False Rape Allegations by Eugene J. Kanin

Archives of Sexual Behavior
Feb 1994 v23 n1 p81(12)
False rape allegations.
by Eugene J. Kanin

With the cooperation of the police agency of a small metropolitan community, 45 consecutive, disposed, false rape allegations covering a 9 year period were studied. These false rape allegations constitute 41% the total forcible rape cases (n = 109) reported during this period. These false allegations appear to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge, and obtaining sympathy and attention. False rape allegations are not the a consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress situations.

© COPYRIGHT 1994 Plenum Publishing Corporation

Of the many controversies surrounding the crime of rape,
no more thorny issue arises than that dealing with false
allegations. Generally, this issue is couched in terms of
unfounded rape. However, we are not addressing that
concept here since unfounded rape is not usually the
equivalent of false allegation, in spite of widespread usage
to that effect. There is ample evidence, frequently ignored
(see MacDonald, 1971; Brownmiller, 1975), that in
practice, unfounded rape can and does mean many things,
with false allegation being only one of them, and
sometimes the least of them. Other factors that are
typically responsible for unfounded declarations are
victim’s late reporting to the police, lack of corroborating
evidence, lack of cooperation by the victim and/or
witnesses, reporting in the wrong jurisdiction,
discrepancies in the victim’s story, wrong address given by
the victim, victim’s drunkenness, victim’s drug usage,
victim’s being thought a prostitute, victim’s uncertainty of
events, victim’s belligerence (Clark and Lewis, 1977;
Hursch, 1977; Katz and Mazur, 1979; Kanin, 1985;
LaFree, 1989). In sum, the foregoing largely represent
those conditions that could seriously frustrate efforts to
arrest and/or convict the offender. This paper deals
exclusively with false rape allegations: the intentional
reporting of a forcible rape by an alleged victim when no
rape had occurred.

False rape charges have probably been in existence as
long as the concept of rape. However, in the 20th century,
medical jurisprudence saw a new development that
enabled false allegations to be viewed as a singular
instance of gender-related lying, something quite different
in nature from the false accusations of robbery or burglary
that were made by men. In short, false rape accusations
became a reflection of a unique condition of women, not
unlike that of kleptomania (Abelson, 1989). This new
development was the masochistic nature of woman
doctrine, a perspective that assumed women had a
subconscious desire for rape, as evidenced by their rape
fantasies (Freud, 1933; Deutsch, 1944; Horney, 1933),
and that neurotic individuals would convert their fantasies
into actual beliefs and memory falsification (for an
extensive and critical treatment of this perspective, see
Edwards, 1981, 1983; Kanin, 1982; Bessmer, 1984). In
addition, some influential medical figures adopted the
position that false rape allegations were widespread
(Menninger, 1933; Guttmacher and Weihofen, 1952).
Many legal scholars enthusiastically endorsed this medical
position (Wigmore, 1940; Juliver, 1960; Comment, 1973;
Hibey, 1973) and commonly recommended that rape
complainants be routinely subjected to psychiatric
examination in order to determine their truthfulness
(Guttmacher and Weihofen, 1952; Sherwin, 1973;
Comment, 1973). An American Bar Association committee
offered a similar recommendation to this effect as early as
1937-1938 (Weihofen, 1959).

In the legal literature, pseudologia phantastica became the
authoritative scientific label for the condition responsible
for false rape reporting (Grablewski, 1958; Juliver, 1960).
Pseudologia phantastica was described as a "Delusional
state in which the complainant truly believes that she had
been raped although no rape, and perhaps no sexual
contact of any kind, had taken place. Since she firmly
believes this non-fact, her story is unshakable" (Bessmer,
1984). Less pretentious legal scholars made the same
point by merely making references to delusional and
hysterical states (Smith, 1953-1954; Comment, 1970). In
recent years, however, possibly as a response to the
women’s movement, members of the mental health and
legal community have become markedly less likely to
express such a position on false rape allegations. In
England, judges still rather freely comment on the
mendacious nature of women (Lowe, 1984).

