The Scope of False Sexual Assault Allegations

When conservatives are confronted by the rise of a “liberal” cause, many find and point to a small problem in order to discredit or divert attention from the immense problem liberals are attacking.

It’s an unhealthy mix of the whataboutism fallacy (citing wrongs of the opposing side instead of addressing the point) and the false equivalence fallacy (describing situations as equivalent [I’ll add “in scope”] when they are not). We observe this during talk on racial violence, when many conservatives pretend hate crimes against whites are just as common as hate crimes against people of color; see “On Reverse Racism.”

Lately, the fallacy was on full display as high-profile men across the country were accused of sexual assault and harassment, many fired or urged to resign. In this frenzy of allegations, some Americans see and cheer a surge in bravery and collective solidarity among victims inspired by each other and seeking justice, while others see and decry a male “witch hunt,” with evil women growing more bold about their lies, perhaps on the George Soros payroll. Where you land is a fairly decent predictor of your political views. Who was accused also determined for many which women to believe, with some conservatives supporting Republican Roy Moore through his rape of underage girls scandal but attacking Democrat Al Franken’s groping of women. Sadly, some liberals did the reverse. I know I witnessed a left-leaning acquaintance or two trying to discredit accusations against Franken, that he publicly apologized for, by slandering the victims. Still, it is typically conservatives (often sexually frustrated men) who, when they encounter liberals talking about rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and so forth, bring up false rape accusations.

One comment on a mediocre article Men’s Health shared on how to make sure you have consent from a woman typified this. There were of course countless like it, many poorly written: “And remember if she regrets it the next day you’re still fucked”; “I bring my attorney and a notary on all dates and hook ups”; “There’s no such thing as consent anymore, it’s a witch hunt. Just say no gentleman”; “Don’t forget guys… If you have drank 12 drinks and she has 1 sip of beer…… You raped her.” And still more angry with the article’s existence: “Men’s health turning into click bate leftist agenda”; “Did a feminist write this?”; “Did a woman write this?” It’s sad consent is a liberal, feminist scheme. But this comment got much attention and support, likely because people found it thoughtful and measured for some odd reason:

This is a touchy subject. Yes, respect women—We all know that. Have a woman’s consent—Yes, we all know that. Do not rape or sexually assault a woman—Yes we all know that. We respect the rules. However, there are some women that exploit and take advantage of the rules. It’s sad to say, there are some out there that falsely accuse a man of rape or sexual assault—ruining their lives. Being a man in today’s era, I’m afraid to ask a woman on a date. I feel sometimes a man needs a contract just to protect himself. Yes, this might sound objectionable and supercilious—but you can’t be too careful nowadays. We live in a different time now. Men: We need to change our attitudes and treatment of women. However, it’s okay that we protect ourselves—and we shouldn’t be demonized or vilified for doing so. I don’t want to be viewed or portrayed as the enemy, nor be apologetic for being a man.

An amusing writing. “We all know” not to rape, assault, or harass women? If the collective male “we” legitimately “knew,” such things would be a thing of the past and a primer on consent unnecessary. “We live in a different time” where men are “afraid to ask a woman on a date”! If you’re going to “protect” yourself in some way, you wouldn’t be “demonized” for actually getting consent in some formal sense; only if you used illegal and unethical methods to “protect” yourself, like the secret filming of sex. And where are these women asking men to apologize for being a men, rather than for specific behaviors or attitudes that make them uncomfortable, scared, unsafe, or physically violated?

This is a perfect example of the fallacy above. “Men sexually assault women and shouldn’t, but what about the women who make false accusations?” The latter part is clearly his main concern — he didn’t stop by to condemn rapists, he came with another purpose. They may not intend to or even realize it (some do), but when men (or women) do this they position false reports as a problem of the same significance or nearing the same significance as actual sex crimes. As if the scope, the prevalence, is comparable. That’s what taking a conversation on consent and redirecting it to one of false accusations does. It says, “This is what’s important. It’s what we should be talking about.” It’s like bringing up asthma when everyone’s discussing lung cancer. It deflects attention away from a problem that is much more severe. It’s a subtle undermining of the credibility of rape victims. It’s not wrong to discuss small problems, of course, but they should always be kept in perspective. It’s my view that comments about hate crimes against whites or false accusations against men that don’t include the enormous asterisks that these are minuscule percentages of overall hate and sex crimes should never have been uttered at all. In that way, we can think about others first. We can protect the credibility of real victims. We can remain rooted in the facts — not imply a small problem is large, or vice versa. Naturally, including those caveats undermines the usual function of bringing up these issues, but no matter.

Yes, lying about sex crimes in an issue that exists. Yes, there should be some legal punishment for such an immoral act (not anywhere near the punishment for sexual assault and harassment, obviously, because these are not in any way morally equivalent crimes). Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, which is why men are safe from prison until they see their day in court, even if they face social consequences like losing a job due to presumed guilt — which you can oppose on ethical grounds, but not so stable ground as you would hope, especially when a man is accused by a coworker, family member, or someone else in close proximity. Is it most ethical to oppose a firing until a trial and risk keeping a rapist around the workplace? Putting others in danger? Forcing a victim to clock in next to him each day? Or is it most ethical to fire him and risk tearing down the life of an innocent man? It’s an unpleasant dilemma for any employer, university administrator, or whomever, but ethically there’s not much question. One risk is far graver, thus the answer is simple. This only grows more axiomatic when we acknowledge the likelihood of events.

The prevalence of proven false accusations of sexual assault is somewhere between 2% and 8% of cases. The National Sexual Violence Research Center documents a 2006 study of 812 cases that found 2.1% were false reports, while a 2009 study of 2,059 cases and a 2010 study of 136 cases estimated 7.1% and 5.9%, respectively. Research from 2017 revealed a 5% false claim rate for rape. The Making a Difference Project, using data from 2008, estimates 6.8%. These numbers are mirrored in prior American decades and in similar countries. While we can acknowledge that some innocent people in prison never see justice, are never set free, since 1989 there have only been 52 men released from prison after it was determined their sexual assault charges were based on lies. This compared to 790 murder exonerations; the number of people in state prisons for murder vs. sexual assault/rape is about the same (though the former crime is far less common than the latter), making the low exoneration rate for sex crime convictions all the more significant.

Myriad definitions of both “false report” and “sexual assault” make the precise percentage difficult to nail down, and these statistics only address proven false reports (there are many cases in limbo, as conservative writers are quick to point out), but this research gives us a general idea. Reports of high percentages of false claims are typically not academic studies or have rather straightforward explanations, for example when Baltimore’s “false claim” rate plunged from 31% to under 2% when the police actually went through some training and “stopped the practice of dismissing rapes and sexual assaults on the scene”! It’s remarkable how legitimate investigations and peer-reviewed research can bring us closer to the truth.

In other words, when observing any sexual misconduct scandal, there is an extremely high chance the alleged victim is telling the truth. This is why we believe women. This is why they should be given the benefit of the doubt, not accused men. It’s why the moral dilemma for employers and the like is hardly one at all. Were precisely 50% of sexual assault allegations lies, it would still be most ethical to take the risk of firing a good man rather than the risk of keeping a predator around. But since women are most always telling the truth? Well, the decision is that much easier and ethical.

In the U.S., there are some 321,500 rapes and sexual assaults per year, and 90% of adult victims are women (you’ve probably noticed how “men are raped too” is used in a similar manner to all this). One in six women are rape or attempted rape survivors. For every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators (99%) will never go to prison.