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.
Yet the “women don’t lie” dogma is entrenched in popular culture. False accusations of rape are virtually nonexistent in films or in television crime shows, and male victims of rape hoaxes such as the three Duke University students accused of raping stripper Crystal Gail Mangum in 2006 are unlikely to be featured in sympathetic TV movies of the week. To some extent, this dogma has also gained a strong foothold in the legal system. When Congress passed the 1994 Violence Against Women Act expanding federal protections for rape complainants, congressional reports justifying the legislation cited statistics on the low rate of convictions in rape cases—based on the assumption that every rape report was true and every man accused was guilty.
The old biases against victims have given way to new ones that often stack the deck against the accused: Under rape shield laws, it is often difficult to introduce even relevant information that challenges the credibility of the accuser, including a history of making dubious or outright false accusations.
In a much-publicized 1998 case in New York, Columbia University graduate student Oliver Jovanovic was found guilty of assaulting and sexually abusing Barnard College student Jamie Rzucek in an encounter that he claimed involved consensual bondage. Email messages from Rzucek to Jovanovic in which she professed interest in sadomasochism and discussed engaging in such activities with another man were ruled inadmissible by the trial judge. The conviction was eventually overturned on appeal on the grounds that Jovanovic was not allowed to present an adequate defense—but not until he had spent 20 months in prison and suffered an assault from another inmate. (Rzucek was denounced as a habitual liar by some members of her own family.) Feminists deplored the reversal of the case as a blow to victims.
No one knows how many men spend time in prison after being falsely accused of rape and either convicted or held without bail. In 1985, a Maryland woman named Kathryn Tucci was sentenced to a $150 fine and 1,000 hours of community service for a false rape charge that put her former boyfriend, Mark Bowles, behind bars for over a year on a charge that she later told the Washington Post stemmed from unrelated “traumatic events.” In 1996, Los Angeles police officer Harris Scott Mintz spent five months in jail after being accused of rape by two different women: first a resident of the neighborhood he patrolled, then his own wife. Eventually, Mrs. Mintz admitted that she’d made up the story because she was angry at her husband over the first charge. Then the original case fell apart after Mintz’s attorneys discovered that the woman had told an ex-roommate she had concocted the charge to sue the county and that she had tried a similar hoax before.
Even without prolonged imprisonment, an accusation and arrest can be costly. Just ask the three Duke students—Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann, and David Evans—who had to leave school and were vilified in the national media because of Mangum’s rape hoax.
The Duke saga made it abundantly clear that feminist orthodoxy on rape is radically hostile to basic principles of justice. Former sex crimes prosecutor and law professor Wendy Murphy, who emerged as a leading TV commentator on the case with frequent appearances on CNN, Fox News, and other channels, repeatedly referred to the accused men as “rapists” on the air. On one occasion, she fumed: “I’m really tired of people suggesting that you’re somehow un-American if you don’t respect the presumption of innocence, because you know what that sounds like to a victim? Presumption you’re a liar.”
Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, who reportedly bragged in a recorded conversation with a jailed drug dealer about the money she hoped to reap from the case, may well be the victim of a sexual assault. But Strauss-Kahn, however unappealing his behavior in even the most favorable version of the events, may also be the victim of a devastating hoax who no more “deserved it” than a promiscuous woman deserves to be raped. And, just as Strauss-Kahn’s high status does not mean he is innocent, the woman’s underprivileged status as a Guinean immigrant does not mean she is telling the truth. Nor does her “credible,” distraught demeanor reported by the police constitute proof: In virtually every known rape hoax, the false accuser was described at some point as “very credible.”
In 2004, discussing another highly publicized sexual assault case involving basketball star Kobe Bryant, Murphy decried misogynistic myths about rape accusers—“that women are mentally ill and vindictive.” But the fact is that some women do make false claims of rape, for these and other reasons, just as some men commit rape because they are mentally ill or violent sociopaths.
In 1977, when feminists were waging a nationwide battle for legal reforms to improve the treatment of rape victims, Columbia University law professor Vivian Berger—generally a supporter of these reforms—cautioned against “sacrificing legitimate rights of the accused person on the altar of Women’s Liberation.” Today, that warning remains as relevant as ever.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com.