False Rape Accusations


This is Luke Harwood from Essex, UK. When he was sixteen, a girl filed a rape complaint with the police against him. The police officers believed her story, but felt that Luke was innocent because the incident she described didn't constitute rape; she was misunderstanding what rape is. They explained it to her, and she withdrew her complaint. However, two years later she told a friend that Luke was a rapist, but that the police wouldn't press charges against him. She probably thought she was just telling her story, reaching out for support. Her friend, however, felt that justice needed to be served, tracked Luke down with two of her friends, and brutally murdered him. All three were sentenced to life in prison on multiple charges, including perverting the course of justice. Luke was eighteen years old. He had a son, Archie, and was expecting a daughter, Lilly-Rose. He was killed because of a false rape accusation.

The prevalence of false rape accusations is a controversial topic; everyone seems to agree on the numbers, but interprets them differently. Here are the numbers (sources are listed on the bottom of this page):

  • 2% of rape accusations were proven true, i.e. the accused was convicted of rape.
  • 2% were proven false, i.e. the accuser committed perjury.
  • 63% were never investigated because the alleged victim never filed a police report.
  • 33% were a combination of unfounded claims (i.e. the incident described by the alleged victim does not constitute rape) and inconclusive cases where neither guilt nor innocence could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Some people believe that the above statistics mean that 98% of rapists walk free. Others feel that these same statistics mean that 98% of accused are innocent. The truth is - 2% of rape accusations are true, another 2% are false, and the remaining 96% are undetermined. It's impossible to speculate on prevalence of rape or false accusations based on so little data, but it's clear that both do happen.

When one hears the words "false rape accusation," the common assumption is that we're talking of a deliberate and malicious attempt to harm someone innocent for personal gain. In reality, many false accusations are caused by miscommunication, misunderstandings, or confusion as to how the legal system works. It's tragic that innocent people get hurt because of misunderstandings and confusion. It's also tragic that two thirds of people who believe they were raped do not report these incidents to the police, often due to the same confusion. Understanding how to use the legal system correctly can help avoid false accusations while holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

If you think you might have been raped:

A lot of people are unsure if they were raped or not, because things you read about rape online are often blurry, contradictory, or plain not true. You can't sort through it all without a law degree - and you don't have to. If you think you might have been raped, just talk to the police. They'll hear you out, ask you questions, and tell you if what you're describing fits the current legal definition of rape in your jurisdiction. They know this stuff, they do it for a living. You won't be in trouble either way, as long as you're being truthful. The worst thing that can happen is that they'll tell you it wasn't rape, you'll thank them for their time, and that will be it. There are many stories about rape victims regretting contacting the police due to how traumatic the investigation and the trial was - but participation in these is optional. You don't have to do it if you don't want to. The police might ask you to (perhaps more than once), but ultimately it's up to you, you're not obligated to cooperate, testify, etc.

If you want to tell your friends:

It's possible that I would genuinely believe I was raped (and maybe I was), but the other person was never convicted. Maybe I didn't file a police report, or my complaint was deemed unfounded, or the investigation was inconclusive, a "he said she said" situation. When I can't get justice through legal means, it might seem tempting to "warn other women" by spreading rumors about the alleged rapist, to ruin their good name, marriage, career, etc. After all, they ruined my life, so ruining theirs can seem only fair. However, our society operates on presumption of innocence, so you can't publicly call someone a rapist while they have never been convicted of rape. Doing so is a crime, slander/libel/defamation of character. To avoid these charges, report the incident to law enforcement and let them handle it. Focus on repairing the aftermath of your trauma instead: nightmares, anxiety, depression, rebuilding trust towards people, etc. Talk of these things when you reach out to family and friends, and leave alone the subject of who the alleged rapist is and what they deserve. "Harmless venting to friends" is exactly what brought on Luke Harwood's death.

If you lied to the police:

Some people make false reports to the police intentionally: out of spite, for financial gain, to win custody of children, etc. For example, Laurie Ann Martinez faked a rape to convince her husband they needed to move to a better neighborhood. Other people do it on impulse: they blurt out a lie when they feel cornered, instantly regret it, but feel like it's too late to take it back once the police are involved. For example, Elizabeth Coast made up a rape story when mom caught her watching porn."I had no idea how far this lie would go," she said. Many of such accusers believe that the person they are accusing of rape won't actually end up convicted due to lack of evidence. However, first, it's gambling with someone's life: people do get convicted this way sometimes; the man Ms Coast accused of rape served four years. And second, lying to the police is a crime, so you're gambling with your life too. Ms Coast was sentenced to 60 days of jail plus fines, while Eleanor de Freitas committed suicide days before trial, leaving a note that the trial would bring shame on her family and that it was entirely her fault. If you blurted out a lie and don't have the guts to admit it - at least don't repeat it, withdraw your complaint as early as possible. It won't look odd: many rape victims don't file police reports (or withdraw them later on), for various reasons.

If you're raising awareness:

Everyone has a different view on what specifically is rape and how it should be handled. Some people believe we live in a "rape culture," i.e. that our society condones and encourages rape, and try to resolve this problem by raising awareness about it. In 2014, RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network) published 16 pages worth of comments and recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In it RAINN states "In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime". It's OK to disagree with RAINN's position on this topic, and to advocate for what you believe is right; diversity of opinions is a sign of a healthy society. Yet, however you feel about rape or men, you have to remember that each specific person's guilt or innocence is determined individually, by a jury, based on current laws. You can't publicly accuse any one specific man of rape unless he was convicted of it. Raising awareness about a case where no one was convicted backfires and hurts your cause, because people won't take you seriously the next time you cry "rape."

If you heard a rape accusation:

There's this notion that you have to believe the victim's story. However, it's crucial to differentiate between her story and her opinions on legal matters. Her story is that she felt violated, is traumatized by the experience, and needs emotional support. It's probably true, and doubting her sincerity is insensitive and pointless: she's the only one who knows how she feels. On the other hand, whether that experience fits the legal definition of rape (and whether the other person is a rapist) is not her story. It's her opinion, and in criminal cases it's only the jury's opinion that matters, because the victim's perspective can be heavily biased. If you're told that someone is a rapist, treat it as rumors about any other violent felony - terrorism, murder, armed robbery, etc. Offer her support for her emotional trauma, suggest she reports the incident to the police, and wait for legal proceedings to end, before drawing conclusions about who he is and what he deserves. You're a friend, not a law enforcement officer. Focus on supporting the victim, not on punishing the alleged perpetrator.

If you're falsely accused:

Please don't give up: times are changing, existence of false rape accusations is getting recognized more and more, and people who were falsely accused do get acquitted of rape charges. What would have been the end of your life five years ago isn't treated the same way now, and will not be treated the same way five years from now either. Get a good lawyer. Save text messages and emails received after the alleged rape. See if this is the first rape accusation made by this person or there were others. Once the criminal case is closed and your innocence is established - do sue for defamation, don't let it slide, your case can make a difference for others who were falsely accused. False rape accusations are a form of abuse, feel free to join our community to talk of the emotional aftermath of this nightmare.