False rape accusations happen and they're a serious problem

A similar pattern can be found in a recent study often cited as evidence of the rarity of false accusations: a 2010 paper by psychologist David Lisak, which examined all 136 sexual assault reports made on a northeastern university campus over a 10-year period. For 19 of these cases, the files did not contain enough information to evaluate the outcome. Of the 117 cases that could be classified, eight—or 6.8 percent—were determined to be false complaints; that conclusion was reached when there was substantial evidence refuting the complainant’s account. But does it mean that 93 percent of the reports that could be evaluated were shown to be truthful?

More than 40 percent of the reports evaluated in Lisak’s study (excluding the ones for which there was not enough information to classify them) did result in disciplinary or criminal charges. However, 52 percent were investigated and closed. Lisak told me that the vast majority of these complaints did not proceed due to insufficient evidence, often because the complainant had stopped cooperating with investigators. His paper also mentions another type of complaint that did not proceed: cases in which “the incident did not meet the legal elements of the crime of sexual assault.” Lisak was unable to provide any specifics on these incidents. But, in other known cases, such allegations stem from conflicting definitions of what constitutes rape and consent—particularly in sexual encounters that involve alcohol.