[Image: "Violent electrical storm attacks the California Mojave Desert" by Jessie Eastland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Today, July 13, 2017, the Department of Education is holding a series of 90-minute meetings on sexual assault in higher education. Curiously, the list of invitees includes not just survivors, advocates, and campus officials, but a number of groups affiliated with men’s right activists, such as the National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), who have been given their own 90-minute block with Department of Education officials.
SAVE claims that “most domestic violence education programs lack accuracy, balance, and truthfulness”-- literally the title of one of its reports-- and offers tip sheets to those accused of domestic violence. The National Coalition for Men, for its part, cites a Eugene Kanin study claiming that 50% of rape allegations are false accusations and has outed survivors of sexual violence by publishing the names and photos of women they claim have made false accusations.
In a New York Times interview on July 12, Candice Jackson, the Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, said that in allegations of sexual assault, “the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” Jackson also organized today’s series of meetings on Title IX.
So what’s the truth? The 2015 Report on Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that among seniors, 33.1% of women reported being assaulted during their college careers. Among current students, 23.6% of women reported being assaulted, as did 18.5% of lesbians, 12.1% of gay men, and 11.1% of bisexual men. Among heterosexual trans, genderqueer or gender nonconforming students (TGQNC), 9.2% report having been assaulted, as did 18.4% of gay or lesbian TGQNC students.
Among some particularly vulnerable groups, that number was higher. 31.7% of bisexual women reported to researchers that they had been assaulted, as did 31.6% of disabled women. With sexual assault reaching epidemic levels on campus, why is the Department of Education spending its time worrying about false accusations?
What Studies Say About False Accusations
It’s estimated that between two and ten percent of rape reports are false allegations. But we should distinguish between false allegations and false accusations. A false allegation is any time a person reports, falsely, to the authorities that they were raped. A false accusation is any time a person does so and names a specific perpetrator. Contrary to rape myths, false allegations rarely name a specific perpetrator.
This is an important distinction, and one that’s often missed in the media. Bloomberg View writer Megan McArdle, in her columns, assumes that every false allegation is a false accusation. McArdle dismisses the two-percent figure cited by Susan Brownmiller in 1975’s Against Our Will: Men, women, and rape: “The 2 percent number is very bad and should never be cited.” Instead, she recommends, with caveats, a 1994 study by Eugene Kanin, the same source used by the National Coalition for Men, which reported that 41% of rape allegations were false. (However, this figure represents progress for Kanin. In 1985, he presented a paper at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences annual meeting suggesting that 100% of rape reports were false.)
However, Kanin made two significant errors in his study design. The first is that he only studied reports of completed, forcible rape. Most sexual assaults don’t involve the use of force. By contrast, most false reports of rape do. As researcher David Lisak and his co-authors note in “False Reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger assault,” most false allegations look more like rape myths than the actual phenomenon.
According to Lisak, false reports are likely to be allegations of stranger rape, like a masked man jumping out of the bushes. They are likely to be allegations of forcible rape involving the use of a weapon, typically a gun or knife. They typically include only penile-vaginal assault, when many survivors have a variety of sex crimes perpetrated against them.
In reality, most survivors know and are able to identify their attackers. A 2000 study of college sexual assaults found that nine out of ten survivors know their attackers. Most sexual assaults are non-forcible, using only threats or implied threats to control the victim, and don’t involve a weapon. The majority of rape allegations don’t involve the use of force, but nearly every false allegation does. By including only forcible rape, Kanin was bound to overestimate the number of false allegations.
Kanin’s second mistake was relying too heavily on the judgment of police in determining false rape allegations. Kanin made no attempt to independently verify if the alleged survivor actually had recanted her statement, or if the police had merely recorded that she had after disbelieving her story. As studies show, police are no better than citizens at separating lies from truth. Their accuracy? About 56%-- no better than flipping a coin.
To further complicate the matter, every alleged victim in Kanin’s study was given a “serious offer” to take a polygraph. According to a 2010 meta-analysis of false rape accusations done by researcher David Lisak, the polygraph is “a procedure that is now widely viewed as an intimidation tactic that frequently persuades already hesitant rape victims to drop out of the criminal justice process. This procedure is so frowned upon that the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act stipulates that any state in which agencies use the polygraph on sexual assault victims jeopardizes its eligibility for certain grants, and a number of states have passed laws prohibiting the use of the polygraph to determine whether charges should be filed in a sexual assault case.”
What Kanin’s study shows is that first, police distrust survivors, and second, survivors are willing to recant their statements when police employ intimidation tactics and treat them like liars. But what do more credible studies show?
According to most scholarly literature, between two and ten percent of rape reports are false allegations. Studies with more rigorous methodologies have found this number to be between 2.1 and 2.5%. A three-year study of Australian rape reports found that only 2.1% of reports were false.
But to separate allegations from accusations, it's necessary to go deeper. A 2012 British Home Office study found that out of 5651 prosecutions for rape, there were 35 prosecutions for false allegations of rape. Of these, ten were charged with "Wasting Police Time," likely meaning that no specific perpetrator was named. The remaining 25 were charged with "Perverting the Course of Justice," indicating that they falsely accused someone of rape. This works out to .4%. That’s right-- the study found that just 1 out of 250 rape reports are false accusations.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, there were 79,770 rapes reported to law enforcement in 2013. If the British Home Office numbers hold true for the United States, 319 of those were false accusations of rape, or about one per million US residents. That’s hardly an epidemic. The odds of being falsely accused of rape are more like getting struck by lightning, which, according to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, happens to 300 Americans each year. If groups like SAVE and the National Coalition for Men are serious about protecting men, they might be better served by buying lightning rods.
