It's well established that rape victims are fearful of coming forward—in fact, research suggests that 60% to 65% of rape cases go unreported. This reticence is partly due to the fact that victims often face skepticism from law enforcement officials who either don't believe them or blame them for what happened. Why extend the suffering?
In a stomach-turning news report on Tuesday, these fears were reinforced when Craig Rowland, a sheriff from Bingham County, Idaho, appeared on his local TV news station to protest new legislation that would make testing rape kits mandatory unless a victim requests otherwise. (As it stands, many rape kits never get tested.)
Sheriff Rowland felt the proposed bill, HB 528, infringed on his right as law enforcement to decide which rape kits get tested and which do not. His argument for why he deserves that right? Most victims are lying.
"They [the legislature] need to let us decide if we’re going to send the kit and when we send the kits in," he said. "Because the majority of our rapes—not to say that we don’t have rapes, we do—but the majority of our rapes that are called in, are actually consensual sex," Rowland said.
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Yes, as a sheriff, it's his expert opinion that a "majority" of rape accusations are false—despite Idaho's giant backlog of untested rape kits. He then gave a totally made-up anecdote to prove his point:
"It's a 17-year-old girl and she had consensual sex with her boyfriend but didn't know how to tell her parents, or her parents are mad because she did have consensual sex—and, well, you couldn't have said yes, you had to have been raped," he imagines young women thinking.
There are so many problems with this interview—where to begin?
Most egregiously, it perpetuates the false notion that alleged rape victims are more likely to be lying than not. For the record, research has shown that between 2% and 10% of rape accusations are false. While these stats are difficult to prove, several studies across the United States, Australia, and Britain have come to this conclusion after combing through cases that are reported to law enforcement.
Notably, according to a 2009 report from the The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, the only studies that have found the percentage of false reports to be higher are ones based solely on detectives' subjective perceptions about accusations.
For example, an oft-cited 1994 study on rape accusations stated that 41% of the 109 sexual assault reports made to one midwestern police agency over a nine-year period were deemed to be false. "However, the determination that the charges were false was made solely by the detectives; this evaluation was not reviewed substantively by the researcher or anyone else," according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.
Similarly, in 2005, a study commissioned by the British Home Office examined 2,643 sexual assault cases in the United Kingdom and found that 8% were deemed false—but many were classified as such based solely on police judgement calls, not facts.
When researchers conducted a follow-up investigation using "reports from forensic examiners, questionnaires completed by police investigators, interviews with victims and victim service providers, and content analyses of the statements made by victims and witnesses," the rate dropped to 2.5%, according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.
The lesson here? Gut feelings aren't the best way to judge a rape case.
But beyond the lack of evidence supporting Sheriff Rowland's claim that a "majority" of victims are lying, his comments speak to an endemic and troubling lack of understanding about the very nature of sexual assault—among law enforcement and civilians alike. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "more than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance." It can be difficult enough to come forward when your husband or partner or friend raped you—but to then face deep skepticism from the cops? Many victims conclude, why bother?
The bias held by some law enforcement is not only real, it affects how rape victims are treated and allows rapists to get away with the crime.
Rowland's statements are not only despicable—they are terrifying.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.