True or false? The contested terrain of false allegations

ACSSA Research Summary No. 4 – November 2013

Why would someone make a false allegation?

Sexual assault has particular features that make it a distinct type of crime. These include its interpersonal nature, the underlying gender and power imbalances and the social contexts in which it occurs.

Ascribing a sexual assault with a black or white label of true or false fails to understand some of the broader social issues that can create complexity around the motives for making an allegation.

Saunders (2012) noted that the term "false allegation" can in fact be attributed to a false complaint where the sexual assault didn't occur or a complaint where the victim/survivor has either intentionally or unintentionally given an inaccurate version of events. In both instances, it may be necessary to look behind the various reasons and motivations for an allegation that may be false or may contain aspects of falsity. Consideration of the contextual information surrounding a report is important.

Factors affecting belief of an allegation

In assessing the truth of a claim, certain factors are likely to influence the subjective judgement of whether the complainant's story is believable. Across the literature, there was similarity and repetition in the features that led to decreased belief in an allegation. This indicates that the same factors in different jurisdictions seem to be influencing decision-making about victims' stories. Many of these align with "rape myths" about what is "real rape" and what is not. These rape myths include the presence of violence, that the offender is a stranger, and if there is injury sustained (Larcombe, 2011). These factors however, are contrary to the more typical experience of sexual assault, which is often perpetrated by a known offender.

Delay in reporting

In her research analysing police files, Jordan (2004) noted some of the factors that tended to decrease belief in the truth of the complainant's story. She found 86% of complainants who had delayed reporting were viewed suspiciously. The reality is that there are often delays in reporting sexual assault for many reasons including the trauma of reliving the event, shame and embarrassment, fear of retribution from the perpetrator or others, fear of social consequences and some victim/survivors not being certain that what has happened to them in the process of social and sexual interactions actually constitutes criminality. In other words, a delay in reporting, even if it is of several years, is not unusual in the context of sexual assaults (Lievore, 2003).

Consistency and/or concealment of facts

Consistency of story was another trigger that raised suspicions in believing the complainant (Jordan, 2004; Lievore, 2004). This can include whether a complainant changes her story or conceals facts. A complainant may be considered by police to have lied by omission in that they do not reveal the full account of their experience (Kelly, 2010).

There are many reasons however why reports of sexual assault may contain inconsistencies or concealments. Some of these go to the victim's own sense of factors that may make her story less credible, for example having previous interactions with the perpetrator, or alcohol or drug consumption. Many of these factors indicate the bigger picture about gender roles in our society—for example, in Jordan's (2004) study, one case of changed story involved concealing the victim's role as a sex-worker. Similar contexts may include where the complainant was underage in a bar, or taking illegal drugs. In such instances it may be a choice between two negatives—lying or revealing information that may be detrimental to the victim's story or personal respectability.

Mental illness and intellectual disability

A pervading theme of complainants with mental health issues not being believed or their complaints not prosecuted is reiterated throughout the literature, particularly where complaints were not progressed past police or prosecution stage (Heenan & Murray, 2006; Jordan, 2004; Lievore, 2004; Lonsway, 2010; Stern, 2010).

The UK Stern review found a recurring story of vulnerability among many victims reporting rape. This was particularly in relation to revictimisation where rape and sexual assault occurred multiple times and often in conjunction with mental health problems or learning disabilities (Stern, 2010). Having been sexually assaulted is a known risk factor for further victimisation (Classen, Palesh, & Aggarwal, 2005) and there are various mental health issues, such as complex trauma that can result from long-term and chronic abuse (Briere & Spinazzola, 2005). It is paradoxical that the identification of a mental illness or intellectual disability is identified as a factor in reducing credibility when these are also factors linked to predisposing a person to sexual victimisation (Keel, 2005).

Consumption of drugs and alcohol

Heenan and Murray (2006) found that a high attrition rate in cases where victim/survivors were influenced by alcohol and/or other drugs. The use of drugs and alcohol may have impacted on a reliable recollection of events (Lievore, 2004) but also can go to underlying judgements about a victims responsibility for the sexual assault by engaging in behaviours that made them vulnerable rather than the perpetrator being considered responsible for taking advantage (Jordan, 2004). One study, involving focus groups of students, found that there was a belief among students that while intercourse when drunk to the point of incapacity may amount to an unpleasant experience, these students didn't actually consider it to be rape (Gunby, Carline, & Beynon, 2013)

Known offender

Where an offender is known to the victim/survivor, this is more likely to raise suspicion about the allegation (Jordan, 2004; Larcombe, 2011). Part of this goes to misconceptions about sexual assault and the idea that "stranger" rape is somehow true rape. But there is a concept that somehow a need for consent is negated where a woman has previously agreed to a sexual relationship with the perpetrator. It extends to the framing of sexual assault as merely a miscommunication in the social process of negotiating sex within a relationship (Hester, Kelly, & Radford, 2002). Victims may also have a desire to protect a perpetrator (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009).

