Focusing on false reporting stigmatizes survivors of assault

Delaney Davis

There was a time when I opened Twitter and all I saw was a mass of tweets condemning women who had falsely accused a man of rape. These tweets called for the women in question to be held accountable for their actions. Concerns were raised about how the #MeToo movement has gone too far and how the world is now a dangerous place for men who have to escape a barrage of false sexual assault accusations. 

No one should be falsely accused of any crime, let alone a crime as horrific as rape. That is something everyone can likely agree on. The conversation on false reporting, however, has been overblown in such a way that it stigmatizes survivors from coming forward and sharing their story. 

False reporting of rape claims is an extremely rare phenomenon. According to the 2010 Violence Against Women study, only 2 to 10% of all reported sexual assaults are false. Studies that suggest false rape allegations are a common occurrence are flawed. One such example is a now-debunked study that claimed false rape reports were as high as 41%, and it was shown that this study mixed the terms “unfounded” and “baseless” together. 

“Unfounded” reports are ones that have been found to not meet the legal criteria for being labeled as “rape” or “sexual assault” without being deemed false, while “baseless” reports are those that are completely false. The two are not the same and conflating them with one another results in these inflated statistics. One should be more worried about being a victim of sexual assault itself, rather than a victim of false reporting. 

This rhetoric is not without consequences. Putting undue emphasis on the potential of false reports creates a societal suspicion that all survivors are inherently being dishonest about their experiences. Ultimately, this narrative encourages survivors not to report to law enforcement and get the support they may be searching for. 

This rhetoric may also have lasting implications on survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. Concerns about the prevalence of false reporting have lead Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to propose several problematic changes to the Title IX sexual assault investigation processes. Among the most troubling is the allowance of live cross-examination of the accuser by the accused’s advisors. This has the potential to retraumatize survivors already going through a draining process by participating in a Title IX investigation. This turns the investigation process effectively into a mini-trial — despite the fact that the Title IX investigations’ process is not within a court of law at UT.

What does it say about how our society views survivors, especially women, when our conversations regarding sexual assault are hyper-focused on the rare possibility that survivors are lying about their trauma? We need to be focusing our conversations on the far more common reality — that survivors of sexual trauma often don’t receive the justice they’re seeking within the criminal justice system.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, perpetrators of sexual violence are far less likely to be incarcerated for their actions in comparison to other criminals. Of course, there are a variety of different reasons for this. The majority of sexual assaults go unreported, largely due to the survivor’s fear of reprisal, belief that the police would not do anything to help and fear of the criminal justice system. 

To be fair, these are systemic issues that require multiple, complex solutions to be undone. An easy solution, though, is to bring more light to these issues and create a culture in which survivors are encouraged to share their stories if reporting their assault will bring them closure. It means to stop focusing on the unlikely possibility that survivors are lying about their trauma and refocusing our collective conversations on how we can make it easier for survivors to come forward. Survivors have the identity of being a “sexual assault survivor” forced upon them by someone else. It’s up to us to make the world an easier place to live in after the actions of someone else have changed the lives of survivors forever. 

Davis is a government and Spanish sophomore from Grapevine.