[content warning: rape, false rape allegations]
Spotted on Brute Reason but liked and reblogged 35,000 times: Five Things More Likely To Happen To You Than Being Accused Of Rape. A man is 631 times more likely to become an NFL player than to be falsely accused of rape! Thirty-two times more likely to be struck by lightning! Eleven times more likely to be hit by a comet!
Needless to say, all of these figures are completely wrong, in fact wrong by a factor of over 22,700x. I’m not really complaining – missing the mark by only a little over four orders of magnitude is actually not bad for a “story” of this type. Nevertheless, it will be instructive to figure out where they erred so we may be vigilant against such things in the future, and perhaps certain moral lessons may be gleaned in the process as well.
Since that article itself does not show its work, we will have to rely on its obvious inspiration, an almost-identical blog post written a few days before by the same person responsible for the Buzzfeed piece, Charles Clymer.
It starts by noting that there are about 84,000 forcible rapes per year – and that FBI statistics suggest 8% are false accusations. We will can examine these numbers later, but for now let’s just take them as given.
It then goes on to calculate that, given the average man has sex 99 times per year (who is this average man?!) there are 5.1 billion acts of sexual intercourse in the United States each year among American men 15 – 39. Divide 5.1 billion by 6,750, and therefore, in Clymer’s words “the odds of any sexually-active male between the ages of 15 and 39 has a 750,000 to 1 chance of being falsely accused of rape”
And, he goes on to say, 1/33 men are raped during their lifetime. Therefore, the average man has a 27500x higher chance of being raped than being falsely accused of rape. The average man has a 1 in 84,079 chance of being killed by lightning, so that’s 32x more likely than getting falsely accused of rape. And it adds that the average women has a 1/4 chance of being raped during her lifetime – so the odds of a woman being raped during her lifetime must be 220000x higher than the odds of a man being falsely accused of rape.
Did you spot the sleight of hand in those calculations? He calculated the odds of a man who has sex 99 times per year for 24 years being accused of rape per sex act, and then declared this was the odds of being accused of rape in your lifetime. Then he went on to compare it to various other lifetime odds, like the lifetime odds of being raped, the lifetime odds of being struck by lightning, et cetera.
This isn’t comparing apples to oranges. This isn’t even comparing apples to orangutans. This is comparing apples to the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
To highlight exactly how awful this is, suppose we wanted to trivialize rape itself through the same methodology. The average woman, as per the article’s statistics, has a 1/4 chance of getting raped during her lifetime, which means a 1/9500 or so chance of getting raped per sex act if she has sex 99 times per year from ages 15-39. And looking at the same list of statistically unlikely things provided on that article, that’s less than the odds of dying in a plane crash (1/7032). So you crow “THE AVERAGE WOMAN IS LESS LIKELY TO GET RAPED THAN TO DIE IN A PLANE CRASH! HA HA WOMEN ARE SO DUMB TO EVER WORRY ABOUT RAPE!”. And now you have a Buzzfeed article.
We can do better. Let’s come up with conservative and liberal estimates of a man’s chance of getting falsely accused of rape between ages 15 and 39.
The rate of false rape accusations is notoriously difficult to study, since researchers have no failsafe way of figuring out whether a given accusation is true or not. The leading scholar in the area, David Lisak, explains that the generally accepted methodology is to count a rape accusation as false “if there is a clear and credible admission [of falsehood] from the complainant, or strong evidential grounds”, and goes on to explain what these grounds might be:
For example, if key elements of a victim’s account were internally inconsistent and directly contradicted by multiple witnesses and if the victim then altered those key elements of his or her account, investigators might conclude that the report was false
Attempts to use this methodology return varying results. Lisak lists seven studies he considers credible, which find false accusation rates of 2.1%, 2.5%, 3.0%, 5.9%, 6.8%, 8.3%, 10.3%, 10.9%. The two with 10%+ mysteriously go missing and thus we get the commonly quoted number of “two to eight percent”, which is repeated by sources as diverse as Alas, A Blog, Slate, and Wikipedia (Straight Statistics keeps the original 2% – 10% number)
Feminists make one true and important critique of these numbers – sometimes real victims, in the depths of stress we can’t even imagine, do strange things and get their story hopelessly garbled. Or they suddenly lose their nerve and don’t want to continue the legal process and tell the police they were making it up in order to drop the case as quickly as possible. All of these would go down as “false allegations” under the “victim has to admit she was lying or contradict herself” criteria. No doubt this does happen.
