Sexual Assault

Full-Text Friday: Unfounding Sexual Assault

This week’s article focuses on the critical issue of false reports and unfounded cases of sexual assaults. Work with sexual assault patients for any period of time and you’re bound to hear wildly over-reaching statistics about the rate of false reports, which the science continues to show is untrue. I encourage you to share this week’s selection with your multidisciplinary response teams–it’s a great article for a wider discussion. Click through for all of the details.

Citation: Law & Society Rev. 2014; 48(1): 161-92. Unfounding sexual assault: Examining the decision to unfound and identify false reports. Spohn C, White C, Tellis K.

Why this article: 1.) Because the notion that sexual assault reports are frequently just false allegations is pervasive and problematic on multiple levels. 2.) Because we often use unfounded and false interchangeably, when they are, in fact, not synonymous (and anyone who has ever heard me lecture on testimony knows I point to Slaughter, et al, as to why it’s important for clinicians to understand the difference); and 3.) Because there hasn’t been a great deal of science on this subject, so anything that contributes to the evidence base is worth taking a look at.

Key quote: Forgive me, but there are a couple worth pointing out here:

A key finding is that, at least in this jurisdiction, false reports of rape are not common. Using weighted data that took into account the fact that our sample was stratified by LAPD division and, within each division, by the type of case closure, we calculated that the overall rate of false reports for the LAPD in 2008 was 4.5 percent, with about half of these cases involving a complainant who recanted. (p 186)

Also of interest is the fact that more than three quarters of the unfounded reports classified as false allegations were reports of aggravated rape—the complainant reported that she was forcibly raped and indicated that the rape was perpetrated by a stranger, multiple assailants, or a suspect wielding a weapon, or that she suffered from collateral injuries. Many of the complainants, especially young teenagers, reported that they were abducted by a man (or men) in a vehicle (often a white van), taken to an unknown location, threatened with physical harm, and sexually assaulted. Most of the complainants who alleged that they were attacked by a stranger provided very vague descriptions of the suspect, stated that they resisted the suspect physically (e.g., by kicking him in the groin or biting him on the face), and that they somehow managed to escape. The fact that many of the allegations deemed to be false conform so closely to the stereotypical view of forcible rape/real rape suggests that complainants believe that their stories will be viewed as more credible if they do not deviate too sharply from society’s view of the dynamics of a “real rape.” (p 187)