Currently, the two main identifiable adversaries involved in
the false rape allegations controversy are the feminists
and the police. The feminists are by far the most
expressive and prominent on this issue. Some feminists
take the position that the declaration of rape as false or
unfounded largely means that the police do not believe the
complainant; that is, the rape charges are real reflections
of criminal assault, but the agents of the criminal justice
system do not believe them (Brownmiller, 1975; Russell,
1984). Some feminists virtually deny the existence of false
rape accusations and believe the concept itself constitutes
discriminatory harassment toward women (see Grano,
1990). On the other hand, police are prone to say the
reason for not believing some rape complainants resides
in the fact that the rapes never occurred (Payton, 1967;
Wilson, 1978; Jay, 1991). Medical Examiners lend support
to this police position by emphasizing the ever-present
possibility that rape complainants may be lying (Shill,
1969, 1971).

The purpose of this paper is to report our findings on the
incidence and dynamics of false rape allegations from a
long-term study of one city’s policy agency.


This investigation is essentially a case study of one police
agency in a small metropolitan area (population = 70,000)
in the Midwestern United States. This city was targeted for
study because it offered an almost model laboratory for
studying false rape allegations. First, its police agency is
not inundated with serious felony cases and, therefore,
has the freedom and the motivation to record and
thoroughly pursue all rape complaints. In fact, agency
policy forbids police officers to use their discretion in
deciding whether to officially acknowledge a rape
complaint, regardless how suspect that complaint may be.
Second, the declaration of a false allegation follows a
highly institutionalized procedure. The investigation of all
rape complaints always involves a serious offer to
polygraph the complainants and the suspects. Additionally,
for a declaration of false charge to be made, the
complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is
the sole agent who can say that the rape charge is false.
The police department will not declare a rape charge as
false when the complainant, for whatever reason, fails to
pursue the charge or cooperate on the case, regardless
how much doubt the police may have regarding the validity
of the charge. In short, these cases are declared false only
because the complainant admitted they are false.
Furthermore, only one person is then empowered to enter
into the records a formal declaration that the charge is
false, the officer in charge of records. Last, it should be
noted that this department does not confuse reported rape
attempts with completed rapes. Thus, the rape
complainants referred to in this paper are for completed
forcible rapes only. The foregoing leaves us with a certain
confidence that cases declared false by this police agency
are indeed a reasonable -- if not a minimal -- reflection of
false rape allegations made to this agency, especially
when one considers that a finding of false allegation is
totally dependent upon the recantation of the rape charge.
We followed and investigated all false rape allegations
from 1978 to 1987. A ranking police official notified us
whenever a rape charge was declared false and provided
us with the records of the case. In addition, the
investigating officers provided any requested
supplementary information so that we could be confident
of the validity of the false rape allegation declarations.


Incidence of False Allegations

Widely divergent viewpoints are held regarding the
incidence of false rape reporting (Katz and Mazur, 1979).
For example, reports set the figure from lows of 0.25%
(O’Reilly, 1984) and 1% (Krasner et al., 1976) to highs of
80-90% (Bronson, 1918; Comment, 1968) and even 100%
(see Kanin, 1985). All of these figures represent releases
from some criminal justice agency or are estimates from
clinical practitioners. The extraordinary range of these
estimates makes a researcher suspect that inordinate
biases are at work.

Regarding this study, 41% (n = 45) of the total disposed
rape cases (n = 109) were officially declared false during
this 9-year period, that is, by the complainant’s admission
that no rape had occurred and the charge, therefore, was
false. The incidence figure was variable from year to year
and ranged from a low of 27% (3 out of 11 cases) to a high
of 70% (7 out of 10 cases). The 9-year period suggests no
trends, and no explanation has been made for the
year-to-year fluctuation.

Although very little information exists regarding the
characteristics of the complainant, some data can be
offered. These false complainants are all white, largely of
lower socioeconomic background, and the majority were
modestly educated. Only three complainants had any
education beyond high school. The mean age of these
women was 22. On the basis of the limited information
available, these women could not be distinguished from
those whose complaints were recorded as valid.

The study of these 45 cases of false rape allegations
inexorably led to the conclusion that these false charges
were able to serve three major functions for the
complainants: providing an alibi, a means of gaining
revenge, and a platform for seeking attention/sympathy.
This tripartite model resulted from the complainants’ own
verbalizations during recantation and does not constitute
conjecture. Of course, we are not asserting that these
functions are mutually exclusive or exhaustive; rather,
these rape recantations focused on a single factor
explanation. A possible objection to these recantations
concerns their validity. Rape recantations could be the
result of the complainants’ desire to avoid a "second
assault" at the hands of the police. Rather than proceed
with the real charge of rape, the argument goes, these
women withdrew their accusations to avoid the trauma of
police investigation.

