The last twelve months have seen multiple high-profile celebrity rape cases featured in the press. Bill Cosby has finally been charged with sexual assault after more than 30 women came forward with decades-old rape accusations against the elderly entertainer. Pop singer Kesha recentlyaccused her longtime producer, Dr. Luke, of raping and abusing her over a period of several years. Every rape accusation spurs a barrage of editorials, discussion panels, and social media comments questioning the truth of the allegations. Kesha’s case is no exception. The internet has gone wild with speculation, with Kesha’s supporters spawning the #FreeKesha hashtag, and detractors contending that she invented the allegations to obtain release from a recording contract or for some other monetary gain. These discussions surrounding Kesha’s case are familiar; all rape cases invariably involve a dissection of the private life and behavior of the victim, as well as speculation as to whether the she somehow caused the rape, or else engaged in consensual sex and changed her mind later. There is a prevalent belief that false rape accusations are common, with some pundits incorrectly asserting, based on flawed research methodology, that nearly half of rape accusations are false. Policymakers parrot these beliefs; Republican lawmaker Todd Akin famously alluded in a 2012 speech to “legitimate rape”, implying that many rape cases are illegitimate. Ron Paul made similar statements, stating that “honest rape” should be treated with estrogen at emergency rooms. Wisconsin State Rep. Roger Rivard declared that “some women, they rape so easy,” claiming that consensual sex can often turn into rape if a women regrets the act the following morning. It’s no surprise, given these widespread misconceptions regarding fabricated assault charges, that a frequent thread among men’s right’s activists is the assertion that women should be criminally charged to the fullest extent of the law for falsely accusing a man of rape, in all circumstances. Untrue rape accusations are widely publicized. High profile incidents such as the Duke Lacrosse Scandal, in which three Duke University students were accused of sexual assault and later exonerated, or the controversial and later debunked “A Rape on Campus” Rolling Stone article, lend credence to the idea that false rape accusations occur more frequently than they actually do. Contrary to popular belief, made-up rape accusations are somewhat rare. In the United States, only 2-10% of rape accusations are demonstrably false. Certainly, the actual rate could be higher. The definition of what constitutes a false accusation is itself controversial, and this statistic only includes those accusations proven conclusively to be untrue. The unfortunate truth is that unreported sexual assault is much more pervasive than fabricated sexual assault accusations. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that 68% of rapes are not reported to the authorities, making rape the most under-reported crime according to statistics maintained by the Justice Department. Comparatively, unreported sexual assault is a far more frequent problem than phony accusations of rape. That is not to say that false sexual assault claims aren’t tremendously damaging; such allegations have the potential to ruin the life of the accused, with consequences ranging from probation and registration as a sex offender, to lengthy prison sentences. The impact of false rape charges is undeniable, however, the proportional frequency of unreported sexual assault demonstrates that we should not further deter women from reporting rape. There are many reasons why a women would decline to report a sexual assault. Most rapes are not committed by strangers; 80% of rapes are perpetuated by someone known to the victim. From the outset, the potential to destroy families and careers, to alienate a victim from her community and support system, and to permanently change the victim’s life in ways unrelated to the assault itself decreases the likelihood of reporting a rape. This alone is enough to discourage many women from coming forward. Victims face a great deal of skepticism from police, prosecutors, relatives, and the general public. Authorities interrogate rape victims, asking pointed and irrelevant questions about their attire or sexual history. Judges speculate in court on how the victim's dress may have invited sexual assault. RAINN reports that out of every 100 rapes, only 32 are reported to police, and out of those 32, only 7 lead to an arrest. Out of that 7, only 2 actually lead to a conviction. This means that 98% of sexual assaults do not result in a conviction. This egregious statistic evidences the often insurmountable obstacles faced by rape victims seeking the closure they require to heal.
The imposition of criminal charges against women believed to be false rape accusers makes it even more unlikely that victims will feel comfortable coming forward. In one instance, a Lynwood Washington teenager named only as “Marie” to protect her identity, reported a rape, only to face disbelief from her foster parents and the authorities. She recanted her story under duress, and was criminally charged for making a false report. During the pendency of her case, the public criticized every aspect of the girl’s past. She was discredited and vilified by her community. After facing years of scorn and trauma, Marie finally found justice as her accuser was charged and convicted, but not until she was first ostracized, criminally prosecuted, and forced to undergo court-ordered counseling. Her case brings to light the difficulty of determining definitively whether rape complaints are true, and raises many questions about how prosecution could be properly carried out. Would women be prosecuted when the police decline to investigate the case? When the District Attorney declines to press charges? When the rape can’t be proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt? Or as in Marie's case, when the police have exhausted too many resources but haven't found a culprit? The small chance of obtaining justice from the legal system, and the high chance of negative life-altering consequences from reporting a rape, create a chilling effect on those who would report a sexual assault. In some instances the backlash from reporting a rape is nearly as damaging as the act of rape itself. It is no wonder that women often refrain from contacting the authorities, choosing to suffer in silence rather than be victimized a second time by the justice system. The imposition of criminal penalties on women who are alleged to have falsely reported rape can only exacerbate this problem. Certainly, the men who fall victim to rape accusations deserve justice, but prosecuting rape victims who have not been definitively proven to have lied can only result in even higher rates of unreported sexual assault. Rachel Eckhardt is an avid political enthusiast, litigation manager, military veteran, and creator of The Illusion of Choice, a blog covering American politics and current events. Follow Rachel on Facebook, or on Twitter at @illusionchoice1