False reports: moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault

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Authors: Kimberly A. Lonsway, Joanne Archambault and David Lisak
Date: January-March 2009
From: Prosecutor, Journal of the National District Attorneys Association(Vol. 43, Issue 1)
Publisher: National District Attorneys Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,270 words

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This article is an adapted excerpt from the training module of the same name in the On-Line Training institute hosted by End Violence Against Women (EVAW) International, at http://www.evawintl.org /evaw_courseware. The current version originally appeared in THE VOICE, volume 3, number 1, the newsletter of NDAA's National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women. This project was supported by Grant No. 2004-WT-AX-K047 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessary reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

The issue of false reporting may be one of the most important barriers to successfully investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, especially with cases involving non-strangers. In this article, we will begin by reviewing the research on the percentage of false reports and then go on to discuss some of the complex issues underlying societal beliefs and attitudes in this area.


One of the most common questions we address in training presentations with professionals--as well as personal conversations with lay people--is how many sexual assault reports are false. In the research literature, estimates for the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false have varied widely, virtually across the entire possible spectrum. For example, a very comprehensive review article documented estimates in the literature ranging from 1.5% to 90% (Rumney, 2006). However, very few of these estimates are based on research that could be considered credible. Most are reported without the kind of information that would be needed to evaluate their reliability and validity. A few are little more than published opinions, based either on personal experience or a non-systematic review (e.g., of police files, interviews with police investigators, or other information with unknown reliability and validity).

Prior "research:" The Kanin study

In the most frequently cited study on this topic, Professor Eugene Kanin (1994) reported that 41% of the 109 sexual assault reports made to one midwestern police agency were deemed to be false over a nine-year time period. 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. As Lisak (2007) describes in an article published in the Sexual Assault Report:

Kanin describes no effort to systemize his own "evaluation" of the police reports--for example, by listing details or facts that he used to evaluate the criteria used by the police to draw their conclusions. Nor does Kanin describe any effort to compare his evaluation of those reports to that of a second, independent research--providing a "reliability" analysis. This violates a cardinal rule of science, a rule designed to ensure that observations are not simply the reflection of the bias of the observer (p. 2). (1)

In other words, there is no way to explore whether the classification of these cases as false was simply made as a result...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Lonsway, Kimberly A., et al. "False reports: moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault." Prosecutor, Journal of the National District Attorneys Association, vol. 43, no. 1, Jan.-Mar. 2009, pp. 10+. link.gale.com/apps/doc/A201368099/AONE?u=null&sid=googleScholar. Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A201368099