Why do we continue to disbelieve women when they report rape?

A man in one of the batterer classes I teach couldn’t wait to bring up the Duke Lacrosse and Tawana Brawley cases to counter research that women rarely make false reports of rape or abuse. While many men in the class, like the general public, are familiar with the rare cases in which a woman made false reports, few are familiar with “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller which tells the compelling story of the far more common situation where a true report is believed to be a lie.

I cannot complain about the men in the class or why most of the public is unaware of this horrific story. I have worked for over thirty years trying to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse. I focus on current research. And I was ignorant of this Pulitzer Prize-winning story for many months after it was first published.

The public cannot demand needed reforms if they are unaware of the frequency that courts and other public officials mishandle sexual assault and domestic violence.

A critical research study (Saunders) released by the National Institute of Justice found that evaluators, judges, and lawyers without the specific domestic violence training needed to tend to focus on the myth that women in custody cases frequently make false reports of abuse. This myth is widespread and makes the lives of rapists in our society far easier. The rest of us, especially women and children, pay an obscene price for maintaining this ignorance.

Marie’s Story

The young woman the authors called Marie had an extremely difficult childhood. She was sexually abused, abandoned by her family, and spent most of her childhood in foster care. At eighteen, she was out on her own for the first time, with her own apartment and job, and seemed to be making some progress. And then a man broke into her apartment and raped her.

The rapist was well prepared and knowledgeable about law enforcement practices. He tied her hands, put a gag in her mouth, and raped her repeatedly over a four-hour period. Her attacker took pictures and threatened to put them on the Internet if she went to the police. He took extensive precautions to avoid detection, particularly to avoid providing a DNA sample. The rapist used a condom, made Marie shower, wiped the room, and removed the bedding on which his attack was committed.

Marie told her ex-boyfriend and the last two foster mothers. She reported the crime to the police and they were initially supportive and helpful. Her foster mothers started to doubt her report because her demeanor was different than expected. They shared their concerns with the police who also noticed minor discrepancies that are common in rape cases. The police pressured Marie to recant. When she sought to take back the recantation they threatened her with jail and loss of housing. She was prosecuted for the “false” report and required to get therapy, serve probation, and pay a fine. The fine was far greater than the fine Ray Rice paid for his brutal attack that knocked Janay Palmer unconscious. Under ordinary circumstances, the court system and the public would have viewed Marie as just another criminal and lying woman. The rapist, however, continued to assault women using many of the same tactics. Unusually good police work led to his capture and conviction. The evidence included the pictures he had taken of Marie.

The Aftermath

The reporting by Armstrong and Miller was excellent as one would expect of a story awarded a Pulitzer Prize. I particularly appreciate that they did the research necessary to report the story in the context of rape in our society. Experts know that rape victims often recant true reports for a myriad of good reasons, but the public is largely unaware of this common response. The authors mentioned that police declare rape reports unfounded only about 5% of the time. The actual number is probably lower because too often police disbelieve true reports as happened to Marie.

It would have been important for the media covering the Duke Lacrosse case to mention that deliberate false reports are rare. Too few reporters, trying to make up for the negative reporting about the Duke players, included this important information. Lawyers for rapists are still using this case to sow doubt in jurors’ minds as if false reports were common.

The myth of frequent false reports, promoted by rapists and the professionals paid to help them increase the outrageous frequency of rape. Potential rapists are encouraged to commit their crimes because the chance of being caught and punished is so remote. Survivors are discouraged from reporting crimes or getting needed treatment. When one of Jerry Sandusky’s victims was asked why he didn’t report Sandusky’s assault sooner, he explained that he didn’t think anyone would believe him. Police and prosecutors are less likely to bring charges; jurors are more likely to use the myth to form a reasonable doubt and judges too often treat the horrific crime of rape with far less seriousness than it deserves.

For survivors, the minutes or hours of the attack last a lifetime. The pain is far greater than the immediate physical injuries. Marie briefly considered jumping off a bridge, but many victims do commit suicide. Many of the survivors will never reach their potential and this harms everyone. Society pays a large financial price in taxes, insurance premiums, and an impaired economy. Marie was vindicated and received compensation, but most of the ‘Maries’ just keep their heads down.

We can do better.

In part one a particularly egregious rape case was used to illustrate how the widespread belief that victims frequently make false reports encourages rapists and undermines society’s efforts to prevent rape. In part two the author uses another outrageous case to illustrate how this same myth undermines the ability of family courts to protect children.


Read part two of this story


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Barry Goldstein

Barry Goldstein

Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate

Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.

Barry has an ACE score of 0.

Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.