Figuring the Figures

Updated: Apr 17

8 minute read


How false allegation numbers are misinterpreted.



How common are wrongful sexual allegations? Any facts about sexual crime can be frustratingly difficult – even impossible – to determine. For example, some rape accusations are untrue, and campaigners from men's rights activists to feminist groups glibly offer a percentage. The number is out there, yet we do not know it; more unsettling than that, we cannot know it, and advocates who claim otherwise should not be trusted. American journalist Megan McArdle has called the dispute about false rape accusations “the war of bad statistics”.


We therefore can't know what the true figure is. But we can at least know what it is not.


Girls star Lena Dunham famously tweeted, “Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don't lie about: rape.” Of course, even Dunham knows that they sometimes do. The question is, how often? Although we cannot know what the figure is, we can derive some satisfaction from knowing what it is not. To illustrate this, it is more useful to begin not with the number of false allegations but the number of genuine rapes. In 2014 (the latest year for which I can get a figure) 2,581 men were convicted of rape in the jurisdiction area – presumably England and Wales. According to Rape Crisis, fewer than six percent of reported rapes end in a conviction. This is a knowable figure which would be easy to disprove, so there is every reason to assume it is true.


Freelance columnist Julie Bindle suggested in a Guardian article that “94% of women who report it are lying” – a quote she mischievously attributes by implication to unknown sceptics. Yet this is a straw man apparently designed to make those sceptics' arguments appear simplistic, because I am not aware that anyone has made such a claim. The truth is much more complex. Some of the remaining 94% are indeed wrongful accusations, but each case is different. Some are genuine victims who cannot identify their rapist. Others decide to abandon the legal process, for a host of reasons. Of course, many are true victims whose violators escape through lack of evidence.


However, given the difficulty of bringing some “he said/she said” cases to court, we would be naive to assume that rapes in the UK in 2014 amounted to only 2,581. Clearly, rape is more frequent than this, because many valid rape accusations do not lead to conviction or even prosecution. In fact, some are not even reported, the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this article. The number of rapes thus comprises two figures: the number of convictions (A) plus an unknown number of others (B). In fact, B is unknowable, because we cannot be certain a rape accusation is true unless the case goes to trial. In fact, in this era of “believe the victim”, some among the 2,581 convicted defendants will be innocent, but that is another story, so let us infer that the number of rapes was at least 2,581.


The main obstacle to successful prosecutions in genuine rape cases which are pursued is the private nature of the crime. Tragically, this means that many genuine rape victims do not attain justice, usually not because they were ignored or disbelieved, as often happened in the past, but because there is insufficient evidence to convict.


The crucial point is that exactly the same principle of uncertainty applies to false rape accusations: the true number comprises an A figure and a B figure. Any number of studies demonstrate this. For example, German criminologists Wiebke Steffen and Erich Elsner examined all 1754 rape complaints made in Bavaria in 2000. Police judged a third of these accusations as probably not true. No prosecution of an alleged rapist was pursued in half of the total. Of the 1754 complainants, 7.4% were investigated for making a false complaint, and of that 7.4%, every single one admitted she had lied. Police prosecuted three-quarters of the false complainants; the other quarter were let off because of mental instability.


Most interesting is that 7.4% of the 1754 total admitted they had been untruthful. This means that the absolute minimum of false rape complaints in this study (the A figure) is 7.4%. The true percentage of false rape complaints could never be determined, but it must have comprised two numbers: the known 7.4% plus an unknown additional number: those whose allegations were false but this could not be determined (the B figure).


Just as some rapists in the UK evade justice, so do some false accusers, because in neither situation does the CPS prosecute unless it sees at least a reasonable chance of a conviction. Both rapes and false accusations of rape occur more often than convictions reveal. An unknown number of wrongful allegations are made by mentally ill accusers, by fantasists and liars. Each false accuser is different, and not all should be prosecuted. What do we even label a false report? A genuine victim may wrongly identify her attacker, and a complainant may really have been violated but loses credibility by telling an incidental lie. Some hastily cry rape to cover a sexual indiscretion, but withdraw the accusation before a suspect sees any cell bars or any harm is done to career, relationships, bank balance or reputation.


However, perpetrators of malicious and sustained false accusations should be prosecuted. Sometimes they are, but the CPS is clearly reluctant to make false accusers accountable in all but a minority of the most egregious cases. Their guidelines instruct prosecutors to bring such cases to court not – as in rape cases – if it is feasible that a jury will believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, but only if conviction is virtually certain, and if public interest is served. The latter criterion means that the pseudo-vulnerable will ride on the coat-tails of genuinely vulnerable false accusers and escape consequences. The CPS cultivates the illusion of balance by insisting it will pursue false claims “rigorously”, but in fact it has no interest in such prosecutions unless the accusation is provably false – for example, by the unlikely counter-testimony of legions of reliable witnesses or indisputable CCTV footage. Oddly, the CPS even remarks in its charging guidelines that prosecutions for false accusations will be “extremely rare”. The effect of all this on the A-to-B ratio is obvious.


