Do Women Lie About Rape?
It’s an easy question for feminists and allies to answer. In the vast majority of cases, absolutely not–but it’s one that’s asked every time a rape accusation is made public. Take the case of Ben Roethlisberger. In 2009, the star Steelers quarterback was accused of rape by a Lake Tahoe casino hostess. She filed a civil suit for assault, sexual assault and battery, false imprisonment, false pretenses, fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She didn’t press criminal charges, which Roethlisberger’s lawyers claimed as evidence the accusations were false.
However, even judges have said rape survivors are sometimes better off not reporting to police because stress of a criminal trial can add even more trauma after a sexual assault. Her hesitation is understandable in this case: When she reported the crime to a casino security guard, he said, “Most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger.”
Tabloids dug into the survivor’s mental health history, reporting her post-assault depression, insomnia and anxiety– calling her “nutty” rather than recognizing the possible signs of sexual trauma. On news sites fans defended their football hero and reporters ignored the issue.
The assumption hung heavily in the air: She was lying. Why would a rich (or, in other cases, married/famous/charitable/kind) man rape a “nobody”?
Later that year, another woman accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault. This time, the public was more sympathetic to the survivor, recognizing a possible pattern in the star’s behavior. Does it have to take multiple accusations against one person before victims are believed?
Automatic assumption in cases involving famous or beloved men (like Roethlisberger, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or Roman Polanski) is women lie about rape to get money after having consensual sex. These assumptions aren’t only in cases involving wealthy men–they happen all the time.
In the 1980′s, the Philadelphia police department had one of the highest recorded rates of “unfounded” (I.e. Falsely reported) rapes in the U.S. The FBI, which gathers those statistics, rarely reviews reports to determine whether or not police are counting crimes accurately. In this case, the FBI made a rare request and asked the city’s police department to explain why, in 1984, 52% of rape reports had been dismissed as “unfounded.”
The PD’s reply described circumstances that would lead to a rape report being “unfounded,” including:
• The victim reports while under the influence of drugs or alcohol (studies have shown that in 55% of rape cases, alcohol or drugs are involved; in acquaintance rape cases, that number is sometimes as high as 80 to 90%).
• Young women report rape to cover up truancy, pregnancy, lost money or sexual precocity.
• Women report rape to cover up infidelity, indiscretion, lateness or pregnancy.
• Rape is reported so the survivor can obtain an abortion or the morning-after pill free of charge.
• Women report rape for “revenge” on a man who has “done her wrong,” or to make her partner “feel guilty” after a “lover’s quarrel.”
• Girls lie about rape all the time, for reasons “known only to themselves.”
Shockingly, the police department’s reasons rape cases would be classified as false also includes instances in which the victim has a history of mental illness and reports a rape by a celebrity. In the case of Roethlisberger’s first accuser, her mental health records and his fame would have been grounds enough to dismiss her case.
So do women lie about rape? According to Joanne Archambault, a former sex crimes unit supervisor, the answer is simple: “False reports are not a problem. They happen, but they’re not a problem.” Research shows only 2 to 8% of rape reports are untrue. This is a pretty small number to justify the climate of fear around false rape reports.
Experts say the only way to ensure this heinous crime is properly investigated and prosecuted is for law enforcement to move beyond the notion that women lie about rape. Archambault says rape victims often display the characteristics that police, and society consider to be “red flags” for false reports (like being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the rape), but just because a woman was under the influence doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped.
Reprinted with special permission to AVA from the Ms. Blog, www.msmagazine.com/blog, copyright 2011. A feature by Stephanie Hallett on rape reporting deficits in the U.S. appears in the current issue of Ms., available on newsstands or at store.msmagazine.com.