But the opposite critique seems much stronger: that some false accusers manage tell their story without contradicting themselves, and without changing their mind and admit they were lying. We’re not talking about making it all the way through a trial – the majority of reported rapes get quietly dropped by the police for one reason or another and never make it that far. Although keeping your story halfway straight is probably harder than it sounds sitting in an armchair without any cops grilling me, it seems very easy to imagine that most false accusers manage this task, especially since they may worry that admitting their duplicity will lead to some punishment.
The research community defines false accusations as those that can be proven false beyond a reasonable doubt, and all others as true. Yet many – maybe most – false accusations are not provably false and so will not be included.
So there’s reason to believe some of those 2-10% of presumed false accusations are actually true, and other reasons to believe that some of the 98% – 92% of presumed true accusations are actually false.
What is an upper bound on the number of false rape accusations? Researchers tend to find that police estimate 20%-40% of the rape accusations they get to be “unfounded”, (for example Philadelphia Police 1968, Chambers and Millar 1983, Grace et al 1992, Jordan 2004, Gregory and Lees 1996, etc, etc). Many scholars critique the police’s judgment, suggesting many police officers automatically dismiss anyone who doesn’t fit their profile of a “typical rape victim”. A police-based study that took pains to avoid this failure mode by investigating all cases very aggressively (Kanin 1994) was criticized for what I think are ideological reasons – they primarily seemed to amount to the worry that the aggressive investigations stigmatized rape victims, which would make them so flustered that they would falsely recant. Certainly possible. On the other hand, if you dismiss studies for not investigating thoroughly enough and for investigating thoroughly, there will never be any study you can’t dismiss. So while not necessarily endorsing Kanin and the similar studies in this range, I think they make a useful “not provably true” upper bound to contrast with the “near-provably false” lower bound of 2%-10%.
But this only represents the number of false rape accusations that get reported to the police. 80% of rapes never make it to the police. Might false rape accusations be similar?
Suppose you are a woman who wants to destroy a guy’s reputation for some reason. Do you go to the police station, open up a legal case, get yourself tested with an invasive rape kit, hire an attorney, put yourself through a trial which may take years and involve your reputation being dragged through the mud, accept that you probably won’t get a conviction anyway given that you have no evidence – and take the risk of jail time if you’re caught lying?
Or do you walk to the other side of the quad and bring it up to your school administrator, who has just declared to the national news that she thinks all men accused of rape should be automatically expelled from the college, without any investigation, regardless of whether there is any evidence?
Or if even the school administrator isn’t guilty-until-proven-innocent enough for you, why not just go to a bunch of your friends, tell them your ex-boyfriend raped you, and trust them to spread the accusation all over your community? Then it doesn’t even matter whether anyone believes you or not, the rumor is still out there.
This last one is the one that happened to me. I wasn’t the ex-boyfriend (thank God). I was the friend who was told about it. I took it very very seriously, investigated as best I could, and eventually became extremely confident that the accusation was false. No, you don’t know the people involved. No, I won’t give you personal details. No, I won’t tell you how I became certain that the accusation was false because that would involve personal details. Yes, that leaves you a lot of room to accuse me of lying if you want.
But if my word isn’t good enough for you, I happen to have witnessed two more cases of false rape accusations where I can tell you some minimal details. In a psychiatric hospital I used to work in (not the one I currently work in) during my brief time there there were two different accusations of rape by staff members against patients…
I want to take a second out to say very emphatically that all accusations of rape by psychiatric patients should be taken very seriously. Yes, psychiatric patients sometimes have complicated cognitive or personality issues that make them more likely to falsely report rape, but for exactly this reason they are much more vulnerable and people are much more likely to take advantage of them. This is a known problem and you should never dismiss their complaint.
