News and Commentary

Sexual Assault Title IX

One-Third of Sexual Assault Allegations in Criminal Setting Are Unfounded

Sharing is caring!

One-Third of Sexual Assault Allegations in Criminal Setting Are Unfounded


May 7, 2021

Sexual assault activists often make the claim that false allegations of sexual assault are rare.

In her feminist classic, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller claimed that only 2% of sexual assault cases are false (1). This claim was refuted when it was revealed that her statistic was based on a casual comment made by a judge at a bar association meeting (2). Legal scholar Michelle Anderson likewise reported, “no study has ever been published which sets forth an evidentiary basis for the two percent false rape complaint thesis.” (3)

Expanding on the Brownmiller claim, David Lisak and colleagues asserted, “the prevalence of false allegations is between 2% and 10%.” (4). Activist Jessica Valenti likewise avowed that “Only 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are shown to be false.” (5). The National Sexual Violence Resource Center states on its website, “A review of research finds that the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.” (6)

Unfortunately, discussions of this important topic have been fraught with overt bias, conjecture, and definitional imprecision.

The Department of Justice defines “rape” as: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (7) But discussions on this topic often conflate “rape” with the much broader and often ill-defined term, “sexual assault.”

Equally important is the definition of “unfounded.” The FBI Uniform Crime Reports stipulate that “unfounded” applies when “a complaint that is determined through investigation to be false or baseless. In other words, no crime occurred.” (8)

Definitional difficulties arise from use of the term “false” allegation, which implies an intentional attempt to deceive. Conflating the word “victim” with “complainant,” Lisak et al provide this example (4):

For example, if a victim reports to the police that she was raped while she was intoxicated, and truthfully states that she cannot clearly recall whether there was penetration, investigators might classify such a case as “baseless/unfounded.” This classification is clearly distinct from a case in which a victim deliberately fabricates an account of being raped, yet the “unfounded” category is very often equated with the category of “false allegation.”

Determining whether an allegation is “false” requires a thorough investigation that entails repeated interviews of the complainant, and an assessment of complainant credibility, corroborating evidence, and plausibility of the fact pattern. Thus, an assessment of the falsity of an allegation entails a higher level of subjectivity. Using this more fluid definition, Lisak’s 2010 study concluded that only 5.9% of 136 reported sexual assaults at an American university were false.

Following are the reports that used more traditional assessment methods, arranged in chronological order:

  1. Kanin: A 1994 study by Eugene Kanin, using data from an unidentified Midwestern city, reported that the police department concluded that 41% of 109 rape allegations were false. Unfortunately, Kanin provided limited information about the police department’s methods for classifying cases. Kanin then did a follow-up study at two large Midwestern colleges, concluding that 50% of rape complaints were untrue (9).
  2. Neufeld and Scheck: In 1996, Innocence Project founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck revealed: “FBI officials report that out of roughly 10,000 sexual assault cases since 1989, about 2,000 tests have been inconclusive (usually insufficient high molecular weight DNA to do testing), about 2,000 tests have excluded the primary suspect, and about 6,000 have “matched” or included the primary suspect.” Depending on how one classifies the “inconclusive” DNA results, 20-40% of all sexual assault cases were determined to be unfounded. (10)
  3. Baughman: A 2016 study conducted at a police department in a southeastern state concluded that 25% of the 351 allegations were “unfounded,” with another 54% classified as uncertain. Only 21% of the cases were “Cleared by Arrest,” meaning the police forwarded the case for possible prosecution (11).
  4. Department of Defense: The DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office analyzed sexual assault allegations in the military and found a steady increase in the percentage of cases deemed to be “unfounded” or with “insufficient evidence of any offense to prosecute.” In 2018, the percentage of such cases was 28% out of 2,854 reported cases (12).
  5. Sokolow: Brett Sokolow is the head of the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) and is regarded as a national expert on sexual assault in the campus setting. In a 2020 interview, Sokolow stated, “Probably 40 or 50% of allegations of sexual assault are baseless. There are a lot of cases where someone says they were incapacitated, but the evidence doesn’t support that they weren’t able to make a decision.” (13)

Despite differing populations, assessment methods (police investigation versus DNA analysis), and geographical scope (national versus local), none of these five analyses remotely confirm the often-voiced claim that only 2-10% of rape accusations are “false.”

Based on the findings of these five analyses, we conclude that approximately one in three sexual assault allegations are unfounded. The one-in-three conclusion is consistent with an earlier review in which commentator Wendy McElroy affirmed, “False accusations are not rare. They are common.” (14)

In two populations, the percentage of unfounded allegations has been found to be higher than the one-in-three number:

  • College Students: As indicated by the Sokolow 40-50% statement, unfounded allegations appear to be more commonplace on college campuses than in the criminal system. This is a result of colleges’ broader definitions, amorphous procedures, and ease with which allegations can be made.
  • Black Men: The National Registry of Exonerations found that “a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.” (15) Professor Matthew Johnson furthermore reveals, “This increased risk of wrongful conviction is most pronounced in Black defendant/White victim cases, where the prevailing sense of moral violation is commonly heightened among the largely White public.” (16)

In cases of unfounded allegations, the true “victim” is the person falsely accused, not the complainant. SAVE recommends that investigators focus on assessments of the prevalence of sexual assault complaints that are “unfounded,” not “false.” SAVE urges that research on this important topic be informed by precise definitions, well-specified methodologies, and logically supported conclusions.


  1. Susan Brownmiller (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Fawcett Books.
  2. Edward Greer (2000). The Truth behind Legal Dominance Feminism’s Two Percent False Rape Claim Figure, 33 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 947. 
  3. Michelle Anderson (2004). The Legacy of the Prompt Complaint Requirement, Corroboration Requirement, and Cautionary Instructions on Campus Sexual Assault.
  4. David Lisak, Lori Gardiner, Sarah Nicksa, Ashley Cote (2010). False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women. 16 (12): 1318–1334.
  5. Jessica Valenti (September 8, 2017). Oh Look, Betsy DeVos Is Here to Protect Your Accused Rapist. Marie Claire, (
  6. National Sexual Violence Resource Center (No date). False Reporting.
  7. Department of Justice (2012). An Updated Definition of Rape.
  8. Federal Bureau of Investigation (2004). Uniform crime reporting handbook. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
  9. J. Kanin (1994). False rape allegations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23, 81-87.
  10. Quoted in Edward Connors, Thomas Lundregan, Neal Miller, and Tom McEwen (1996). Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial. Department of Justice.
  11. Benjamin Baughman (2016). A Study of Rape Investigation Files Involving Female Survivors: A Comparison of Allegations Deemed False and Genuine. Table 3.1.
  12. Center for Military Readiness (2019). DoD Annual Reports Show Significant Increases in Sexual Assault Accusations Deemed “Unfounded.” Also see discussion here:
  13. Richard Bernstein (December 16, 2020). Legal experts say Biden’s pushing ahead to the Obama past on campus rape could be a mistake. The Center Square.
  14. Wendy McElroy (2006). False Rape Accusations May Be More Common Than Thought. Independent Institute.
  15. Samuel Gross, Maurice Possley, Klara Stephens (2017). Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States. Page iii.
  16. Matthew Johnson (2020). Wrongful Conviction in Sexual Assault. Oxford University Press. Page 102.