Finally – finally! – we get to know just how prevalent false rape accusations have become. As BBC Newsbeat reports “it’s the first time details for England and Wales have been compiled, showing how common the problem is”. From that particular wording, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the answer to that was “not very common at all”. But you’d be wrong. Over the past 17 months there have been two – yes, two – successful prosecutions per month for making false allegations and wasting police time. To put that in perspective, you find an average of 332 prosecutions per month for rape over the same period (something the BBC fails to mention). Even if we set aside the fact that many rapes are not even reported or do not get to trial, it’s quite a contrast. Think of how many times you see stories of false rape allegations reported in the press and imagine if rape convictions were reported in the same way. Every other story you read would be about a rape conviction. But it’s not, is it? Because rape is “the norm” and false allegations are the exception – even if our tendency to focus on the exception means we now think it is the norm (at least if we write for BBC Newsbeat).
Misleading press reporting is only part of the problem, though. As the comments following Keir Starmer’s soberly argued piece in the Guardian show, many people just don’t understand what a false allegation is. Or perhaps they just pretend not to? Either way, withdrawing an allegation of rape is not tantamount to offering proof that the initial claim was a lie. It can be, and frequently is, a response to intense pressure and fear. And while it is possible to argue that if there are more rapes than rape convictions, then there just must be more false allegations than false allegation convictions, this is not as logical as it sounds. A false allegation is, by its very nature, is subject to investigation in a way that an unreported rape never is. Further, while we do see broad cultural trends of rape apologism – from UniLAD to George Galloway to rape jokes on t-shirts – reaching out to the minds of investigators and juries, we’ve never yet seen an equivalent level of sympathy and amusement regarding false rape claims. There’s no UniLADETTE website telling female students that “only two women are prosecuted every month for false rape claims, so the odds on you getting away with it are good” (and to be fair, given what seems to be offered as “evidence” of a woman having lied, I’d say they weren’t such great odds after all).
The very existence of false rape accusation – however rare – seems to present rape apologists with an opportunity to suggest that yes, some men might rape but all’s fair and women give as good as they get. We hear that women are as likely to lie about rape as men are to rape, and that being falsely accused is as bad as being raped (whether or not the latter is the case, our adversarial justice system requires that pretty much all rape victims are falsely accused of being liars, so it’s not as though rape case defendants have a monopoly on false accusation outrage). As far as the likelihood of being falsely accused is concerned, the statistics we have just don’t add up to anything like an equivalence. Furthermore, to suggest that false accusation somehow evens up the balance as far as victimhood is concerned is to live in some bizarre parallel universe in which gender inequality, sexual double standards and the denial of female bodily autonomy do not exist. False rape allegations do not provide some neat way of saying “ha! Women have just as much power to destroy men!” It’s not a game. Nobody is winning here.
If we truly believed that being falsely accused of rape posed a grave threat to all men, perhaps we’d devote a lot of time to telling them how to minimise the risk of being accused (personal freedom be damned!). We’d have lots of fatuous advertising campaigns telling them not to sleep with women and then piss them off (because that, so the story seems to go, is how a false allegation comes about). And yet, we don’t do that. Interestingly, whenever false rape allegations are in the news, the “moral” is always that the woman who lies betrays all real victims of rape. Because we all know that you’re far more likely to be a victim of rape than the victim of a false allegation, just as we know that the onus is always on women to modify their behaviour. As for all the fuss we make of false allegations? It’s just part of the rhetoric of rape culture. It’s not about helping real victims of either crime.