Even these stringent prosecution criteria are not enough for some police districts in the UK. The head of the (now disbanded) sexual crimes unit of Greater Manchester Police once confirmed that it was GMP policy never to prosecute false complainants because “those making false reports have some sort of vulnerability.” Using the CPS method of basing the frequency of false reports on the number of convictions would therefore consistently yield a false accusation figure of zero for Greater Manchester. It is likely that other police districts in effect follow a similar charging policy but are not forthright enough to admit it.


Julie Bindle's article referred to the Liam Allan case, in which the prosecution failed to disclose evidence that absolved the defendant. She implored us not to be distracted by false rape accusations, which she labelled at one point “a handful” and at another point “tiny”. Yet if we know only the A number, we are not entitled to minimise the elusive A+B. As for the CPS, it is astounding that it is so biased in interpreting its own statistics. When it offers low conviction rates as evidence that false accusations are rare, it is hard to know whether its misreading is wilful or just negligent. The former seems more likely, since it is under political pressure to bring more sexual crimes to court. This implies an interest in downplaying the number of false accusations.


Numbers always matter. That famous cynical quotation about “lies, damned lies and statistics” has its uses, especially when disputants find it ever easier to track down somewhere online “facts” that can be made to fit their prejudices. David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society, has warned of “exaggerations or misleading claims” that can be based on dubious findings from a proliferation of second-rate research. However, at its worst the “damned lies” line can be used to discredit an opponent's winning argument or retreat into naive relativity.


Yet the importance of numbers has its limits. Even if research about justice comes down to data, justice itself is individual; it must transcend trends and swinging policy pendulums. Is a victim of a false accusation supposed to take comfort from an assurance that he is “just” one of the inevitable false positives in an enlightened trend to bring more rapists to trial? Is he expected to regard Blackstone's formulation that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” a mere relic of a time when the patriarchy was even more pervasive than now?


The question of how to handle false complainants therefore remains, whether they are forty percent or just a tenth of one percent. Let us assume that Jemma Beale is the only false accuser in the UK. She is the woman who made fifteen rape complaints, gained £15,000 in compensation and had an innocent man put in jail for two years. Another of her victims, in fear of arrest, fled the UK. The effects of her malicious accusations were so far-reaching that she was tried, convicted and sentenced to ten years' jail. The prosecution called Beale's life a “construct of bogus victimhood” which had cost the Crown 6,400 hours of investigation and £250,000. Would Manchester's former head of sexual crimes insist that even she is a “vulnerable woman” whose prosecution was not in the public interest? Her victims – not to mention taxpayers – can surely be forgiven for disagreeing.


False allegations of all types are stressful, but they are not created equal. The opprobrium attached to the mere suspicion of being a sexual predator is inherently more damaging than any other wrongful complaint, and current policies make it even more harrowing than it once was. Someone falsely accused of assault, burglary or fraud can be reasonably confident that facts will prevent him from being convicted or even charged. Changes in recent years to charging procedures for sexual accusations mean that an unknowable number of false but convincing “he said/she said” complaints will come to court and result in a conviction. This is especially true of historical allegations, because it can be impossible to disprove an accusation that dates back decades. My articles A Lesser Tragedy and Rape Myth Myths provide details of pending legal changes that will make miscarriages of justice more common. The only people who are not petrified by a false sexual accusation against them are those who have misguided faith in the police and the justice system and are too naïve to understand what may happen to them.


I have a special interest in this issue. After a woman whom I had never met accused me and others of systematic and repeated historical rape, police interviewed her eight times for a total of over seventeen hours. Her interviewers had done specialist training which follows the “believe the victim” dogma and they had learnt to attribute her wild discrepancies to decades of trauma. After more than seven months of terror, during which the police had no interest in facts of time and place, I was told I would not be charged. I was just lucky; the coin-toss went my way. As I record in my book Dry Ice: The True Story of a False Rape Complaint, when I asked the detective handling my investigation whether my complainant would be charged, she just laughed derisively.


I know two other victims personally. My friend Darren (not his real name) was charged, despite the absence of evidence, after a malicious stepdaughter accused him of molesting her. Thankfully, he was swiftly acquitted, but the whole sordid process took a terrible toll. This is not a purely Western phenomenon; my friend Steve was charged when he was living in Singapore, after a deranged co-worker accused him of groping her on the dance floor. Police “investigation” ignored the testimonies of colleagues who attended the function and witnessed nothing untoward. Threatened with further action that would have meant jail, he agreed to a plea bargain. Legal fees cost him the equivalent of £8,000. His real name is...Steve. Like me, he refuses to hide away.


Numbers are comforting if the story they tell has a simple plot. It can be reassuring – even uplifting – to cite just the A figure and remain convinced that false accusations are uncommon. It sidelines any unsettling doubts, quarantines a whole dimension of the issue of sexual accusations and focuses on the only crisis that matters – attrition in real rape cases. Numbers of falsely accused may be smaller, but they are greater than those who ignore the B figure assume. I would like to ask a question to anyone who doubts this; perhaps yet another Guardian columnist, Zoe Williams, who described false accusations as “vanishingly rare”. Ms Williams, do you expect Darren, Steve and me to believe we are the only ones?

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