Several responses are possible to this type of criticism.
First, with very few exceptions, these complainants were
suspect at the time of the complaint or within a day or two
after charging. These recantations did not follow prolonged
periods of investigation and interrogation that would
constitute anything approximating a second assault.
Second, not one of the detectives believed that an incident
of false recantation had occurred. They argued, rather
convincingly, that in those cases where a suspect was
identified and interrogated, the facts of the recantation
dovetailed with the suspect’s own defense. Last, the policy
of this police agency is to apply a statute regarding the
false reporting of a felony. After the recant, the
complainant is informed that she will be charged with filing
a false complaint, punishable by a substantial fine and a
jail sentence. In no case, has an effort been made on the
part of the complainant to retract the recantation. Although
we certainly do not deny the possibility of false
recantations, no evidence supports such an interpretation
for these cases.

Alibi Function

Of the 45 cases of false charges, over one-half (56%, n =
27) served the complainants’ need to provide a plausible
explanation for some suddenly foreseen, unfortunate
consequence of a consensual encounter, usually sexual,
with a male acquaintance. An assailant is identified in
approximately one half of these cases. Representative
cases include the following:

An unmarried 16-year-old female had sex with her
boyfriend and later became concerned that she might be
pregnant. She said she had been raped by an unknown
assailant in the hopes that the hospital would give her
something to abort the possible pregnancy.
A married 30-year-old female reported that she had been
raped in her apartment complex. During the polygraph
examination, she admitted that she was a willing partner.
She reported that she had been raped because her
partner did not stop before ejaculation, as he had agreed,
and she was afraid she was pregnant. Her husband is

The above cases are prototypical cases where the fear of
pregnancy is paramount in motivating the rape charge.
This theme is constant, only the scenario changes in that
the lover is black, the husband is out of state on a job, the
husband had a vasectomy, the condom broke. Only three
cases deviated from this tradition:

A divorced female, 25 years of age, whose parents have
custody of her 4-year-old child. She lost custody at the
time of her divorce when she was declared an unfit
mother. She was out with a male friend and got into a fight.
He blackened her eye and cut her lip. She claimed she
was raped and beaten by him so that she could explain
her injuries. She did not want to admit she was in a
drunken brawl, as this admission would have jeopardized
her upcoming custody hearing. A 16-year-old complainant,
her girlfriend, and two male companions were having a
drinking party at her home. She openly invited one of the
males, a casual friend, to have sex with her. Later in the
evening, two other male acquaintances dropped in and, in
the presence of all, her sex partner "bragged" that he had
just had sex with her. She quickly ran out to another
girlfriend’s house and told her she had been raped. Soon,
her mother was called and the police were notified. Two
days later, when confronted with the contradictory stories
of her companions, she admitted that she had not been
raped. Her charge of rape was primarily motivated by an
urgent desire to defuse what surely would be public
information among her friends at school the next day, her
promiscuity. A 37-year-old woman reported having been
raped "by some nigger." She gave conflicting reports of the
incident on two occasions and, when confronted with
these, she admitted that the entire story was a fabrication.
She feared her boyfriend had given her "some sexual
disease," and she wanted to be sent to the hospital to "get
checked out." She wanted a respectable reason, i.e., as an
innocent victim of rape, to explain the acquisition of her