Science Deniers: Why Survivors Are Not Believed
In particular, there are two questions often asked whenever someone contends they have been falsely accused-- "Why didn't the victim fight back?" and "Why can't the victim remember, with perfect clarity, exactly what happened?" Luckily, science can answer both of those.
During a sexual assault, it’s common for victims to experience “tonic immobility,” a temporary paralysis induced by fear. As psychologist Rebecca Campbell noted in a 2012 presentation for the National Institute of Justice, the body undergoes a hormonal reaction to the threat of a sexual assault.
Once the brain’s amygdala detects a threat, it coordinates with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to produce a chemical flood to react to danger. In particular, four changes happen:
-Catecholamines like dopamine and adrenaline surge, impairing rational thought like if/then statements. The victim’s brain literally cannot process thoughts like, “If I scream for help, then someone will save me” or “If I can reach my phone, then I can call 911.”
-Opioids are produced by the body to help survivors deal with potential pain, often causing a flat affect in the aftermath of the assault.
-Oxytocin levels rise, to help the victim maintain calm.
-Corticosteroid levels, like cortisol, fall, reducing the energy available to help fight back or flee the attack.
As Campbell notes, “A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands, she cannot move her arms, she cannot move her legs, she cannot move her torso, she cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.”
In short, it’s an evolutionary response to danger. When our paleolithic ancestors were confronted by animal predators, fighting back would have gotten them killed. Trying to flee would have simply incited a chase, ending in death. Freezing, or playing dead in response to danger, may have resulted in the predator deciding they’re not a threat and simply moving on.
How common is it? A 2017 study found that 70% of women experienced “significant” tonic immobility, and 48% had suffered “extreme” tonic immobility while being assaulted. In local news accounts, victims consistently describe themselves as “frozen” during the attack. A sample from the past month:
-Sunderland Echo, July 13, 2017: “The judge said the victim ‘froze’ during the attack, which lasted a matter of minutes, but was able to get away and call for help.”
-The Mercury News, July 6, 2017: “‘The victim described herself as being frozen during the sexual assault,’ [Detective Joseph P.] Kelly alleged.”
-Valley Central, July 3, 2017: "’Lisa [a pseudonym] stated she does not remember fighting back and she believes she physically froze while she repeatedly told the male 'no,'’ according to the criminal complaint.”
-YourErie, June 28, 2017: “At another appointment, she said, the doctor unhooked her bra and reached her left breast. ‘I froze, because I knew that was sexual assault,’ Denhollander said.”
-The Irish Sun, June 28, 2017: “She told the court that the accused ‘cupped’ her breast. She said: ‘He touched my breast. I was shocked. I froze.’”
Additionally, survivors of sexual assault may have trouble remembering the details of the attack. The same chemical flood that produces tonic immobility also inhibits two structures in the brain-- the hippocampus, which encodes and consolidates sensory information into memories, and the amygdala, which processes the emotions related to these memories.
As Campbell explains, “Here’s the problem-- the hippocampus and the amygdala are very sensitive to hormonal fluctuations. So depending upon what hormones are in the body at the time of encoding and consolidation, it’s going to be easier or harder for the brain to do the work that it needs to do of encoding and consolidating information. So the six-million dollar question is, of course, which hormones are the ones that are damaging to the hippocampus and the amygdala? To finish the layup, it is the catecholamines, the cortisol, the opioids, and the oxytocin. It’s a classic example of where our body can sometimes be working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, we covered how all of these hormones are very very helpful for the emotional aspects and the physical safety of the organism. On the other hand, these same hormones are going to make it very difficult for the brain to lay down the encoding and consolidation that needs to happen to record the traumatic event in the brain.”
Yet the myth persists that fighting back is the gold standard for detecting false accusations. In fact, tonic immobility is likely to occur. Not remembering the details of the assault is common. Ignoring these biological realities is to deny science. In choosing the meet with misogynist groups like SAVE and the National Coalition for Men, this is exactly what the Department of Education is doing.
And this denial can have serious consequences for survivors.
A 2005 study by Campbell found that 90% of survivors experience some form of "secondary victimization." 69% of survivors were discouraged by police from filing a report. 44% were questioned about how they were dressed at the time of the assault, and 40% were questioned about their prior sexual history. 47% were told that the case was not serious enough to pursue. 31% of women without an advocate present were asked by police if they had orgasmed during the attack.
As a result, 73% of survivors blamed themselves for the attack, and 89% report feeling violated. 71% report feeling depressed, and 53% were distrustful of others. 80% were reluctant to seek further help-- medical, legal, or otherwise. “[Secondary victimization] exacerbates their trauma, and it makes them feel like they’re experiencing a second rape-- hence the term ‘secondary victimization,'” Campbell told the National Institute of Justice audience.
Survivors who seek help and experience secondary victimization can end up worse off than those who seek no help at all. A 1999 study by Campbell found that survivors who experienced secondary victimization had the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, even above those who sought no aid from legal authorities or medical professionals.
If we play the numbers, we need to start by believing survivors. The best estimates we have tell us that only 2% of rape reports are false allegations, and only .4%, or one in 250, reports of rape is a false accusation. If we begin by believing people who claim to have been assaulted, we’ll be right 98% of the time. Additionally, we’ll spare them the risk of post-traumatic stress that accompanies the secondary victimization of being treated like a liar. And in 99.6% of allegations, no innocent man will face an accusation of rape.
These are the established odds, and we can only play the cards we were dealt. In poker, it’s called a “bad beat” when you lose with a hand that, statistically, should have won. If we believe a survivor and it turns out he or she lied, that’s not an example of a systematic problem. It’s just a bad beat. The Department of Education may disagree. They distrust survivors. They distrust feminist activists. They distrust advocates. They distrust academics. They distrust science itself. But for the rest of us, going by the numbers is a sound bet.