True or false? The contested terrain of false allegations

ACSSA Research Summary No. 4 – November 2013

The cultural background that allows myths and beliefs about false allegations to perpetuate

One of the key issues underpinning the controversy about false allegations is the nature of the crime of sexual assault. It has issues of gender, social roles and stereotyping tied up together in a way that few other types of crime do. Connected to this is the fact that the effects of sexual assault on victim/survivors also have particular and specific impacts on victims in ways that many other violent crimes do not (Boyd, 2011).

Kelly (2010) commented that there is a "gendered agenda" around the debate with respect to false allegations and that any discussion about the significance of the issue cannot be considered without highlighting the gendered nature of rape and analysing the cultural backdrop that has resulted in women (and children) not being believed when they do speak of sexual abuse.

Many interlinking factors create the perception that women frequently lie about sexual assault. These include social norms and stereotypes of gender roles. These are the bigger picture factors that go beyond the immediate individual's understanding or an organisational culture of scepticism. These are about the misconceptions or beliefs that a whole society may have about sexual assault, and about what is appropriate behaviour according to gender. Prosecuting decisions may be made according to these beliefs, because it could be assumed that a jury (representing society) will hold them (Lievore, 2004).

Social norms and gender role stereotypes

Jordan (2004) found that approximately three-quarters of the incidents police concluded to be false appeared to have some element of judgement on the basis of stereotypes regarding the defendant's behaviour, demeanour or motive.

Another study of prosecutorial decisions indicated that prosecutors perceive that juries take a moralistic view of victim behaviour ,such as drinking or showing interest in an alleged perpetrator prior to the assault, as behaviour that could go against the victim (Lievore, 2004).

There is evidence throughout the attrition studies and other research analysis that indicates that where women have acted in a way that is contrary to that of social norms and expectations that some element of credibility is lost. For example, Heath (2005) in an outline of laws around evidence in sexual offence trials, noted that women are consistently accused of lying or making false reports and that they face extended length of questioning compared to other trials.

Anderson et al. (2013), in a review of the ACT sexual assault law reforms, noted much of the attrition rate was attributed to the difficulties in confirming evidence and made an observation that if the defendant had to prove there was consent there may be a change in the attrition rate change.

The importance of understanding sexual assault

The literature also indicates that allegations of sexual assault are more likely to be believed where the context of the alleged rape aligns to the rape myths that often surround perceptions of sexual assault (Lonsway, 2010). The paradox here, however, is that sexual assault more commonly occurs in a scenario where the offender is known to the victim.

Jordan (2004) noted that if there was more widespread understanding of the trauma sexual assault produces, then police and other decision-makers would understand victims' fear of being blamed and the impact that shame has on complainants. The importance of training for professionals in the justice system to understand the effects of sexual assault and the range of responses victims can present is a repeated conclusion on the topic of false allegations (Rumney, 2006; Williams, 2012).