Essentially, this category involved a false rape report as a
means of retaliating against a rejecting male.
Twenty-seven percent (n = 12) of the cases clearly
seemed to serve this function. These rejections, however,
ranged from the very evident cases of women who were
sexually and emotionally involved with a reciprocating
male to those women who saw themselves spurned from
what was in reality the females’ unilateral involvement.
Regardless, these women responded with a false rape
charge to perceived rejections. Because the suspect is
always identified, the false allegations potentially pose the
greatest danger for a miscarriage of justice. Examples of
these types of cases are as follows: An 18-year-old
woman was having sex with a boarder in her mother’s
house for a period of 3 months. When the mother learned
of her behavior from other boarders, the mother ordered
the man to leave. The complainant learned that her lover
was packing and she went to his room and told him she
would be ready to leave with him in an hour. He responded
with "who the hell wants you." She briefly argued with him
and then proceeded to the police station to report that he
had raped her. She admitted the false charge during the
polygraph examination. A 17-year-old female came to
headquarters and said that she had been raped by a
house parent in the group home in which she lived. A
female house parent accompanied her to the station and
told the police she did not believe that a rape had
occurred. The complainant failed the polygraph
examination and then admitted that she liked the house
parent, and when he refused her advances, she reported
the rape to "get even with him."
A 16-year-old reported she was raped, and her boyfriend
was charged. She later admitted that she was "mad at
him" because he was seeing another girl, and she "wanted
to get him into trouble."

Attention/Sympathy-Getting Device

Although this device seems to be the most extravagant
use for which a false rape charge is made, it is also the
most socially harmless in that no one was identified as the
rapist. Approximately 18% (n = 8) of the false charges
clearly served this function. The entire verbalization of the
charge is, by and large, a fabrication without base. The
following are typical examples:

An unmarried female, age 17, abruptly left her girlfriends in
the park one afternoon allegedly to go riding with a young
man, a stranger she met earlier that morning who wanted
her to smoke marijuana with him. Later that day, she told
her friends she was raped by this man. Her friends
reported the incident to the police, and the alleged victim
went along with the rape charge because "I didn’t want
them to know that I lied to them." She explained that she
manufactured this story because she wanted the attention.

An unmarried female, age 17, had been having violent
quarrels with her mother who was critical of her laziness
and style of life. She reported that she was raped so that
her mother would "get off my back and give me a little
sympathy." An unmarried female, age 41, was in
postdivorce counseling, and she wanted more attention
and sympathy from her counselor because she "liked him."
She fabricated a rape episode, and he took her to the
police station and assisted her in making the charge. She
could not back out since she would have to admit lying to
him. She admitted the false allegation when she was
offered to be polygraphed.


In addition to the foregoing, certain other findings and
observations relevant to false allegations warrant
comment. First, false allegations failed to include
accusations of forced sexual acts other than penile-vaginal
intercourse. Not one complainant mentions forced oral or
anal sex. In contrast, these acts were included in
approximately 25% of the founded forcible rape
complaints. Perhaps it was simply psychologically and
socially more prudent for these women to minimize the
humiliation of sexual victimization by not embroidering the
event any more than necessary. This phenomenon has
been observed previously (McDowell and Hibler, 1987).

Second, although the literature liberally refers to various
extortion scams as responsible for false rape charging
(Comment, 1968; MacDonald, 1973), no such cases were
encountered or could even be recalled by members of the
police agency. This type of case may very well be a period
piece, or perhaps it was even then the exceptional case.
Extraordinary attention would readily have been
forthcoming since this theory nicely meshed with the
position of prevailing authorities who stressed the
omnipresent threat of female cunning and stealth. One
authority, (MacDonald, 1973), for example, cited a 1918
article (Bronson) to illustrate a blackmail case since he
never encountered one himself. In a similar vein, no
apparent case of pseudologia phantastica surfaced. The
earlier view of a deluded complainant, tenaciously
affirming her victimization, just does not appear here.
These women were not inclined to put up a steadfast
defense of their victimization, let alone pursue it into the
courtroom. Recantation overwhelmingly came early and
relatively easily. Certainly, false rape allegations can arise
from a deluded condition but we failed to find indicators for
what was once offered as the most common explanation
for false rape allegation.

One of the most haunting and serious implications of false
rape allegations concerns the possibility of miscarried
justice. We know that false convictions occur, but this
study only tells us that these false accusers were weeded
out during the very early stages of investigation. However
encouraging this result may be, we cannot claim that false
charging does not incur suffering for the accused. Merely
to be a rape suspect, even for a day or two, translates into
psychological and social trauma.


