TW: rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse
When claims of sexual abuse are made against a celebrity, it’s like setting off a bomb. Not the kind that could take down a building, but the atomic kind, that sends a visceral thud of panic into the hearts of victims of sexual assault everywhere, regardless of whether or not they are involved in the case being discussed. Because we know what comes after the explosion.
Allegations of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment alone can be emotionally devastating. But for many people taking to their keyboards in the aftermath of these kinds of explosive news stories, accusations of false rape allegations begin to surface.
This played out recently when anonymous allegations were brought against Russell Brand following a documentary released by Channel 4′s Dispatches. While no charges have been formally made against the comedian, and he has fervently denied any wrongdoing, discussions about his guilt or innocence have spread like wildfire.
Activists on social media have been quick to point out that the use of legal speech in a way that could be described as weaponising opens the door for people to accuse alleged victims of making false rape allegations.
Gina Martin, a gender equality activist, writer, speaker and author of Be The Change and No Offence, But…. explains how the use of legal language and legal maxims across social media shapes the discourse and perceptions of sexual violence against women and girls.
″”Innocent until guilty” is a common response that comes up in response to allegations of sexual violence against famous and powerful men – it was popular online during the #metoo movement too – but its usage is a problem,” she says.
Martin tells me how weaponising the legal maxim ends up doing more harm than good by quashing public discussion about allegations. “It is being used to silence discussions from mostly women and people living under misogyny.”
She continues, “Chillingly, this phrase makes it more possible for men accused of harm to skirt accountability in society, just as they do in our legal system.″
As it stands, charges for rape sit below 1%, effectively making rape a decriminalised sexual offence in England and Wales, despite a 44% increase in rape claims being made in 2022/23, (compared to the previous year).
But, why are there claims of false rape allegations being made? What is a false rape allegation? — And, how exactly are they defined?
False rape allegations remain undefined
According to YouGov data, 16% of Brits believe half or more of rape reports are false. But a false rape allegation is rarer than you think. In fact, nobody can define what a false rape allegation is — and neither is it a specific criminal offence, (although some are charged with wasting police time and averting the course of justice if thought to be ‘guilty’ of it).
The absence of a singular agreed-upon definition leaves the definition of one open to various interpretations. This means that, depending on which definition is being used, how a false rape allegation is being defined, or whether the definition is being measured against case files or claims — or if they are believed to be false according to the police or a prosecutor; the percentage rate of false rape allegations can change dramatically.
“It is difficult to put a precise number of false allegations because there is not a tick box that says; “this is a false allegation”. So, you’re working with an area where there are open or conflicting definitions,” says Professor Mandy Burton, a Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Leicester, who co-authored the Ministry of Justice research paper in 2012.
For example, in research carried out for the Ministry of Justice, two approaches to false rape allegations were defined. One was classified as ‘broad’ and another, more narrow definition as ‘malicious allegation’. Each produced vastly different findings.
The ‘broad’, which included retracted statements and intoxication as types of false allegations, found that 12% of all reported rapes to be false. The second, ‘malicious’, which removed circumstances where a claimant might be intoxicated, misremembered or retracted a statement under duress, found that only 3% of cases to be false.
“A ‘false allegation’ is not a recorded outcome,” says Prof Burton. “Researchers can look at the reasons for decisions recorded on the file [and] researchers can only capture what is recorded on the file. The data may be affected by how complete the file is.”
However, Prof Burton explains that using a narrow definition of false rape allegations puts the percentage in line with other non-sexual violent offences and argues that the use of a broader one invalidates the experiences of victims.
“There are explanations for why complainants may delay reporting or retract their complaints,” she says, “So it shouldn’t be assumed that an allegation is false if the complainant has delayed reporting — even by many years, and it shouldn’t necessarily be assumed that an allegation is false if the complainant retracts.″
Rape claims aren’t investigated thoroughly
The percentage of false rape cases that are prosecuted is even lower, according to data collected over a 17-month period by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2013, sitting at just 0.62%.
Prof Burton explains how such broadly different findings can arise across research, making it hard to know which representation is accurate.
″Different studies may have different levels of ‘false allegations’ because they are looking at different samples or use different methods; some may focus just on the prosecution case files, and that would explain why they find lower levels of ‘false allegations’, because it does not include police cases reported to the police and ’no further actioned”, Prof Burton says.
Yet, Prof Burton is keen to remind me that things will be different now from when this research was carried out almost 15 years ago. But, according to Rape Crisis 5 in 6 women, and 4 in 5 men, don’t report rapes to the police. And, 38% expressed that they didn’t think the police would help as a reason for not reporting.
Operation Soteria, a research and change program designed to ‘transform the investigation of rape’ was rolled out in England and Wales in July 2023. However, the findings of their one-year report found that police forces lack sufficient specialist knowledge about sexual offending.
It was found that disproportionate investigation effort was being put into testing the credibility of a victim’s account, rather than investigating alleged sexual assaults. Additionally, the report determined that officers were burnt out, understaffed and had insufficient data systems which could lead to better strategic planning.
In light of this, it’s easy to see how, in 2022, an abysmal 1.9% of rapes reported to the police ended in a charge and less than 1% led to a conviction, despite malicious rape claims making up only 3% of all rape allegations.
Are victims guilty until proven innocent?
Attitudes towards alleged false rape allegations could be described as unforgiving. Most Brits consider false rape claims to be just as serious as the act of rape itself, with 14% convinced that it is worse than the crime they’ve been accused of.
However, the aftermath of rape can cause trauma to ripple through families and friendship groups — lasting lifetimes, epigenetically changing the fabric of our very biology, opening a pathway for further victimisation and abuse.
Prof Burton points out that, “Raising a complaint of rape is very difficult. There are a number of reasons, very good reasons, why you would not want to do that.”
One such reason is the 18-24 month wait period for court dates victims face. “The prosecution of rape is an endurance challenge for complainants. They have to stay engaged with a really difficult process,” says Prof Burton, “I think it is difficult for complainants to stay with it.”
She’s not wrong. There is a disquieting trend emerging in the rate at which rape cases are being dropped in 2023. According to data collected by the charity End Violence to Women and Girls, the figure has already risen from 11.2% to 11.7%.
Rape Crisis England and Wales reported that by the end of March 2022, 798,000 women were sexually assaulted. That’s 1 in 3. So, it’s likely that someone you know and hold dear has been through, or is going through, hell and back — and back again.
We do women everywhere a disservice by fostering a culture of disbelief and distrust when it comes to speaking out about sexual assault. It’s more likely that a man will be raped than to be falsely accused of it. And, it is more likely that a woman will be raped than make a false accusation of it. Given the evidence, perhaps it’s time we started believing women before we condemn them.