…but in this case, there were video cameras all over the hospital and these were sufficient to prove that no assault had taken place in either case. Now I know someone is going to say that blah blah psychiatric patients blah blah doesn’t generalize to the general population, but the fact is that even if you accept that sorta-ableist dismissal, those patients were in hospital for three to seven days and then they went back out into regular society.I would love to say that we treated every single one of their problems so thoroughly it would never come back but I wouldn’t bet on it.
So I know three men who have been accused of rape in a way that did not involve the police, and none (as far as I know) who have been accused in a way that did. This suggests that like rapes themselves, most false rape accusations never reach law enforcement.
While rape victims have some incentives to report their cases to the police – a desire for justice, a desire for safety, the belief that the evidence will support them – false accusers have very strong incentives not to – too much work, easier revenge through other means, knowledge that the evidence is unlikely to support them, fear of getting in trouble for perjury if their deception gets out. So I consider it a very conservative estimate to say that the ratio of unreported to reported false accusations is 4:1 – the same as it is with rapes. A more realistic estimate might be as high as double or triple that.
Now we have the data necessary to do a slightly better job calculating the risk of false rape allegations. We’ll start with the most conservative possible estimate.
We will stick with the article’s figure of 84,000 reported rapes per year and 8% false accusation rate, for a total of 6,750 falsely accused.
We go on to assume, for the sake of conservativism, that there has never been a single false accuser who did not later confess, and that there has never been a false accuser who did not go to the police (my own memories of this must be hallucinations).
Since there are 53 million men ages 15-39 in the United States, the probability of being one of these 6,750 falsely accused is 1/7850 per year. But since you have 24 years in that age range in which to be accused, your lifetime probability of being falsely accused is about 1/327, or 0.3%. This is small, but according to Clymer’s list it’s about the same as your risk of dying in a car crash. Do you worry about dying in a car crash? Then you are allowed to worry about being falsely accused of rape.
(note that this is the most conservative possible estimate, using exactly the same numbers as in the article but not lying about what math we’re doing. But the article got 1/750,000. So the absolute lower bound for how wrong the article was is “wrong by a factor of 2,300x”)
What about a slightly less hyperconservative estimate? Continuing our conservative assumption that there has never been a false accuser who has not later confused, but allowing that false accusations reach the police at only the same rate that rapes do, 1.5% of men will get falsely accused.
What estimate do I personally find most likely? Suppose we keep everything else the same, but allow that for every false accuser who later confesses, there is also one false accuser who does not later confess. This raises the false accusation rate to 16% – which, keep in mind, is still less than half of what the police think it is, so it’s not like we’re allowing rape-culture-happy cops to color our perception here. Now 3% of men will get falsely accused.
What is an upper bound for the extent of this problem? We could obtain one by using Kanin’s 40% and holding everything else constant, but no matter how many times I qualified this attempt with “I am using this as an upper bound, not endorsing this as the actual number of rapes”, someone would yell at me for using a study they disagree with and call me a rape apologist. So I will leave the difficult task of multiplying 3% by 2.5x to my readers. You might then try multiplying it even further if you think false accusations are less likely than true accusations to make it to the police.
So greater than 0.3% of men get falsely accused of rape sometime in their lives, and the most likely number is probably around 3%.
Which means the article was off by a factor of at least 2,300x and probably more like 22,700x.
And yet it got 35,000 Tumblr likes and reblogs. By blatantly lying in a sensationalist way, it became more popular than anything you or I will ever write. There are scientists dedicating their lives to making new discoveries on the frontiers of knowledge, poets making words dance and catch fire, struggling writers trying to tell the stories inside of them – all desperate for someone to pay attention to what they’re saying – and the Internet ignores these people and instead brings hundreds of thousands of hits and no doubt a big windfall in ad revenue to frickin’ Buzzfeed.
And I would like to just let it be, except that there’s a probably one-in-thirty but definitely-no-less-than-one-in-three-hundred chance that I will be falsely accused of rape someday, and need to defend myself, and maybe I’ll have what should be an airtight alibi, and then the people who read this Buzzfeed article will dismiss it with “Well, I saw on the Internet there’s only a one in a million chance you’re telling the truth, so screw your alibi!” This is already happening. One of the Tumblr rebloggers added the comment “Yeah, so you know the dude who says he was falsely accused of rape? Now you know. He’s a rapist.” These are not just falsehoods, they’re dangerous falsehoods.