Victim demeanour

A study of prosecutors' beliefs in credibility of sexual assault victims found that victim demeanour is very important for convincing juries of the facts. This includes being confident and relaxed, not aggressive, showing some distress but not withdrawn or numbed, and where there is a prior relationship, not showing animosity to an extent that goes to motivation to lie (Lievore, 2004). Memory, articulation and communication were also important. However, as Jordan (2004) noted, the effects of rape and its accompanying trauma are the very things that can produce unconvincing allegations.

Rape myths and stereotypes

Many of the above factors that raise suspicion align with the existence of "rape myths". This is a term that has been given to describe the prejudicial and stereotyped views about rape and sexual assault that perpetuate and flourish in a culture and are acquired and spread in much the same way other cultural beliefs are—through media, peers, learning environments and other communications (Baugher, Elhai, Monroe, & Gray, 2010).

Common perceptions about the motivations for making a false allegation

Assessing an allegation of sexual assault occurs at various points in the criminal justice system but the assessment at the point of police report is probably the one where belief is most crucial. Jordan (2004), in her analysis of reports of sexual assault filed with the New Zealand police, observed that variation between police officer responses is in line with the variation of complainants and the characteristics of each case. She also observed that police are trained to be suspicious and this may impact on their approach to reports (Jordan, 2004).

In a study by Levitt and the Crown Prosecution Service (2013) in the UK that reviewed cases of false allegations of rape and domestic violence, the service drew attention to the need to consider contextual factors and social pressures on the people making intentionally false claims and the reasons for doing so. In one case study, a man who has been having sex with another man claimed it was rape because he felt "guilt, shame and depression" about his sexuality.

Revenge or other malicious intent

The assumption that women would frequently concoct stories of rape for a vindictive purpose is a long-held one. Sir Matthew Hale's now infamous words to a jury in 1847 demonstrate the attitudes behind this when he commented that accusations of rape were easily made, hard to prove and even harder to defend (Lisak et al., 2010). One writer on the topic indicated that there is "ample evidence that adults lie about virtually anything, including grave matters that have serious consequences for others" (Gross, 2008, p. 46).

In the UK study, Kelly et al. (2005) found that the terms "revenge" and "cover-up" do not adequately describe the complexity of the circumstances involved in many of these cases. For example, in this study for the British Home Office, a young Asian woman made a false allegation to prevent her family taking her overseas to an arranged marriage, another was an attempt to reconcile with her mother after being thrown out of home.

An issue that seems little analysed in the literature, is the fact that reporting a sexual assault complaint is not an easy matter. There is a reason that sexual assault is a largely unreported crime—some of the barriers to reporting it include shame, embarrassment, fear of not being believed, and hostility and fear of the legal system (Lievore, 2003). To continue an allegation through the justice system and expose oneself to the requirements of giving evidence and all else that is entailed, is not something that could be taken lightly (Belknap, 2010; Gunby et al., 2013). Therefore there are not just consequences for others but also for the complainant, including the stress of court cases, police scrutiny and witness testimony.

Cover story or alibi

When considering the "cover-up" story, it is interesting to see how the broader social picture around gender roles and expectations play into the perceptions of the complainant and the police about false rape allegations.

The alibi motive refers to instances where the complainant lies to cover up something that may either implicate their own behaviour or they think will bring on judgement about their actions. It was sometimes found in the context of the complainant being pressured into reporting or someone else reporting on their behalf (Jordan, 2004). The examples of this motivation in the literature included, younger people who didn't want their parents to know that sex had been consensual, or had been engaged in some other illegal activity they didn't want known such as taking illegal substances, or had been in a situation where they were aiming to cover up for having consensual sex outside a current relationship (Heenan & Murray, 2006; Jordan, 2004).

Levitt and the Crown Prosecution Service (2013) made similar findings and cited an example of a 14-year-old who had sex with her 17-year-old boyfriend and told her father it was forced because she was afraid of his reaction when he found out. Her father made the allegation to the police.

Saunders (2012) noted that it may be very difficult to identify exact motivations behind a false complaint. Any combination of contextual and personal factors may interact to create such motivations. These can include the fear of consequences for engaging in particular behaviour or a history of vulnerability that indicates a need for assistance rather than aiming to be malicious.