics, meanwhile, and charges of sexual misconduct against Strauss-Kahn back home further complicate the picture. But whatever the outcome, the unraveling of the prosecutor’s case has revived the inflammatory issue of false accusations of rape.
The phenomenon of false rape allegations is an ultimate feminist taboo; indeed, leading feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon has stated that “feminism is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men.” In some instances of political correctness run amok at universities, students and professors have been accused of “harassment” for so much as raising the possibility of false accusations in class or in online discussions. While orthodox feminists grudgingly admit that women sometimes make false reports of rape, they insist that such cases represent a minuscule share of all complaints and that to give them much attention is to perpetuate misogynistic “rape myths” and revictimize real victims.
There is no question that the subject of women “crying rape” tends to bring the misogynists out of the woodwork (as a look at Internet discussions of Strauss-Kahn’s travails will easily confirm). It is also true that the “women don’t lie about rape” myth arose in reaction against a history of often suspicious and demeaning attitudes toward rape victims: As late as the 1970s, juries in rape trials in California and several other states were instructed to treat the complaining witness’s testimony with special caution and to view “unchaste character” as a strike against her credibility.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that women do lie about rape much more often than the feminist party line allows. Advocacy literature typically claims that about 2 percent of rape complaints are found to be false, the same rate as for reports of other violent crimes. But that figure seems to have no basis in research. According to the FBI, about 9 percent of rape reports are dismissed as “unfounded,” without charges being filed. While advocates claim that this is often because the authorities lack proof or distrust reports of acquaintance rape, dismissals due to insufficient evidence usually occur further down the pipeline. Generally, an “unfounded” complaint is one in which the accuser recants or her story is contradicted by available evidence.
Gauging the true prevalence of false accusations is extremely difficult, particularly since rape reports are handled and recorded differently from one jurisdiction to another. But what reliable information is available suggests that the figure is not insubstantial.
In a particularly controversial study published in 1994, now-retired Purdue University sociologist Eugene Kanin found that 40 percent of rape reports filed in an Indiana town over a 10-year period turned out to be false by the “victim’s” own admission. Kanin (ironically, a pioneering researcher on sexual assault in dating situations) has been widely criticized for using data from a police department that subjected rape complainants to lie detector tests, which many believe are likely to mislabel anxious or agitated victims as liars and pressure them to recant. He found a similar pattern, however, in police records from two state universities where lie detectors were not used and all victims were interviewed by female officers.
While Kanin has cautioned against generalizing from his research, his conclusion that “false rape accusations are not uncommon” is supported by other evidence. Some years ago, a Washington Post investigation in Virginia and Maryland found that nearly one in four rape reports in 1990-91 were rejected as unfounded, and many of the women in those cases admitted they had lied when the newspaper contacted them. In several surveys of prosecutors and law enforcement officials, estimates of the share of rape complaints that turn out to be false have ranged from one in eight to one in five.