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False Reporting of Sexual Assault

May 13, 2010

The Difficult Issue of False Reporting
One of the most difficult issues facing the Sexual Assault Movement today and one that has a profound effect on people in the systems who investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases as well as the victim/survivors themselves is the issue of false reporting. This blog will touch on one of the most confusing parts of the debate on the frequency of false reporting – the confusing language that surrounds the debate. We will also look at some of the new strategies to help this issue.

The first problem that can cloud this issue is the definition of a false report. Most people would think that a false report would be about an innocent person identified as the attacker. Another possibility would be that the victim/survivor regrets having consensual intercourse, wants to destroy the attackers reputation or may be looking for attention or is covering up drinking, using drugs or having consensual sex outside of their current relationship. The general public may believe these myths and possibly the family members of the victim/survivor or perpetrator may believe them too.

Next, there may be confusing language in the Uniform Crime Report (RCR) which is where the FBI collects and compiles crime data. One example of confusing language is when departments are classifying cases and use the categories of unfounded which includes both baseless and false. The definition of baseless means that the incident doesn’t meet the formal elements of the crime, but the incident may have happened. A finding of false means that a sexual assault was reported but the investigation factually proves that the S.A. never occurred nor was attempted.

Sometimes cases have been labeled unfounded when the victim/survivor: refuses to continue to cooperate in the case, when there were no physical injuries found, no weapon was used, the victim/survivor and perpetrator knew each other or had a prior relationship. Victim/survivors who have not reported the sexual assault immediately, which is most often the case, may find the incident labeled as unfounded.

Another improper use of the unfounded finding is when a victim/survivor recants her accounting of the sexual assault. Victim/survivors may recant for a number of reasons. The victim/survivor may become wary of the system or the way they believe they are being perceived. They may become frustrated with the length of time the process takes and start believing the justice will not be served.

Movement has begun in many different areas to address the issue of false reporting. New categories are being implemented to more accurately capture data in the future. Training has been developed to help train prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, medical personal and advocates to better understand this topic. Training will also help to insure that all agencies, departments and individuals have the same information and will help to achieve a more uniform response from all.

Exciting new research is being done by professionals such as Dr. Kimberly Lonsway, Sgt. Joanne Archambault and Dr. David Lisak. These researchers have worked both individually and jointly to produce data that has been collected with the highest degree of accuracy using clear, concise definitions, independent reviewers, and many different checks to make sure their data was sound. With this wonderful new empirical research and new comprehensive training, we have a chance for real systems change which will improve the investigation and prosecuting of non-stranger sexual assault cases. With best practices used, we can truly make this work victim-centered.

Click here to read a report on false reporting.

Lisak, David (2007) False allegations of rape: A critique of Kanin. Sexual Assault Report, 11 (1), pp 1-2, 6, 9.
Lonsway, Dr. Kimberly A., Archambault, Sgt. Joanne (Ret.), Lisak, Dr. David, False Reports: Moving beyond the Issue to successfully investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault, American Prosecutors Reasearch Institute, Vol. 3 No.! (2009), vol3no12009.pdf (last visited June 22, 2009)

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