We feel that these false accusations can be viewed as the
impulsive and desperate gestures of women simply
attempting to alleviate understandable conditions of
personal and social distress and that, as an aggregate,
labels connoting pathology, e.g., delusional states, are
uncalled for. One can be tempted to pigeonhole this type
of conduct since we view it as extreme, as deviant, as
criminally reckless. At first glance, false rape allegation
seems to be a rather extreme gesture to satisfy alibi,
revenge, or attention needs. Practitioners in the mental
health and legal professions, however, will readily
recognize that these false rape reports are not really
exceptional exaggerations in light of what people rather
commonly do in order to satisfy these same needs in other
contexts. Consider the extravagant and perjurious
accusations that routinely pepper divorce and child
custody proceedings, and the inordinate departures from
the truth that have accompanied credentialed and
respected political and corporate figures in their quest for
recognition and office. And think of the petty and
commonplace transgressions that people frequently
verbalize as reasons for having committed homicide.

No evidence exists to suggest that something unique or
defective is in the female condition that prompts such
behavior. Rather, something biological, legal, and cultural
would seem to make false rape allegations inevitable. If
rape were a commonplace victimization experience of
men, if men could experience the anxiety of possible
pregnancy from illicit affairs, if men had a cultural base that
would support their confidence in using rape accusations
punitively, and if men could feel secure that victimization
could elicit attention and sympathy, then men also would
be making false rape accusations.

Most problematic is the question of the generalizability of
these findings from a single police agency handling a
relatively small number of cases. Certainly, our intent is
not to suggest that the 41% incidence found here be
extrapolated to other populations, particularly in light of our
ignorance regarding the structural variables that might be
influencing such behavior and which could be responsible
for wide variations among cities. But a far greater obstacle
to obtaining "true" incidence figures, especially for larger
cities, would be the extraordinary variations in police
agency policies (see Comment, 1968; Newsweek, 1983;
Pepinsky and Jesilow, 1984); variations so diverse, in fact,
that some police agencies cannot find a single rape
complaint with merit, while others cannot find a single rape
complaint without merit. Similarly, some police agencies
report all of their unfounded rape cases to be due to false
allegation, while other agencies report none of their
unfounded declarations to be based on false allegation
(Kanin, 1985). Some of these policies are really nothing
more than statistical and procedural legerdemain. On the
other hand, a degree of confidence exists that the findings
reported here are not exaggerations produced by some
sort of atypical population, that is, nothing peculiar exists
about this city’s population composition to suggest that an
unusual incidence or patterning of false rape allegations
would occur. This city is not a resort/reveling area or a
center attracting a transient population of any kind,
attributes that have been associated with false rape
reporting (Wilson, 1978). The major culprit in this city may
well be a police agency that seriously records and pursues
to closure all rape complaints, regardless of their merits.
We may well be faced with the fact that the most efficient
police departments report the higher incidence of false
rape allegations. In view of these factors, perhaps the
most prudent summary statement that is appropriate from
these data is that false rape accusations are not
uncommon. Since this effort is the first at a systematic,
long-term, on-site investigation of false rape allegations
from a single city, future studies in other cities, with
comparable policies, must assess the representativeness
of these findings.


In 1988, we gained access to the police records of two
large Midwestern state universities. With the assistance of
the chief investigating officers for rape offenses, all forcible
rape complaints during the past 3 years were examined.
Since the two schools produced a roughly comparable
number of rape complaints and false rape allegations, the
false allegation cases were combined, n = 32. This
represents exactly 50% of all forcible rape complaints
reported on both campuses. Quite unexpectedly then, we
find that these university women, when filing a rape
complaint, were as likely to file a false as a valid charge.
Other reports from university police agencies support
these findings (Jay, 1991). In both police agencies, the
taking of the complaint and the follow-up investigation was
the exclusive responsibility of a ranking female officer.
Neither agency employed the polygraph and neither
declared the complaint false without a recantation of the
charge. Most striking is the patterning of the reasons for
the false allegations given by the complainants, a
patterning similar to that found for the nonstudent city
complainants. Approximately one half (53%) of the false
charges were verbalized as serving an alibi function. In
every case, consensual sexual involvement led to
problems whose solution seemed to be found in the filing
of a rape charge. The complaints motivated by revenge,
about 44%, were of the same seemingly trivial and spiteful
nature as those encountered by the city police agency.
Only one complainant fell into the attention/sympathy
category. These unanticipated but supportive parallel
findings on university populations suggest that the
complications and conflicts of heterosexual involvements
are independent of educational level. In fact, we found
nothing substantially different here from those cases
encountered by our city police agency.

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