So please permit me a second to gripe about this.
It is commonly said that a lie will get halfway across the world before the truth can get its boots on. And this is true. Except in the feminist blogosphere, where a lie will get to Alpha Centauri and back three times while the truth is locked up in a makeshift dungeon in the basement, screaming.
I have been debunking bad statistics for a long time. In medicine, in psychology, in politics. Click on the “statistics” tag of this blog if you don’t believe me. Yet the feminist blogosphere is the only place where I consistently see things atrociously wrong get reblogged by thousands of usually very smart people without anyone ever bothering to think critically about them. Like, thirty five thousand feminists – including some who self-identify as rationalists! – saw an article that literally said a guy was more likely to get hit by a comet than get falsely accused of rape, and said “Yeah, sure, that sounds plausible”.
So please permit me to keep griping just one moment longer. Be extraordinarily paranoid when dealing with the feminist blogosphere. This may be true of all highly charged political blogospheres, but it is certainly true of feminism. If you go in there with an innocent attitude of “Here is a number, I assume it is generally correct and means what it says it means”, you will get super-burned
There are some honorable exceptions. I have found Alas, A Blog to be pretty scrupulous, and of course everything ever written by Ozy is wonderful and perfect in every way. But two swallows do not make a summer, and these and any similar blogs you find should be considered islands of lucidity battered by a constant tide of bullshytte. I do not have time to debunk them all but you should view them with a prior of extraordinarily high suspicion.
Thank you for letting me get that out of my system.
Why would this happen? Why would smart people, by the tens of thousands, be so delighted by the opportunity to embrace these fabrications?
There is something called the “just world fallacy”, that says everyone gets what they deserve and moral questions are always easy and there is never any need to make scary tradeoffs.
And, as is so often the case for things with “fallacy” in the name, it is not true.
Look at how the Clymer article, in its own words, describes false rape allegations:
“False rape hysteria”, it informs us, is perpetrated by “men’s rights activists, more accurately known as insecure woman-hating assholes”, because they think “women are products to be bought and sold and when these objects assert their right to human value many (if not most) men feel threatened.”
Now let’s hear from a guy on the r/mensrights community on Reddit:
Anyway, like I said, it’s been just over a year since [I was falsely accused of rape]. Since then I haven’t been the same. The most striking thing that I’ve noticed is the paranoia that I have almost every waking moment. Of everybody. Of men, of women, and even friends. I can’t bring myself to date women anymore. I have panic attacks every time I see a police officer. I constintly think that I’m being followed. The night I came home from being interviewed by the cops I drank myself to sleep and I’ve been doing that ever since. If I don’t any flicker of light makes me think that the police are here to arrest me. I’ve been able to fake a normal social life to my family and work and the friends I have left but most don’t know anything about this. I’m not looking for pity from anyone. In fact, I’m doing better than I have been. The reason I’m posting this is because I want people to know how bad being accused of something like rape can hurt and scar someone.
Man, what an “insecure, woman-hating asshole.”
But consider the alternative to this kind of glib dismissal.
3% of men are falsely accused of rape. 15% of women are raped. If someone you know gets accused of rape, your prior still is very very high that they did it.
I was extraordinarily lucky to find very strong evidence that my friend was innocent. I was extraordinarily lucky that both my co-workers had video feeds that could confirm their stories. If I hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done. My two choices would have been to either accept the possibility that I’m staying friends with a rapist, or to accept the possibility I’m ostracizing someone for something he didn’t do.
And someone is going to expect me to conclude by recommending what the correct thing to do in these cases is, but I have no idea. Probably there is no solution that isn’t horrible. If there is, it’s way above my pay grade. Ask Ozy. Ze’s the one with the Gender Studies degree.
All I can suggest is that you not flee from the magnitude of the decision with comfortable lies.
One of those comfortable lies is to tell yourself that all women are lying sluts so the accusation can be safely ignored.
But another comfortable lie is that false rape accusations are eleven times rarer than getting hit by comets.
This is why a terrible article on Buzzfeed is getting more publicity and support than anything you or I will ever write.
Because people want to live in his world, where the comfortable lies are all true and no one suffers without deserving it.